Of all the Group One races won by Aidan O'Brien, few can have given him more excitement than the Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh yesterday.
It was not as if this was a prize – sponsored for the first time by Camas Park and Ashtown House Studs – he had found at all elusive. In fact, Alfred Nobel was his 10th winner in a dozen runnings, a quite astonishing record even by O'Brien's standards. But the favourite's continued, rather surprising development into one of the juvenile stars of the season was only achieved by cutting down his unfancied stablemate, Air Chief Marshal, who for a few strides had threatened to give O'Brien's 16-year-old son, Joseph, a remarkable success on level terms with Johnny Murtagh, the Ballydoyle stable jockey.
Joseph remains so inexperienced, after just five winners and 49 rides, that he is entitled to claim 7lb in normal races. But while he could not do so in one of this calibre, he did not look remotely out of place as he kicked Air Chief Marshal into a clear lead in the final furlong. There was no ungainly loss of rhythm in the heat of the moment.
Murtagh had always been sitting quietly on Alfred Nobel, however, and only switched his attention to Air Chief Marshal, who was on the stands rail, once mastering the filly Walk On Bye up the centre. Walk On Bye perhaps ran a little flat, just a fortnight after her latest win, and kept on only at one pace for third. Meanwhile, the two Ballydoyle colts went two and a half lengths clear, Alfred Nobel in turn sustaining his run to get up by half a length.
The winner had looked rather awkward under pressure at the Curragh on Irish Derby day, but O'Brien explained that he gets "lonely" in front and attributed defeat in his first two starts to inexperience. The Danehill Dancer colt certainly warrants increasing respect as he learns more about his vocation, and Ladbrokes duly cut him to 16-1 from 25-1 for the Stan James 2,000 Guineas.
"He's a very good-moving horse who can change gears very quickly," O'Brien said. "The worry today was whether he could do so on that heavy ground, but obviously he's a very good horse. The last day he won very snug, but Johnny said he just got there too early, so today he was going to wait and wait. He has progressed well and may next run in the Prix Morny. We were delighted Air Chief Marshal has run so well, too, as we thought he was a very smart horse on his first few runs but he had just lost his form."
The Morny is just 13 days away, and would entail a clash with Canford Cliffs, the devastating winner of the Coventry Stakes.
On the final day of the King George meeting at Ascot yesterday, meanwhile, Marcus Tregoning came in from the cold when Sterling Sound became his first winner in 91 days. Tregoning had closed his Lambourn yard for six weeks because of a virus among his horses. "It started in May and gave us terrible trouble," he said. "I should really have gone fishing for six months. Hopefully, we can have a good autumn now."