Donn's Articles » Aidan O’Brien at Royal Ascot

Aidan O’Brien at Royal Ascot

Arizona wasn’t that quickly away in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot on Tuesday and, after they had gone furlong, there were more rivals in front of him than there were behind him.

It didn’t really look like he was in trouble but, passing the three-furlong marker, there were horses around him who appeared to be travelling better than he was.  Then the race for home began, Ryan Moore got lower in the saddle, and Arizona responded.  He grabbed the ground on the far side, finished off his race more strongly than any of his rivals, and got up to win by a half a length. 

That was Aidan O’Brien’s first winner of the meeting, on the first day of the meeting, in the second race of the meeting.  His 66th Royal Ascot winner.

It all began in the same place, in the same race, 22 years ago.  Harbour Master won the Coventry Stakes in 1997, Aidan O’Brien’s first Royal Ascot winner.  The BBC were covering Royal Ascot back then, the late Sir Peter O’Sullevan did the Coventry Stakes commentary. 

There were similarities between Harbour Master then and Arizona now.  Both colts had raced just twice before going to Royal Ascot, both horses had won once and lost once.  And both horses raced in Mrs Sue Magnier’s navy silks. 

There was a similarity too to the style of their respective victories.  Harbour Master also came under pressure as they passed the three-furlong marker.  It looked unlikely.  No better than 10th or 11th on the run to the two-furlong pole, he responded to Christy Riche’s urgings, he was strong in the finish, and he hit the front close home.

There were differences too.  Harbour Master was a 16/1 shot then.  Arizona was sent off the 15/8 favourite on Tuesday.

Royal Ascot is massive for Aidan O’Brien and Team Ballydoyle, and Day One is an important day, the day on which the Coventry Stakes and the St James’s Palace Stakes are both run.  The Coventry can be a pointer to the following season’s Classics, and Arizona is now favourite for next year’s 2000 Guineas on the back of Tuesday’s win, while the St James’s Palace is one of the definitive races in the determination of the pecking order of the top three-year-old milers.

Some 75 minutes after Arizona won the Coventry Stakes – providing his trainer with his ninth Coventry, more than any other trainer – Aidan O’Brien sent out Circus Maximus to win the St James’s Palace.

Circus Maximus was different to Arizona.  While the Coventry Stakes always looked like the automatic target for Arizona after he won his maiden at The Curragh on Irish Guineas weekend by eight lengths, Circus Maximus’ route to the St James’s Palace was somewhat circuitous and a little unorthodox.  The Galileo colt started off this season as a Derby prospect and, indeed, after winning the Dee Stakes at Chester over 10 furlongs on his seasonal debut, he took his chance in the Derby, finishing sixth behind his stable companion Anthony Van Dyck. 

It is rare for a horse who has run in the Derby to take his chance in the St James’s Palace Stakes, not to mind to win it.  It is a dramatic drop in distance, from a mile and a half to a mile, and pitched again into the heat of a Group 1 race just two and a half weeks after the Derby.  But Aidan O’Brien majors in rare.  He switched the cheekpieces that Circus Maximus had worn at Epsom for a set of blinkers, and readied him again.

The trainer said that it was the owners’ decision to supplement Circus Maximus to the race, the owners said that it was the trainer’s.  Either way, it was inspired.  And, under a similarly inspired Ryan Moore, carrying the famous Niarchos Family silks, he got home by a neck.

That was the eighth time that Aidan O’Brien had won the St James’s Palace Stakes.  More times than any other trainer.

O’Brien sent out Southern Hills to win the Windsor Castle Stakes on Wednesday, a first black-type victory for first-season sire Gleneagles, and he sent out South Pacific to win the King George V Stakes on Thursday under Seamie Heffernan.  And with his stable companions Constantinople and Eminence following him home, it was a 1-2-3 for the trainer in one of the hottest three-year-old handicaps on the calendar.

Japan was impressive in winning the King Edward VII Stakes on Friday.  Held up early on by Ryan Moore, he made nice ground from the rear around the home turn, and he stayed on powerfully up the home straight to come clear of his rivals.

Winner of the Beresford Stakes last year as a juvenile, you always felt that Aidan O’Brien was in a race against time to get the Galileo colt ready for the Epsom Derby, but he still ran a big race there, staying on well to take third place behind Anthony Van Dyck.  Friday’s performance was probably a step forward from his Derby run, and there is every chance that he will step forward again now.

The bookmakers made Japan favourite for the St Leger after Friday’s win, but he could be top class over a mile and a half.  The Irish Derby possibly comes up too quickly, just eight days after the King Edward VII Stakes, but he would be a legitimate contender for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes back at Ascot at the end of July.

Aidan O’Brien’s five wins this week took his Royal Ascot total to 70 and saw him crowned leading trainer at the meeting again.  That’s the fifth time in a row that he has been leading trainer at the meeting, and the 10th time in total.  More times than any other trainer. 

© The Sunday Times, 23rd June 2019