O'Brien mastery with Navigator rocks his rivals
Wednesday 18 June 2008
In such a gaudy milieu, their success may seem monochrome to some. But then those who cannot celebrate the mastery of Aidan O'Brien will, by this stage, be fed up of Tiger Woods as well. Little over an hour into the meeting, his horses had hoarded two more top-level prizes. And two more groups of horsemen stood gazing wistfully across from the berth reserved for the runner-up, and knew how it felt to be Rocco Mediate.
The previous day Mediate had surpassed everything he has achieved in a long golfing career to take Woods to the wire in his 14th Major. But he had to make do with reflected glory, and much the same is now true of the men who came here yesterday with Darjina and Raven's Pass – one beaten in a photo by Haradasun, the other streaking clear of the rest without landing a punch on Henrythenavigator.
O'Brien's 22nd and 23rd Royal Ascot winners consolidated his flourishing new partnership with Johnny Murtagh. And he thinks they may even be exploring uncharted territory with Henrythenavigator, whose decisive win in the St James's Palace Stakes sealed his status as the outstanding miler of his generation.
O'Brien's responsibilities to Coolmore Stud, the ultimate destination for all his champions, mean that he seldom understates their qualities. Even so, his assessment of this colt had seemed a little incautious beforehand. But his routine brilliance yesterday suggests Henrythenavigator may indeed be the best miler O'Brien has trained – better even than Rock Of Gibraltar or Giant's Causeway, both winners of this prize.
But for this colt, New Approach would have won two Classics over a mile as well as a Derby. At this trip, however, even he has merely glinted back the rays of Henrythenavigator, and everything was set up perfectly for the favourite here. A turning mile on fast ground guaranteed a pure test of speed, and Murtagh could afford to drop one of his reins as he angled inside for a run in the straight, regrouping to lead approaching the furlong pole and never in danger thereafter.
Raven's Pass followed from the rear, snapping at his heels, but Henrythenavigator simply dragged him clear of Twice Over, in the process requiring perfunctory assistance his jockey.
In getting within a length, however, Raven's Pass amply vindicated the decision to forfeit today's Jersey Stakes. He had shone like burnished copper in the parade ring, and his own day in the sun will come.
The Breeders' Cup Mile is on John Gosden's mind, and who knows? Perhaps the winner will be otherwise engaged then. O'Brien suggested that he could go up or down in distance, but any temptation to sample 10 furlongs could be postponed until the Breeders' Cup Classic. In the meantime O'Brien and his patrons must decide whether to rack up points over a mile, or chance their arm in a race like the Darley July Cup.
"It's very hard to say we'll ever get a better miler," O'Brien reiterated. "He's a great horse, exceptional. He has everything – speed, stamina, class, pick-up, and a great attitude. Over a mile he just goes out and canters through his races. But all things are open to him."
Any still making lazy connections between O'Brien's record and the undoubted calibre of his raw material will doubtless put Tiger's success down to his club makers. They need only consider the stunt O'Brien pulled with Haradasun, who arrived from Australia last winter and was only trained with this day in mind.
He barely had an inch to spare in the Queen Anne Stakes – and he owed that inch to a discreet tactical masterpiece. Haradasun has a history of hanging under pressure, but was artfully taken to the near side of the pack as his pacemaker seduced the field towards the stands' rail. That left Haradasun with no choice but to run straight and true, and show the narrow margin by which the greatest battles are won.
The trophy was presented by Richie Benaud and the Australians were also heavily involved in the King's Stand Stakes, where the gritty Takeover Target made the podium yet again – foiled only by Equiano, the first Royal Ascot winner to be trained in Spain. Admittedly he came here via France, and his new owners had already arranged for him to join Barry Hills after the race. But Mauricio Delcher-Sanchez will never have this pioneering achievement excised from his training CV. "My first runner in England," he grinned. "It's easy!"
For not even Ballydoyle can seize every place round racing's top table, and there are always interesting names on the seating plan. Suzy Smith took the Ascot Stakes with Missoula, and John Best saddled Flashmans Papers to win the Windsor Castle Stakes at 100-1. But a more striking juvenile still is Art Connoisseur, who extended his unbeaten record when pouncing from last under Jamie Spencer in the Coventry Stakes.
The sponsors make him just 10-1 to emulate last year's winner, Henrythenavigator, in the Stan James 2,000 Guineas, but his trainer, Michael Bell, cautioned that he must get a seventh furlong before he can start thinking about an eighth.
Sometimes diversity of this kind seems to emerge only in skirmishes. But these are the races everyone wants to win. Ryan Moore's photo-finish defeat on Mamlook, for instance, left him still craving a first winner at this meeting. Even the Turf's biggest artillery will always be encircled by massed ranks of infantry, and that is why O'Brien is the greatest general of his generation.
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