Donn McClean on Aidan O’Brien
Aidan O'Brien had made headlines once or twice before, but there was something different about his 1-2-3 in the Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe two weeks ago.
Aidan O'Brien has enjoyed an extraordinary 2016
In a sense, we had been there before.
There was that 1-2-3 in the Galway Plate in 1995, when Kelly's Pearl and Loshian took second and third places behind runaway winner Life Of A Lord, but that was in a bygone era when the Galway Plate was the Digital Galway Plate and when Aidan O'Brien had a yard full of National Hunt horses.
He did it on the Flat too though before last Sunday, in the best races, in the Classics. He had the 1-2-3 in the Irish 2000 Guineas in 2001, and he repeated the feat in the Irish 2000 Guineas in 2002. Then six weeks later, he had the 1-2-3 in the Irish Derby, with three different colts.
He was responsible for the first three home in the Irish Champion Stakes in 2007, and in the Moyglare Stud Stakes last year, and in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket this year, with the three Moyglare fillies.
The 1000 Guineas 1-2-3 was a little different, it was on British soil, away from Ireland where the trainer's dominance is undisputed. But the Arc de Triomphe was different again.
The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe occupies a special place in the world of thoroughbred racing these days. The race has morphed into the championship middle-distance contest of European horse racing, it is the race into which the entire season funnels. Ryan Moore says that it is the hardest race in Europe to win.
And it is a truly international event. This year five different countries were represented, some of the best turf horses in the world were there. It is not by accident that the Arc is the race that, more than any other horse race in the world, the Japanese are desperate to win.
No trainer had ever had the 1-2-3 in the Arc before, and it is probable that no trainer will again for a very long time. And the feat is all the more remarkable because Aidan O'Brien ran just three horses in the race this year, Found, Highland Reel and Order Of St George, and they came home in order: first, second, third.
"Freddy Head said that it was an extraordinary achievement, phenomenal. Henry Candy said that it was possibly the most extraordinary feat ever in Flat racing. Ronan O'Gara said, Jesus he's good."
The accolades came forth (sic.). Freddy Head said that it was an extraordinary achievement, phenomenal. Henry Candy said that it was possibly the most extraordinary feat ever in Flat racing. Frankie Dettori said that it took Aidan O'Brien's achievements to a whole new level. Ronan O'Gara said, Jesus he's good.
The Arc 1-2-3 is the outstanding achievement in a career that is overflowing with outstanding achievements. There is a danger that we take it all for granted because we are here, in the same era, we are witnesses to what is happening, as it is happening. But stand back and take a look.
When Highland Reel won the King George at Ascot in July, it took O'Brien's tally of career Group/Grade 1 wins worldwide to 280, one more than that achieved by legendary Australian trainer Tommy Smith. When Found won the Arc, it took the total to 293. Add Rhododendron's Fillies' Mile and Churchill's Dewhurst (he had the 1-2 in both races, from two runners in both) and that's 295. The 300 mark is within touching distance and that will be a phenomenal tally.
You can point to the fact that Aidan O'Brien has the best horses, the best bloodlines, the best training facilities, access to the best stallions. But that is to forget the point that it was through his success with ordinary horses that he was asked to take up his current role at Ballydoyle in the first place.
Also, with great potential comes great responsibility. It is one thing to have access to the best resources, it is quite another to match or exceed expectations with those resources.
The training of thoroughbred horses is a kaleidoscope of myriad elements: art, science, methodology. It is a high-wire act in which balance is paramount. And O'Brien is rock steady. He over-achieves.
He is set to be crowned champion trainer in Ireland again this year, and in Britain for the first time since 2008. The prize money that he has earned for his owners in Britain of over £7 million is a staggering £4 million more than that earned by his closest pursuer. And that does not include the €5 million that his horses have earned in Ireland, nor the £3.36 million that his Arc 1-2-3 took home.
The record number of Group/Grade 1 winners in a year is also within touching distance. O'Brien had 24 winners at the highest level in 2001, which was a world record then, but it was surpassed by the 25 achieved by the late Bobby Frankel two years later.
"The training of thoroughbred horses is a kaleidoscope of myriad elements: art, science, methodology. It is a high-wire act in which balance is paramount. And O'Brien is rock steady. He over-achieves."
Churchill's win in the Dewhurst Stakes last Saturday brought Aidan's total for 2016 to 21: 20 on the Flat and Ivanovich Gorbatov's Triumph Hurdle win at Cheltenham in March. That leaves him with four wins at the highest level to find if he is to equal Bobby Frankel's total, five if he is to beat it, and six if he is to beat it with Group/Grade 1 wins on the Flat only. All of those targets are within range now.
Last year, between British Champions Day and the end of the season, O'Brien had four Group/Grade 1 winners: Johannes Vermeer in the Criterium International, Hit It A Bomb in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, Found in the Breeders' Cup Turf, and Highland Reel in the Hong Kong Vase. That was a fine tally, but you can easily argue that he has a stronger team for the late-season top-level targets this year than he had last year.
For starters, there were no Ballydoyle winners on British Champions Day last year. Found ran a cracker to finish second to Fascinating Rock in the Champion Stakes, but that was as close as they got in any of the four Group 1 races on the day. Tapestry finished eighth in the Fillies & Mares Stakes, Gleneagles finished sixth in the QE2. Found was their only representative in the Champion Stakes, and they had no runners in the Sprint.
"Minding hasn't run over a mile since she was beaten a head by Jet Setting on soft ground in the Irish 1000 Guineas in May. But she is versatile, she has bags of pace and the Newmarket Guineas winner should have little difficulty with the trip."
This year, different story. Arc heroine Found is second favourite behind Almanzor for the Champion Stakes, a race in which US Army Ranger is also set to take his chance. Minding is clear favourite for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes with Hit It A Bomb an interesting inclusion among the declarations, and Seventh Heaven is clear favourite for the Fillies' & Mares' Stakes, a race in which Even Song and Pretty Perfect represent a strong back-up duo. It is a formidable team.
Found is dropping down to 10 furlongs for the Champion Stakes, but that should not pose a problem. Of course, she has won a Breeders' Cup Turf and now an Arc de Triomphe over a mile and a half, but her highest Timeform rating before the Arc was achieved in the Irish Champion Stakes on her previous run, over 10 furlongs.
Minding is also dropping down in trip for the QE2. The Galileo filly hasn't run over a mile since she was beaten a head by Jet Setting on soft ground in the Irish 1000 Guineas back in May. But she is versatile, she has bags of pace and the Newmarket Guineas winner out of Coronation Stakes winner Lillie Langtry should have little difficulty with the trip.
Seventh Heaven will probably be competing over her optimum distance of a mile and a half in the Fillies' & Mares' Stakes. Well behind Minding in the Oaks when she didn't appear to be at home on Epsom's cambers, she was impressive in winning the Irish Oaks at The Curragh in July, and she was even more impressive in winning the Yorkshire Oaks the following month. She is a worthy favourite.
It could be another good day for Aidan O'Brien at Ascot on Saturday. It could be another high point in a truly extraordinary year.
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