John O’Shea splits from Godolphin as the empire struggles

Tristan Rayner Editor

By Tristan Rayner, Tristan Rayner is a Roar Editor

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    Hartnell highlights a high time for Australian racing. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

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    Godolphin’s head trainer, John O’Shea, will leave the Australian arm of the mega racing operation as he takes an extended break from training.

    All will hope the respected O’Shea is not lost to racing, with reports that he’s worn down.

    O’Shea won ten Group 1s for Godolphin while saddling over 550 race winners, most recently taking the Doncaster Mile at the top level with Its Somewhat. Hartnell won two (BMW in 2015, Turnbull ’16) along with Contributer (Chipping Norton ’15, Ranvet ’15), with other notable Group 1 winners wearing Godolophin royal blue including Exosphere and Hauraki.

    The departure is unusual. O’Shea leaves three years into a reported five-year contract. Few comments have been made publicly, suggesting friction and ongoing final details.

    A piece in the Daily Telegraph that appeared on Friday adds to that possibility, considering it was forward-looking in terms of O’Shea coping without a dedicated stable rider.

    In any case, it’s over. O’Shea leaves without either disappointing or excelling. It’s tough to know how to grade him considering the unique operation of Godolphin. One view is that he was only getting better, with the current season thus far showing him at career bests – four Group 1 wins and more than $15.5 million in prizemoney for 163 winners. He started slowly as his system was applied to horses in work and took some time to prove out.

    Still, O’Shea won as many Group 1s as Charlie Appelby and Saeed Bin Suror combined in the same time. Godolphin themselves produced a very positive report card at the halfway mark of this season.

    But scratch the surface and the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum-owned operation looks less rosy in Australia. Hartnell alone won a big portion of that prizemoney, and while O’Shea managed some close losses, he didn’t take the big four of the Melbourne Cup, Cox Plate, Golden Slipper, or Caulfield Cup. The expectations there in the past three years may have weighed O’Shea down.

    The main criticism that O’Shea would face is a fall-away in race performances as a campaign went on. His horses would begin their preparations well, but couldn’t hold their form. That often hurt punters who’d back these types off the map.

    The autumn was typical of this. Astern was the only Group 1 winning three-year-old for the behemoth, taking out the Run to the Rose and Golden Rose in the early part of the season, followed by two second placings at the top level, then running 13th before being promptly retired.

    Crucially, O’Shea had only minor two-year-old success this season, with the Godolphin crop unplaced in Group 1s, and no wins.

    Godolphin’s operation offers both quality and quantity – but there are limitations on how far you can go, especially with horses ripe to rip then being sent to a different operation (Holler), or retired (Astern, Exosphere, the list goes on…).

    An enviable mass crop of horses are produced each year via Darley, as big as they get, but success (or failure) stems from their stallion lines.

    Hartnell is flying and is a huge chance in the Cox Plate

    Very few outside horses or yearlings join the fleet, which brings with it natural limitations. O’Shea isn’t given good proven horses like we see with Darren Weir and Chris Waller.

    The operation’s goals in stallion making and breeding also mean that while wins are grand, the right type of winner is more important.

    Not one Darley stallion is currently in the top ten of the general sires list of winners this season. Darley’s American stallion Hard Spun sits at 14 on that list. The entire Godolphin outfit worldwide has had a few quieter years.

    Pressure is high – blue blood horses, a constant spotlight, and a Dubai ruler eager to win big races.

    We also don’t know exactly how much control the trainer gets and what he or she is told to do. Godolphin’s Australian Managing Director, Henry Plumptre, remains at the helm as his trainer falls.

    Who will take the tricky job next?

    Names like James Cummings, John Thompson or even Tony McEvoy come to mind. Perhaps John Size can be lured back from Hong Kong. Some have suggested James Ferguson, who appears in Australia as the travelling foreman for Charlie Appleby and is also the son of Godolphin’s CEO John Ferguson, could grow into the role.

    Godolphin will surely be considering if it is time that the operation is split across multiple trainers, just as it is in the UK. It’s a huge job for any one person. Godolphin have more than 400 horses with 250 in work at any one time.

    A state-based approach is worth considering; splitting the job between the juvenile two-year-olds aiming to win a Slipper and the older horses is another approach.

    Whatever the case may be, it’s one of the highest profile racing jobs in Australia and with the prestige comes the demands.

    O’Shea, a family man with four children, will suddenly see his kids without worrying about another day of racing that stops for just one day in a year.

