O'Brien laments death of George 'a special one'

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The Independent Online

Returning here yesterday morning was like coming downstairs to the debris of a party broken up by some ghastly drama: a quarrel, maybe, an insult, an accident. Trash and newspapers were strewn in a bitter wind. Beer bottles rolled over the concrete, a symbol of emptiness. Even the cold sunlight prompted a vague sense of resentment, or guilt. It was too late now. The damage had been done. After 72 hours, the rain had finally abated the previous afternoon, but the crop had already been ruined. Worse, far worse, in attempting the harvest, the sharpest scythe in Europe had been lost forever.

Down by the quarantine barn on the backstretch, there was a numb silence. Behind the grille, four Ballydoyle horses were being walked round the shed-row. But the stable's fifth raider at the 24th Breeders' Cup, George Washington, is a carcass. One of the great thoroughbred exhibitionists bequeathed a grotesque final image on Saturday, staggering in front of the crowds, palpably doomed, a corkscrewed foreleg dangling.

He had sought America's richest prize, the Breeders' Cup Classic, but picked his way over the slop with obvious loathing and was tailed off when breaking down in the final furlong. It was one of those catastrophic injuries that allowed no illusion of hope. His final moments had little dignity. Sagging screens were clumsily shifted in step with his hobbles. Aidan O'Brien, his devoted trainer, slewed across the slurry and immediately asked for the beautiful colt's agony to be ended.

When something like this happens, a horseman like O'Brien finds himself obliged to help the public through their revulsion, to grasp the pragmatism that underpins the privileges of a racehorse's existence. No gawping outsider, after all, can claim to suffer the tragedy more deeply than those who spend their lives pampering the animal. Sure enough, yesterday O'Brien was doing his best to make sense of the repellent scenes. "It was very hard for everyone, but we can't do anything about it," he said. "It's part of life, out of our hands."

But O'Brien's grief on Saturday evening had been harrowing. His affinity with horses has never been more personal than with George Washington. With his wife and children also here, all distraught, it seemed a true family bereavement. As he prepared to fly on to the Melbourne Cup, O'Brien was still ascribing a singular humanity to the animal.

"The one thing George wouldn't have wanted – if he was thinking like a human being, the way he always did – was to be among the other horses at Ballydoyle, petering out slowly," he said. "And if he was not going to be a stallion, that was probably what was going to happen over a period of time. George being George, if it had to happen, he would have chosen it that way: a big race, a big day.

"He was a special one. He had character, attitude, everything. He was the complete, natural athlete. It's always a great experience, having those ones around. You learn from each of them. It was sad the way it had to end. I suppose when they're racing at that speed, on that kind of surface, they're giving their all. It's the same as any athlete at that level. George knew no other way to be."

George Washington may still have one last role. Next year, the Breeders' Cup tries a new, artificial surface at Santa Anita, akin to those familiar on British all-weather tracks. Though these are recognised as safer, many powerful voices here are resisting the replacement of traditional dirt tracks, which match the genes and running styles of their horses. But surely this must prove another nail in the coffin for dirt racing.

George Washington, remember, was bred by the same people who produced Barbaro. Last year the two colts won the Kentucky Derby and 2,000 Guineas within hours of each other. Now both are dead, Barbaro having failed to recover despite months of treatment on another graphic leg injury, again suffered in front of a crowded grandstand, on his very next start.

"Everyone knows why the tracks are changing here, and it doesn't need me to say why," O'Brien said. "We know for a fact that the injury statistics are better on the new surfaces. Obviously the sooner it happens, the better. But dirt has been part of American racing culture for a very long time, and when you're changing things there will always be people who need some time to get their heads round it."

The cruel irony is that George Washington was set this unfeasible assignment only because he had become a horse free of commercial risk. He had been retired to stud a year ago, only for his fertility to fail. With hindsight, some will doubtless wonder whether he should ever have run in such a gloop. But he had handled dirt well in Louisville last year, and nobody could say which of the runners would cope with its saturation, and which would not.

His death took the fourth European whitewash at the Breeders' Cup to a new nadir. Johnny Murtagh said Dylan Thomas had "spinning wheels" in the mud when only fifth in the Turf, while a wide draw condemned Excellent Art to yet another unlucky second in the Mile. "Dylan Thomas has had a long, hard year," O'Brien said. "This was three weeks after winning the Arc, on ground he despised. He was entitled to be below par. But I don't think we've ever had a better horse, and he's proved that all year long."

Excellent Art could yet run in Hong Kong. "Unless Johnny took him into that first turn seven wide, he couldn't get any closer than he was," O'Brien said. "Then the ground was moving under him as well, and he shifted across rounding the bend. It took a bit of time to get him organised after that, by which time the winner had gone."

Those misfortunes were soon placed in grim perspective. As the moon rose over the emptying grandstand, like a Hallowe'en pumpkin, few could shake off the horrible spectre of George Washington. As the crowd dispersed, they listened to New Jersey's cherished son, Frank Sinatra, singing "The Summer Wind". Recalling George Washington in his pomp, refusing to enter the winner's enclosure after the Guineas, they might sooner have heard the lyric Sinatra made his own. "To think, I did all that; and may I say, not in a shy way. Oh no, oh no, not me. I did it my way." But now he has faced the final curtain.