Racing: O'Brien's year relies on a Cool Cat revival

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The Independent Online

It might be a little presumptuous to call it their last throw of the dice, especially when they own the casino, but One Cool Cat's performance in the International Stakes at the Curragh on Saturday can be read as a defining moment in the season for the axis of Ballydoyle and Coolmore.

This campaign, as well as the last, has been dreadful for the mammoth of Irish racing. Just Brian Boru, last year's St Leger winner, stands as a Group One-winning three-year-old colt in that period, and if the machine is not chugging out horses of that description then the Co Tipperary stable and stud empire ceases to exist.

There seems little doubt that Aidan O'Brien is working with a faulty batch this season, but, in the past, he has always found at least one horse to lift the general spirit. Good beasts can pull you through, but One Cool Cat and Yeats have faltered at precisely the wrong moment this year. The former pulled a muscle in his back and was invalided out just days before a Derby for which he was favourite.

One Cool Cat, who won his last four starts as a two-year-old, did at least make it to his Classic, but may as well not have done. He too was favourite, for the 2,000 Guineas, and he too a disaster, beating only one home. The colt was found to have an irregular heartbeat and subsequent veterinary advice was that there is no reason why it should recur.

It is not yet known though if the human community at the stables have recovered from the fibrillations of recent times. "The bubble has just burst and it's been compounded by the hubris over One Cool Cat," an Irish observer with connections at the yard said yesterday. "He has been the biggest disappointment of the lot and this is his last-chance saloon. It couldn't be anything else. Confidence [at the yard] has gone because the superstars have not emerged."

When it was all going well, Ballydoyle seemed unstoppable. Juggernauts are always difficult to turn round though and now the Co Tipperary warship is heading in the wrong direction out into choppy waters.

To make sense of the descent, you have to look at the peak. The year of 2001 was O'Brien's big-race odyssey. There were seven European Classics and he won 22 of the 78 Group One races available in Europe. Johannesburg was Ballydoyle's first Breeders' Cup winner and the young man was the first overseas trainer to win a British title since his namesake, Vincent, in 1977.

O'Brien retained both British and Irish titles the following season, the year of High Chaparral, Hawk Wing and, especially, Rock Of Gibraltar. Prize-money in Britain alone was £1.8m.

Then, in 2003, the decline set in. O'Brien partly blamed himself for the poor results as he switched around the horses' work routines. Win-money raised on British raids was down to £460,000, but even that looks plump compared to this season's total of £136,000.

Those quietly taken by the schadenfreude have sniggered at Meath's deplorable attempt to regain the Derby crown for Ballydoyle. He was a tailed-off last. There was then the emblematic spectacle of Grand Reward, perhaps the best bred horse on the planet, having to drop down to the Madra Dog Food race at Naas last week to get his head in front.

Most delicious of all was Royal Ascot, where Five Dynasties won the King Edward VII Stakes and Moscow Ballet the Hampton Court Stakes, both somewhat sub-standard contests. The nose-tappers were more interested in the Queen Mary, won by Damson for Michael Tabor and John Magnier by the latter's son-in-law trainer, David Wachman, who is also based in Co Tipperary. Two and two has never gone together so easily.

Puzzled as they are by the deterioration, those at Ballydoyle are even more perplexed by its causes. It is easy to pick at a smorgasbord of reasons.

In the quest to find a successor to the great Sadler's Wells, John Magnier has identified the leading American stallion Storm Cat as the next big thing. Block-breeding rights have been purchased. Yet, Giant's Causeway apart, the heir apparent has not delivered.

Magnier was also involved in the Rock Of Gibraltar spat with Sir Alex Ferguson, which ran concurrently with a slide in the protagonists' sporting success. Both may have taken their eye off the ball as they tried to put steel toecaps into each others'.

There has, in addition, been a change in the saddle. The tyro Jamie Spencer has come in as stable jockey at a most difficult point, at the same time as the efforts of his predecessor, Michael Kinane, have suggested that he was not perhaps the weakest link in the operation. But, as they say in the States, when it all starts going wrong you cannot exactly fire the horses.

The other rumoured change at Ballydoyle is the easing out of the old guard from among the horsemen. Rumoured that is, because few have been allowed on to Ireland's most famous racing property in recent months.

O'Brien himself has retreated into a natural reclusiveness and has become difficult to contact. The limelight might come more easily at the weekend, as long as it is already occupied by One Cool Cat.


Nap: Trousers

(Doncaster 9.10)

NB: Tidal

(Epsom 7.25)