Clan O'Brien shows why breeding counts
Well, they do call it the Breeders' Cup. But seldom can the chromosomal variables that have now begat its 28th generation of thoroughbred champions been consummated so coherently. In the end, the men and women who pursue some eugenic grail in the pedigree of their horses will never identify their own influence – for better or worse – as certainly as those who engender the riders themselves.
All the horses that ran here on Saturday will soon be passing down their precious genes on the same simple premise that accounts for their own existence. After ending her career in honourable defeat, for instance, Goldikova will be mated with another unprecedented racetrack achiever in Galileo. How inconceivably rich and complex their family trees would become, however, if they shared the roots of our own – in love, regret and redemption.
Those may seem incongruous themes to be discovered even in the greatest race meeting, but it would take a fairly witless witness not to sense the mysteries and magic once again renewed at Churchill Downs. In the success of Joseph O'Brien on St Nicholas Abbey, the most powerful commercial stud on the planet – a status suggestive of ruthless calculation – disclosed an intimate essence of pride, joy and kinship.
And then, in the night's climactic Classic, the richest prize on the American Turf was wrested from a woman with history apparently in her grasp by a rider whose satisfaction was complicated by their own, broken relationship, not to mention atonement for a perceived disservice to another remarkable female in the same race last year.
In between, an immaculate autumn afternoon had flushed west into a crimson horizon, darkening the stippled hoofprints on the dirt track, and the trees on the back stretch slowly hid their own splendours from the gathering night. A pale flake of moon filled out lustrously, as though leaning down to judge the trivial dramas unfolding under the floodlights below. And, fleetingly, it seemed as though O'Brien's father, Aidan, would crown a day of personal redress by saddling a third winner – in the race that best condenses his recent frustrations at this carnival.
The Breeders' Cup Classic is the rock upon which the Ballydoyle trainer dashed Galileo himself, among many other outstanding horses – and, in the tragic case of George Washington, in no figurative sense either. Giant's Causeway was thwarted only by the monstrous head of Tiznow here in 2000, while Henrythenavigator also finished second, at Santa Anita three years ago. But the gusto with which So You Think took to the dirt, barrelling along the rail just behind the pace, deceived many that an overdue fulfilment beckoned.
Even in the stretch the big horse seemed poised to rally past Game On Dude, who had stubbornly retrieved the lead under Chantal Sutherland. It proved another cruel illusion. Not for the first time, So You Think failed to pick up as expected and faded into sixth. Uncle Mo had meanwhile dropped right out and instead it was Drosselmeyer who came charging down the middle – ridden, with corresponding purpose, by Sutherland's ex-boyfriend, Mike Smith.
Sutherland permitted herself some comic disgust afterwards, but recognised that Smith had performed a professional exorcism, not a personal one. For it was in this same race that he had failed by just a nose to salvage Zenyatta's epoch-making unbeaten record in her final start. "Last year still hurts, and it will hurt for the rest of my life," Smith said. "But this sure helps, man, it really does."
Smith's 15th Breeders' Cup success puts him level with Jerry Bailey's record. For O'Brien Snr, the wait for a fifth had stretched intolerably back to his third, in 2003, having in the meantime been able to offer his patrons at Coolmore only an inconsequential Marathon. He had endured another near miss on Friday's preliminary card, when Misty For Me had been unlucky not to get the Europeans off the mark. The relief was palpable, then, when Wrote tore up the script and won the Juvenile Turf in decisive fashion under Ryan Moore. Not that the extension of the Ballydoyle drought could have made the subsequent success of St Nicholas Abbey in the Turf any sweeter; and nor, equally, would O'Brien Jnr then have betrayed the slightest anxiety, either.
Whatever the privileges that have hastened his emergence, at 18 he is an extraordinarily precocious talent. Having hitherto failed to match his own early promise, St Nicholas Abbey won too readily to require a masterpiece from the saddle, but the cool and neatness of his partner justly prompted an emotional reception.
At 5ft 11in, O'Brien Jnr has already conceded that his career on the Flat must be a matter of quality rather than quantity. Yet if his genes appear to guarantee an inconvenient physical build, they clearly contain a far more precious bequest. And the Coolmore partners have derived unmistakable pleasure from the way this pale adolescent has rewarded their trust. After all, Coolmore was itself founded as a family firm, and upon the inherited lore of stockmanship.
Goldikova's has also been a family saga, bred and owned as she is by two brothers, Alain and Gerard Wertheimer. A fourth Breeders' Cup Mile proved just beyond her, and she flattened out into third, a length behind the outrageous long shot, Court Vision. The stewards seemed to indulge the French mare's unique standing, declining to relegate her to last as most expected after Olivier Peslier switched her sharply in the stretch. Freddy Head, her trainer, wisely resisted any sense of anticlimax and is already looking forward to Santa Anita next year with the mare's half-sister, Galikova.
"Maybe the mileage and years have taken their toll on Goldikova," he said. "But I'm very pleased and proud. I've lived great moments because of her. After 14 Grade One wins and competing against the best of four generations, she has a place as one of the great horses of this past century. And this was a nice way to finish. Today she just wasn't good enough, that's all. Maybe one day she'll have foals coming here, too."
Why not? That's the dream that keeps all the Bluegrass farms in business, Coolmore and the rest – and that's why they call it the Breeders' Cup.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Boruler (2.25 Carlisle)
Made a most impressive start over timber at Kelso, leaving his bumper form well behind, and can defy his penalty here.
Next best: Aikman (2.55 Carlisle)
Meets a couple of smart rivals here but may have an edge in fitness after shaping well over an inadequate trip on his own return.
One to watch: Sea Moon (Sir Michael Stoute) was readily outpaced by St Nicholas Abbey at Churchill Downs on Saturday but looks the type to flourish with maturity next year.
Where the money's going
Araldur is 20-1 from 33-1 with the sponsors for the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday.
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