Racing: Classic battle of wills for O'Brien

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The Independent Online

It is said that nothing can make a fool of a man like a horse. Saturday will show whether it is Aidan O'Brien or his feisty, wayward charge George Washington who has the last laugh. The two have been involved in a battle of wills for some time and the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket may prove their Yorktown.

George Washington has been a public representation of the judgement of experts since he was sold at auction as a yearling for 1.15 million guineas to John Magnier and his Coolmore partners. Handsome and well-bred - he is a Danehill half-brother to top-class performer Grandera - he has already justified the outlay, with a juvenile career that culminated in two Group One victories and earned him winter favouritism for the first colts' Classic.

And should he triumph on the Rowley Mile, it will be a public manifestation of the talent of an expert. For George Washington's genetic legacy is one of superior athletic ability streaked with temperament. In Grandera, the mental quirkiness descended into dishonesty under pressure; in the younger horse, it is - so far - the lightning spirit of the high-mettled racer. O'Brien's challenge has been to harness the flashes and keep them channelled.

Racehorses are bred to excel as individuals and this is as singular a one as the Ballydoyle's maestro has had through his hands. "I have never met such an arrogant animal," he said. "He looks down on every other horse and every man. He has an ego the size of a planet. It's as if he has always been allowed his own way, never got a good dressing down as a foal."

Any three-year-old thoroughbred colt is a potential danger zone, half a ton of alpha male aggression at an age to become sexually aware. "George Washington is all of those things," said O'Brien, "and what we have to do is not let him get on top and at the same time keep him directed and focused without turning it into a fight, which could send his mind the wrong way.

"With fillies, you can have a lighter touch, and let them get away with a bit. But if a colt gets out of bounds, it does no one any favours, least of all himself. A horse like this one - basically a bully - must have parameters and know exactly where they are. We have tried to teach him a way so that his arrogance won't catch up with him but it is a fine balancing act."

George Washington has already showed his delinquent tendencies on the racecourse, most notably when he refused to leave the parade ring after winning a race at the Curragh last June, defying his trainer for 10 minutes with body language that clearly stated "you and whose army?", and again last month, when he tested Kieren Fallon by jinking through a gap in the rails before a gallop at the Co Kildare track.

Despite such behaviour, O'Brien has no worries that the crucible atmosphere of 2,000 Guineas day at Newmarket will get to the colt. "I don't think any occasion will be too big for him," he said. "He believes in himself and thinks that everyone else should too. And that's what can set a horse like this apart and make him special."

The powerful white-blazed bay has demonstrated blinding speed and electric acceleration and stamina doubts seem to have been allayed by his recent late entry for the Derby. There is some history to overturn, though. O'Brien has won three 2,000 Guineas, in 1998 with King Of Kings, his first runner in an English Classic, with Rock Of Gibraltar in 2002 and Footstepsinthesand last year. But all five favourites he has saddled have been beaten.

If George Washington is the aggressive yob outside the pub spoiling for a fight, then his charming, straightforward stablemate Horatio Nelson, also a top-level winner last term, is the mate you would be having a drink with inside.

The pair are likely to be backed up by the less exposed, unbeaten Art Museum, who has made notable physical progress through the close season.

"They are all different," added O'Brien, "and there will be disappointments as well as the good days. And that is the fascination."

The form line: Aidan and the 2,000 Guineas

1998 King Of Kings (1st, 7-2)

1999 Orpen (15th, 7-2 fav)

2000 Giant's Causeway (2nd, 7-2 fav), Bernstein (26th, 16-1)

2001 Minardi (4th, 5-1), Darwin (13th, 100-1)

2002 Rock Of Gibraltar (1st, 9-1), Hawk Wing (2nd, 6-4 fav), Sholokhov (18th, 100-1), Tendulkar (20th, 16-1)

2003 Tomahawk (8th, 7-1), Hold That Tiger (17th, 4-1 fav)

2004 Tumblebrutus (9th, 200-1), One Cool Cat (13th, 15-8 fav)

2005 Footstepsinthesand (1st, 13-2) Oratorio (4th, 8-1)

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