Racing: Fallon's Classic double restores O'Brien's reign

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The Independent Online

It was May Day yesterday, the celebration of the coming of spring, and, on the heath at the headquarters of Flat racing, another coming for the horses from Ballydoyle.

It was a largely barren season for Ireland's flagship Flat stable last year, with just three Group One winners emerging, but any lingering disenchantment was blown right away in the space of 24 hours over the weekend, the time it took Team Ballydoyle to collect the first two Classics of the season.

Footstepsinthesand's 2,000 Guineas on Saturday was initial evidence that the guy ropes on the Irish giant had been snipped. Yesterday, the whole monster was up once more and running amok as Virginia Waters completed the double in the 1,000 Guineas. Normal, overpowering service had been resumed.

The Co Tipperary stable appears to have had all its most powerful gifts returned: an outstanding crop of three-year-olds, an exceptional jockey in Kieren Fallon and that most capricious of donations, simple good luck.

Fallon should have been on another filly from another yard yesterday, but she scoped badly in the week. Damson seemed to have left her Classic in distress, but another emerged to inject the 1,000 Guineas with quality.

Virginia Waters was 20th and last with three furlongs of the Rowley Mile remaining, but such was her destructive surge from that point that the filly's white-striped head was at the helm at the furlong marker.

Soon after the line, Fallon's face broke into a wide smile, just as it had the previous day. There had also been a roar of satisfaction from the jockey as Footstepsinthesand completed his job. In an instant, Fallon realised there would be great meaning to his season. The first vehicle that had rolled down the ramp from the Ballydoyle production line had suggested this was to be a grand campaign for the factory.

Going to his new workplace as replacement for young Jamie Spencer was not the gamble some have suggested, as financial security is a great part of the deal. But Fallon remains a competitive animal and has become used to riding good horses.

The hurly-burly of the track remains a natural home, but the Irishman is glad to be back in his homeland and out of the tumult which surrounded his British years. "It's been a fantastic start to my new job," he said yesterday. "I'm really enjoying the game so much more now I'm back in Ireland. I was getting a bit stale and there was too much happening in my life. I needed to get away and I have been getting so much encouragement from everyone at Ballydoyle.

"I'm 40, but the way I feel now I could go on for another 10 years. My ambition at the start of the season was to ride one Classic winner. I've already ridden two and, if things are still going great after York, I'll spend more time at home and try to become champion jockey in Ireland. That would be a big honour."

Virginia Waters would have to be supplemented for the Oaks, in which Ballydoyle already have the favourite, the sidelined Kitty O'Shea. In time, they will probably both join the Coolmore broodmare band, while comfy quarters at stud already await Footstepsinthesand. A golden period of the economic cycle appears to have returned for the outfit's money men, joint-owner Michael Tabor and, in particular, John Magnier.

"The lads," as O'Brien likes to call them, were back in their natural territory of a Group One winners' enclosure. Even the old sphinx John Magnier looked quite animated as he welcomed back two more beasts which had qualified themselves for stud work. The bad run was over.

"As they say in Ireland, when it rains it pours," he said. "This game is all about ups and downs. For however long I've been in it that's always been the way. The minute you think you have it figured out it goes wrong. Which is the way it should be, otherwise it would be boring and no good to anybody."

Even if Footstepsinthesands never runs again Coolmore have another stallion to market. The Guineas winner is the progeny of another of their breeding horses, Giant's Causeway, who stands at their Ashford Stud in Kentucky at $125,000 a pop. Add in the fact that Coolmore still have block breeding rights to the Giant's father, Storm Cat, and you can read the 2,000 Guineas result as a triple whammy.

There was, though, no continuation on Saturday of another dynasty, that of Dubai Millennium. His representative, Dubawi, finished fifth as the 11-8 favourite, heaping up a pile of questions in the process. It took less than 100 seconds to explode his myth.

Now it is the minds of those at Godolphin which must be crowded with negative thoughts. Their standard bearer has been beaten and apparently extinguished. The significance of the performance was Frankie Dettori's assertion that he had never felt so nervous before a race in his 18 years as a jockey.

Dubawi's weaving performance was blamed on the ground, and there was a further excuse that he has been struck into. Yet more ominous for those behind Dubawi was his resentment to any type of encouragement from the saddle. When Dettori showed him the whip, the reaction seemed to be as if he was pulling a dagger from its sheath.

Tradition has it that a 2,000 Guineas winner immediately receives an unrealistic quote for the Derby and Footstepsinthesand has not escaped the convention. From a pre-race quote of 40-1 he is now the 5-1 favourite. He is a nervous character, isolated from the rest of the field at the start on Saturday by Fallon, and he had to be blindfolded to go in the gate. None of that was encouraging for a Derby.

In the race, Footstepsinthesand tried to fight Fallon after they left the stalls, but that is a skirmish that neither should entertain. The 13-2 chance did settle and saw plenty of daylight on the outside, which afforded him a clear run. The decisive manoeuvre came a furlong out, and then, understandably, he idled.

Footstepsinthesands' pedigree is a hotch-potch of speed and staying influences and only a dolt could draw conclusion from his genetic make-up. It may be instructive that connections did not immediately commit to the Blue Riband. "We thought he would be fast enough to be a sprinter," O'Brien said, "and when a horse is showing that kind of pace at home you're never sure what they're going to be."

Team Ballydoyle, and all Flat devotees, were merely happy that Footstepsinthesand and Virginia Waters have set the pyrotechnics alight for the summer season. Now we can retire, sit back and enjoy.

Certainly, there will be more pleasure for O'Brien, who again looked less than his 35 years rather than the shivering wreck we witnessed at York last year after One Cool Cat had tossed in another stinker. Then you worried for his longevity in the job.

Now he is back on the wave, a personal crest and an Irish one which seems to have continued from the National Hunt season. The Ballydoyle horses are not yet taut as piano wire after a wet spring in Co Tipperary and neither is their trainer after his opening big-race salvos. Aidan O'Brien can now move on breezily to Chester this week, content in the knowledge that, this season, he will be conducting a most superior orchestra.