If Aidan O'Brien prompted due amusement yesterday, when forgetting the name of his Investec Oaks winner at the press conference, then rival trainers are unlikely to have seen the funny side.
The record-breaking Ballydoyle trainer had just made it three out of three in British Classics this season, and returns today with a red-hot favourite for the fourth. And while Was does indeed bear a highly forgettable name, she brought O'Brien a memorable landmark as his 200th Group One winner.
Even after scratching Kissed, on account of the drying ground, O'Brien saddled five of the dozen starters for his patrons at Coolmore. The winner was perhaps least considered of the lot, having finished only third of six in her trial. Yet if his rivals left the Downs wondering how on earth they are supposed to compete with O'Brien, the fact is that higher standards in their own camps might have made all the difference.
For this turned into a pretty vexing race – an anticlimax, after everything had seemed in place for a vintage Oaks. It was run at a crawl, to the top of the hill, and too many jockeys failed to seize control of the situation. Their mounts raced too freely, got in each other's way. Some young riders with big reputations learnt one or two chastening lessons; Was, conversely, owed her success largely to the initiative of her seasoned but understated rider, Seamus Heffernan.
He had her in the perfect position turning in, in third along the rail, and kicked for home two furlongs out. Vow, kept handy by Johnny Murtagh, was first to challenge; Shirocco Star was also kept within striking range, but Darryll Holland seemed reluctant to commit too soon and restrained her even as she was last on the bridle. She had taken longer than expected to wind up in her rehearsal at Newbury, however, and there was duly still a neck in it at the line.
Greater misfortune, however, thwarted The Fugue. Badly hampered early on, she was soon a long way off such pace as there was. But William Buick did not try to retrieve ground until they had entered the straight, and her powerful finish left her half a length short of the runner-up. Vow flattened out a length away in fourth, looking a little naive on the camber. Maybe and Kailani, respectively fifth and seventh, had both got miles behind after being impeded.
In fairness, Maybe arguably needed a conservative ride from Joseph O'Brien to get the trip. But Frankie Dettori, left in the changing rooms to watch Mickael Barzalona ride in the silks of their mutual employers at Godolphin, will have known long before the traffic problems that Kailani had been perilously detached from the action.
After the scrimmaging, the stewards gave four-day bans for careless riding to O'Brien and Holland. The plaudits of all meanwhile went to Heffernan, riding his first winner in a British Classic – and hailed by O'Brien as "a great fellow and world-class jockey".
"I've been runner-up in the Derby a couple of times. It's especially nice to win a Classic at Epsom," Heffernan said. "I had a good position all the way, out of trouble and on the rails. I was worried about her inexperience, but she has improved a lot from her last run."
It will be interesting to see how the form holds up should many of these reconvene in the Irish version. But it might prove wrong to damn Was with faint praise, as she was entitled to improve both for the longer trip and her comeback run. "A shoe flew off her work companion [and] cut her above the knee," O'Brien explained. "I was worried she might miss her Classic season. John [Halley, the vet] put her back together with stitches but she was only just ready to run at Naas."
Another daughter of their great stallion, Galileo, and closely related to New Approach, Was has proved another smart investment by the Coolmore partners, even at the 1.2m guineas that qualified her as top lot at the 2010 October sale at Tattersalls. O'Brien meanwhile confirmed his reservations about Maybe's stamina, proposing a return to a mile at Royal Ascot. As for The Fugue, John Gosden was exasperated. "We got badly run into, and were lucky not to be brought down early," the trainer said. "The jockey did well to stay in place. It was messy, and unnecessarily messy." As ever, he called it just right.
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