Generous accolades have been afforded to Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien for his preparation of 2014 Cox Plate winner, Adelaide. But for me, even if only on a personal level, a matter remains that needs redressing.
O’Brien’s relationship with some sections of the Australian Racing industry and media has been tumultuous.
In 2007 Aidan brought Northern Hemisphere three year-old Mahler to contest the Melbourne Cup. His first runner performed extremely well, finishing a game third to Efficient and the Luca Cumani-trained Purple Moon.
O’Brien said he would be back and so it was in 2008, bringing distance specialist Septimus, with well-performed stablemates Honolulu and Alessandro Volta.
Septimus was the winner of the Yorkshire Cup, a 13 lengths Irish St Ledger victor, and to be ridden by Johnny Murtagh. He was quickly installed as $6.5 favourite.
Ballydoyle played the usual handicapper-game suggesting he might not come if given too much weight – the same story we hear every year by some-or-other connections of a high-weight.
Most know the outcome of this adventure. The three Coolmore runners controlled the race at a strong pace and eventually weakened to run near the tail of the field.
Plainly, O’Brien had formed a view that Australasian stayers were not up to scratch and the best way to beat them was to break them.
According to many comments I read on The Roar he was ahead of his time. The plan didn’t bear fruit. All three pulled up sore and were never raced again – a tragic loss for any stable.
Septimus came here with a 122 rating – better by a point than It’s a Dundeel. Alessandro Volta had a rating of 115, as good as the pre-race rating of Adelaide.
Anyone with a racing trade background could hardly imagine the devastation he must have felt. Incidentally, his previous 2007 place-getter Mahler also never raced again. He arrived here with a rating of 118.
Then came the phone call to Crown Casino from Terry Bailey, Chief Steward. Aidan was preparing to fly home when the head steward requested him to attend an inquiry into the performance of his runners. Apparently, his jockeys were giving conflicting evidence about the Cup tactics and Bailey wanted him to attend in person and clarify the matter.
In the stewards room, he was told that one of his riders was close to being charged with ‘failing to allow their mount to run on their merits’. This assertion was more to do with a belief that team riding, European-style, had taken place.
After a heated exchange everyone went on their way, but it is not hard to imagine how long that flight back to Ireland must have felt.
Bailey was relatively new to the top job and no doubt wanted to impress on everyone the fairness of his stewardship, regardless of reputation. He certainly did that, but maybe these days he would have handled it differently. Like a chat over the phone.
Logically, it was incomprehensible what Bailey was suggesting. O’Brien brings three horses half-way round the world to play silly-buggers. He said in the inquiry he got the tactics wrong. Maybe Bailey just needed to remind him of our racing rules in a phone-call and I’m sure he would have got the message without the publicity or the affront to his integrity.
Bailey used this sort of diplomacy at a recent Cup, when a visitor received race-day medication without stewards approval and were allowed to start followed by a minor fine.
Chapter two of O’Brien’s stormy Antipodean relationship began with So You Think. Coolmore secured a majority share in the Australian champ and dual Cox Plate Winner. Dato Chin Nam and partners, new and old, moved the stallion-racer to Ireland under the care of O’Brien.
Cummings, his trainer and the winner of 2008 Melbourne Cup (Viewed), was devastated.
From the first start So You Think’s northern campaign with O’Brien came under criticism. Bizarre complaints like, ‘he has got under Cummings’ neck’ or a more reasonable, ‘he seems to be taking the speed out of the Australian champion’. It seemed his new trainer was going to do his way without ever contacting Cummings about the his successful methods.
No matter what O’Brien did, he was doing a poor job and wrecking the best horse in the world, according to many racing Australians.
In the early days I was one of the criticisers but I changed within a year. I have never forgotten that humble interview O’Brien gave at the end of So You Think’s career where he said he probably had got him wrong.
No mate, you didn’t get him wrong. We got you wrong!
Under O’Brien’s care, the High Chaparral entire won five Group 1 races from eleven starts, the same number of Group 1s as Cummings did from twelve starts.
Ballydoyle raced him in four counties, was successful in two, and only once finished further back than fourth – the same as Cummings.
The 2010 Official World Rankings gave So You Think an extremely high rating of 126 when trained by Bart Cummings. With O’Brien he also rated 126 in the 2011 and 2012 Official World Rankings.
To the world’s official handicapping panel, O’Brien didn’t improve him but certainly didn’t make worse.
What has all this to do with the 2014 Cox Plate?
Currently, he has equal top-rated three-year-old in the world with Australia, who rates 126 – the same high mark as So You Think.
Our best middle-distance horse from last year, It’s a Dundeel, rated 121 when winning the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Randwick from a previous steady mark of 118.
Just reminding you that Septimus rated 122 and Mahler 118, which is my way of saying O’Brien knows exactly how good our horses are and the type of animal needed to better them. Although Fawkner’s improvement from Spring may have surprised and worried them.
As with most big European stables, they have their three-year-olds sorted at the beginning of the season. Obviously, O’Brien knew that Adelaide couldn’t beat Australia, so instead of using him as a second stringer in the Euro-Classics, O’Brien began to plan one of the most audacious racing assaults of modern times.
Adelaide was trained to travel, to race on all sorts of tracks, taught to sprint-finish a race and battle hard from the pace. Ryan Moore tested him early and jumped on him for his final two starts before they shipped to Victoria. No stone left unturned.
Aidan O’Brien took over Ballydoyle from a world racing all-time legend, Vincent O’Brien, no relation other than by nationality and skill. Since then Aidan has won nearly every major race in the world among his 230-plus Group 1 wins. I could be wrong, but maybe only the Kentucky Derby and Melbourne Cup are left.
I hope you are starting to understand what a superb trainer Aidan O’Brien is.
Who knows what it will take to get him back to the Melbourne Cup? A bottle of our unique Tasmanian Whiskey? From my experience the Irish can become very forgiving after a single malt or two – just get it in writing.
He may never attempt the Cup again as he might view it as bad luck, a graveyard for his good horses. But we prepare our tracks differently now, as I’m sure his European colleagues have told him, along with the astute Australian Coolmore staff, otherwise Adelaide would have never come for the Cox.
He did risk one more good horse coming here for glory and with one of the great training performances of all time got the chocolates.
He still has not set foot in the place since 2008. Maybe he’ll pop-over from Dubai for the Championships in Sydney?
I hope O’Brien decides that a little, three-handle, gold trainer’s trophy would look good on the mantlepiece and I’m sure Tasmanian single malt will taste great out of it.
It’s a tough trophy to win, but I’ve never known the Irish to back away from a stand-your-ground challenge.