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Big Bear brilliant

There was a point in the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes, the Group 1 feature race at The Curragh yesterday, as the horses raced just inside the two-furlong marker, when Ryan Moore got a little lower in the saddle on Little Big Bear.  It had all been very smooth for Aidan O’Brien’s horse up to that point.  Smartly away from the stalls, he had settled into his racing rhythm from early at the head of the field.  His rider was able to allow him coast along at the pace at which he was happy.  That’s his cruising speed, and it’s fast.

It was on the run to the two-furlong marker that Rossa Ryan moved up to the right of the leader on Persian Force while, further to the right, Hollie Doyle was asking the favourite Bradsell for his effort.  Moore didn’t panic on Little Big Bear though, he didn’t do anything suddenly.  He just got a little lower in the saddle as the two-furlong pole whistled past, gave his horse a squeeze, asked him to extend. 

We didn’t really know at that point how many gears Little Big Bear had, but we know now that he has many, because what happened then was fairly explosive.  The No Nay Never colt lengthened, went a length clear of his rivals, two lengths clear, three lengths clear.  By the time he got to the winning line, he had put seven horse-lengths between himself and his closest pursuer in a breath-taking display off class and power that carried him past the winning line and into the history books.  Not since the odds-on shot George Washington beat six rivals in the race 17 years ago has the Phoenix Stakes been won by a distance of this magnitude.

“He’s a big, powerful, strong horse,” said Aidan O’Brien, who was notching up a record 17th win in the race.  “He has a high cruising speed.  I’d say his stride is longer than most horses’ strides.  We felt all along that he was special, physically strong, and those types of horses progress from run to run.”

The champion trainer also revealed that they had had an 11th-hour scare, which could have prevented his horse from running.

“He kicked a wall and the clip of his shoe went into his foot.  He was a little bit tender when the shoe was put back on.  It could have gone either way so it was a great call by John Halley and Lynn Hillyer to let him run.”

Little Big Bear has the temperament and the attitude and the pedigree too to go with his obvious talent.  And it wasn’t just the visual impression of yesterday’s performance that marked it down as something that was out of the ordinary; it was also the quality of the field of horses that he left in his wake.  He had just four rivals in the end, but they were all high-class rivals: the Coventry Stakes winner, the Coventry Stakes runner-up who had subsequently won the July Stakes, the Railway Stakes winner, the Railway Stakes third.  Common consensus beforehand was that it was a strong and deep renewal of the Phoenix Stakes.  Richard Hannon, trainer of runner-up Persian Force, said that he didn’t think that any contemporary could beat his horse by seven lengths.

“He couldn’t have been any more impressive than he was,” said winning rider Ryan Moore.  “He did everything beautifully.  It looked like a strong race, but he was just at a different level.  He’s a big, scopey horse, and he’s very straightforward.  He’s just doing it all on pure ability, I don’t have to do anything on him.” 

Options for Little Big Bear now are wide and varied.  His trainer listed potential targets: the National Stakes, the Dewhurst Stakes, the Prix Morny, the Middle Park and, intriguingly, the Nunthorpe Stakes in 12 days’ time, a test of raw speed over York’s fast five furlongs and taking on the older horses.  Ultimately, next year’s 2000 Guineas has to be on his long-ranger radar.  There is every chance that he will get a mile all right as a three-year-old, and he is now clear favourite in all lists for the first colts’ Classic of 2023.

Aidan O’Brien wasn’t the only O’Brien to go into the record books at The Curragh yesterday because, when Al Riffa won the opening contest, he brought up Joseph O’Brien’s 1000th winner as a trainer.  He only had his first runners in June 2016, just over six years ago.  Then the 29-year-old trainer sent out In Ecstasy to win the one-mile handicap later on the day, and bring up his 1001st.

© The Sunday Times, 7th August 2022