    Tristan Rayner
    Tristan Rayner

    Tristan is a writer, consultant, racing enthusiast and former Editor of The Roar who has turned the Melbourne Cup into a year-round study via

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    The Crowd Says (13)

    • May 1st 2017 @ 10:09am
      Reno said | May 1st 2017 @ 10:09am | ! Report

      Good analysis. O’Shea is no fool but Godolphin is no mere thing. Maybe he’d consider Hong Kong himself now – two racedays a week, although not ideal for four young’uns.

    • May 1st 2017 @ 5:10pm
      no one in particular said | May 1st 2017 @ 5:10pm | ! Report

      This has been word around the campfire for a while. Apparently they have been upset with some of his training decisions. For example, giving Astern a number of trials before racing it in a red hot TJ Smith first up. He did a similar thing 12 months earlier with Exosphere. Not avoiding Winx with Hartnell (Aust Cup? BMW?). He is also a very prickly character who can easily get offside with people.

      Some of the names thrown around as a replacement are a bit laughable. James Cummings has nowhere near the experience to handle such a large operation. Lee Freedman doesn’t know if he is retiring or training, or living on Sydney or Melbourne, or wants to be a solo trainer or in a partnership. John Size won’t leave Hong Kong, where they race only twice a week and the low tax rate, for a retainer job and 7 days a week racing across multiple states. O’Shea was well down the list last time, so it will be interesting how far wide they have to go this time.

      • Editor

        May 2nd 2017 @ 7:51am
        Tristan Rayner said | May 2nd 2017 @ 7:51am | ! Report

        Good contribution, thanks for this.

        Agree with those thoughts on potential trainers.

      • May 8th 2017 @ 7:20am
        Geoff said | May 8th 2017 @ 7:20am | ! Report

        Peter Moody

      • May 23rd 2017 @ 1:46pm
        Smee said | May 23rd 2017 @ 1:46pm | ! Report

        James Cummings has been appointed

    • May 1st 2017 @ 7:37pm
      Johnybulldog said | May 1st 2017 @ 7:37pm | ! Report

      Hmm,I’ll say he must have had a tap on the shoulder.Agree with Adam Page,Snowdens stats were better & you could really back a horse with confidence,not so under the current climate….looking forward to see who gets the job.

    • May 1st 2017 @ 8:31pm
      Queenslander to the end said | May 1st 2017 @ 8:31pm | ! Report

      Nice swinging from the cheap seats Adam Page. Got to love living in glass houses and being able to throw stones at the same time. The man is exhausted from working 80 hour plus weeks. There is endless calls in other parts of the media for this to be a two man operation. But you are most interested in blowing sunshine up your own for some weak pot shots you took over Johns tenure. Perhaps read your colleagues article based on facts. John has won as many group 1’s as Suroor and Appleby combined in the same period. He is in the middle of his best season, which would be a bunch better with Winx not around. (Take Winx out of Waller’s prize money and see where he lands).
      He is a quality trainer who built his rep from the ground up. Private Steer, Sea Siren, Racing to Win (remember these quality performers). From memory it was 18 group 1’s prior to Godolphin. A mug he is not.
      Would love to see Adam Page working an 80 hour week, maybe a reality TV show in that. Facts Adam, work with them

      • May 2nd 2017 @ 2:07pm
        no one in particular said | May 2nd 2017 @ 2:07pm | ! Report

        O’Shea has trained a total of 10 G1 winners in his 3 years with Godolphin. In that time Waller has trained 18 individual G1 winners, Darren Weir has trained 13 winners in the past 2 seasons. Neither of them have the backing of a billionaire oil sheikh and the biggest race operation in the world

    • May 1st 2017 @ 10:04pm
      Scuba said | May 1st 2017 @ 10:04pm | ! Report

      Surely it won’t be James Cummings – his wife won’t let him abandon Gooree.

      Having departed NSW less than 12 months ago I’d be very shocked if McEvoy returned so quickly.

      Thompson did a very good job with the huge Patinack team under conditions that he definitely wouldn’t face at Godolphin (eg the owner not providing enough money to feed the horses properly). He’s my pick of the locals, but reckon one of the overseas contenders might get the nod.

      • Editor

        May 2nd 2017 @ 7:59am
        Tristan Rayner said | May 2nd 2017 @ 7:59am | ! Report

        You’re sounding on the money Scuba.

        Overseas contenders opens up the field quite a bit – I couldn’t start to guess beyond HK and Ferguson!

      • May 23rd 2017 @ 1:48pm
        Smee said | May 23rd 2017 @ 1:48pm | ! Report

        James Cummings has been appointed

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