Derby still in O'Brien plans for Navigator

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The swifts made it back for Guineas weekend, as they tend to, and down below Nature seemed to be observing the same, immutable cycles in the horses, too. Once again, a colt arrived here from Co Tipperary as the first bloom of an approaching summer. And, once again, Godolphin's desert migrants seemed to return in a state of hopeless disorientation.

It is all driven by breeding, of course, and as such a fresh course was yesterday suggested for Henrythenavigator, the colt who ended New Approach's unbeaten record in an epic race for the Stan James 2,000 Guineas on Saturday. The theory that Henrythenavigator has the genes of a pure miler did not survive a night of reflection at Ballydoyle, and Aidan O'Brien and his patrons – notably John Magnier, the boss of Coolmore Stud – are now pondering the possibility of trying him over a mile and a half in the Vodafone Derby.

"I may have been a bit too cut and dried yesterday about Henrythenavigator being a miler," the trainer said. "The Kingmambos do stay further and he's out of a Sadler's Wells mare who stayed a mile and a half, and his sister [Queen Cleopatra] got at least 10 furlongs.

"We've had a think about it, talked with the boss, and the Derby is definitely in our thoughts now. It's the race that everyone wants to win, the most important race for three-year-olds. The fortunes of Coolmore have been built on the Derby.

"Henrythenavigator has many of the qualities you need at Epsom. You have to have a horse that has speed, can travel and can quicken. And he has that tactical pace that means he can stay balanced."

O'Brien emphasised that nothing had been decided, not least whether to persevere towards a rematch with New Approach in the Boylesports Irish 2,000 Guineas on 24 May. But there would surely be concern over the prospect of a hard race over a mile, just a fortnight before Epsom.

Like each of the four previous Guineas winners trained by O'Brien, Henrythenavigator was making his reappearance. As usual, his stable had only crept into bud during April. Time after time, however, the most brilliant horseman of his generation dependably coaxes his horses into flower just at the right time.

O'Brien might reproach himself for Henrythenavigator's failure to build on his first two juvenile races. After a defeat, in heavy ground at the Curragh last August he was turned out just 13 days later to bang heads with New Approach.

If nothing else, however, this tough grounding ensured that he needed only to dovetail fitness with maturity to beat that same colt on Saturday. Lesser trainers always tell you how they need to give horses with Classic pedigrees time to come to hand. O'Brien can do that, too, if he needs to – Footstepsinthesand, the 2005 winner, did not make his debut until the previous October. But how many rival trainers have noticed that his two most recent winners began their careers 364 days before the race? George Washington ran in a maiden on the Sunday here – he was beaten, as it happens, but at least he was up and running – while Henrythenavigator won by seven lengths at Gowran Park a year ago yesterday. The fact is that if they don't bite as puppies, they won't bite as dogs.

The process was not straightforward last year. "For some reason the two-year-olds didn't progress as normal," O'Brien reflected. "Instead of going forwards, they were standing still. We couldn't find anything, so we pulled back on them, because we didn't want to damage them for this year. After that we ran out of time with most of them, this horse included. And we were worried he might need it here, because the horses have all been coming forward for a run."

Make no mistake, this was a huge result for Ballydoyle. Last year Magnier and his partners watched in bemusement as Sheikh Mohammed, whose cavalries were being routinely outperformed in the Classics, embarked on an unprecedented binge of spending to revive his stagnant empire. If any horse ran fast enough, anywhere in the world, it seemed as though its owners could name their price.

Being determined not to support Coolmore stallions at the yearling sales, the Sheikh instead tapped into the next generation: sons of Galileo in New Approach and Teofilo, and Montjeu's Derby winner, Authorized. Perhaps he will now have to wait to buy Henrythenavigator's sons.

For Godolphin, it was another depressing Classic weekend, the well backed Ibn Khaldun trailing in 10th. The Sheikh can comfort himself that New Approach consolidated his reputation, even in defeat. Ridden aggressively, he had most of them cooked going into the Dip, and rallied ardently once headed. The pair pulled four lengths clear, and his trainer – O'Brien's mentor, Jim Bolger – consoled himself that the 200th running of the race would go down "as one of the very best".

Bolger had astonished many people by deciding not to aim New Approach at Epsom. It is a comfort to learn that his protégé is not so indifferent.