Donn's Articles » Aidan O’Brien and the Breeders’ Cup

Aidan O’Brien and the Breeders’ Cup

Aidan O’Brien and the Breeders’ Cup go way back.  The then fledgling trainer was actually there, as a spectator, as a fan, at Belmont Park in 1990, for one of the most memorable Breeders’ Cup races in the history of the event.  When near-55-year-old Lester Piggott, who had returned to the saddle just days earlier, drove the Vincent O’Brien-trained Royal Academy to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. 

Aidan couldn’t have known it at the time, but 11 years later, he would take Johannesburg from the same Ballydoyle from whence Royal Academy had come, to the same Belmont Park, and take the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile trophy home with him.

The new master of Ballydoyle quickly set about making his own Breeders’ Cup mark.  In 2002, he won the Turf with High Chaparral at Arlington Park, and he sent the Sadler’s Wells colt to Santa Anita to win the Turf again the following year, sharing the prize with Johar.  High Chaparral was the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the Turf.

In 2009, back at Santa Anita, O’Brien won the Marathon with Man Of Iron.  In 2011 at Churchill Downs, he won the Juvenile Turf with Wrote and the Turf with St Nicholas Abbey.  An 18-year-old Joseph O’Brien rode St Nicholas Abbey that day, the youngest jockey ever to win a Breeders’ Cup event.  As well as that, it was a first Breeders’ Cup triumph for a father/son trainer/jockey combination.

In 2012 at Santa Anita, Aidan O’Brien won the Juvenile Turf again with George Vancouver.  In 2013 back at Santa Anita, he won another Turf with Magician.  In 2015, he won another Juvenile Turf with Hit It A Bomb, and he won the Turf once more with Found, who got the better of a duel with Arc de Triomphe winner Golden Horn that lasted the length of Keeneland’s home straight.

In 2016 at Santa Anita, O’Brien won the Turf with Highland Reel.  That took his Breeders’ Cup Turf tally to six.  More wins than any other trainer in the race.  Then last year at Del Mar, he won the Juvenile Turf with Mendelssohn.  That was four Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turfs.  Again, more than any other trainer.

The perennial champion Irish trainer has accumulated 12 Breeders’ Cup wins, which leaves him third in the all-time Breeders’ Cup trainers’ list, behind only D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert.

Next weekend at Churchill Downs, he will bid to enhance that record further.  He has assembled a strong team, headed by Mendelssohn.  Not that Mendelsson has the best chance of the Ballydoyle Breeders’ Cup team, nor that he is the shortest price.  But the Mendelssohn Breeders’ Cup Classic plan has the deepest roots of all the Ballydoyle Breeders’ Cup plans this year, and the potential prize is the greatest.

The plan’s wheels were probably set in motion when Mendelssohn won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar last November.  Perhaps there were Classic notions before that day, but that win proved that the Scat Daddy colt could perform in America, at this time of year, under American conditions.

Of course, the big difference between the Juvenile Turf and the Classic is that the Juvenile Turf is run, as the title suggests, on turf, while the Classic is run on American dirt.

It is difficult to under-estimate the task that European horses face in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  They have to travel to North America, often at the end of a long season, to take on the best of the American horses, many of whom have been trained specifically for the race, on their home ground.  Most importantly, they have to tackle the Americans on their home surface.  The attributes of a racehorse that are tested by racing on dirt are very different to the attributes that are tested by racing on turf.

Significantly, there have been just two European-trained winners of the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the 34-year history of the race: the Andre Fabre-trained Arcangues, who sprang a massive shock in 1993, and the John Gosden-trained Raven’s Pass, who won it in 2008 at Santa Anita. 

The Classic was run in 2008 on Pro-Ride, a synthetic surface that mirrors the attributes of the Polytrack that we have at Dundalk and Kempton more than the attributes of traditional American dirt.  It favoured the Europeans.  It was not that surprising, then, that, after two years on Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, the Breeders’ Cup returned to dirt.

Aidan O’Brien has gone close in the Classic before.  Henrythenavigator finished second to Raven’s Pass on Pro-Ride in 2008, and Giant’s Causeway was beaten just a neck by Tiznow in the Classic on traditional American dirt in 2000.  Also, Godolphin went even closer with Sakhee in 2001.  All of that gives hope that it can be done.  That the Europeans can win the Classic on dirt.

There is hope for Mendelssohn too.  Much of his campaign has been geared around a Classic bid.  The Scat Daddy colt won a listed race on Polytrack at Dundalk last March before going to Dubai and winning the UAE Derby at Meydan on dirt.

Ryan Moore gave up the ride on Saxon Warrior in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in order that he could partner Mendelssohn in the Kentucky Derby in May.  That’s how important the American project is.  The sloppy ground and a bad bump at the start meant that he never really got a fair shot at the Kentucky Derby that day, but it would be a rare experience from which Aidan O’Brien and Ryan Moore did not learn.

Mendelssohn has run three races in America since then.  All three on dirt.  He hasn’t won any of them, but he finished in the first three in all three.  More importantly, he has been gaining valuable experience of the style of American racing.  On dirt.  Each run has been a step up on the run that has gone before.  Signs are that he is progressing towards a goal.

The supporting Ballydoyle cast is strong too.  Plans have yet to be finalised, but they are coming into focus.  Magical perhaps in the Turf.  Gustav Klimt in the Mile, maybe joined by Happily or I Can Fly.  Anthony Van Dyck in the Juvenile Turf, to bid for a fifth win in eight years in the race for O’Brien. 

Sergei Prokofiev perhaps in the Juvenile Turf Sprint, Just Wonderful in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, maybe joined in the race by So Perfect, who also has the Juvenile Turf Sprint as an option.  Magic Wand possibly in the Filly & Mare Turf.  And others.

It could be another memorable weekend.

© The Sunday Times, 28th October 2018