O'Brien takes the lead to master young devil
Await The Dawn on track for Breeders' Cup Classic but only after a display of both tantrums and talent
Monday 20 June 2011
Of the virtues that a trainer of racehorses needs, patience is arguably number one. And that trait could hardly have been better exemplified by Aidan O'Brien's handling of Await The Dawn, who continued his progress towards the top by winning Royal Ascot's most important mile-and-a-half contest, the Hardwicke Stakes.
And that is not just handling in the broad sense of conditioning the beast, judging its progress and planning its career path, in the short and long term, immaculate though that has been in this case. On Saturday it was handling in its most literal meaning. Await The Dawn's demeanour behind the scenes in the build-up to the race was downright brattish and it was only his master's voice and firm touch that restored order where chaos threatened to reign.
As he was led round the pre-parade ring prior to being saddled, the imposing Await The Dawn decidedly caught the eye. "A good-looking devil, isn't he?" was the judgement of O'Brien's fellow trainer John Gosden. It soon became clear that devil may have been just about right, handsome or not.
In mitigation to the four-year-old, he is callow for one his age (he had raced only five times previously), there was a blustery wind that caused unexpected – and to the equine mind potentially threatening – movements and flappings, the atmosphere was charged.
In a saddling stall, the colt stamped and fidgeted and complained as the various pieces of tack were placed on his back, before plunging forward and dislodging it all as he felt the girth drawn up under his belly. After several attempts had brought the same result, O'Brien himself took the lead rein and led Await The Dawn into the open, to the far end of the enclosure. There his conduct became even worse; he had room to rear like the noble stallion he will one day become, and did so, with O'Brien's right-handman, Pat Keating, having to play him like a kite in a stiff breeze.
His equipment was once again scattered and he was still defiant. But the time of the race was fast approaching; it was time for an end to the impasse. This time O'Brien took the naughty one firmly by his bridle and calmly led him, without further eye contact or demur, out of the parade ring to a parking area away from public gaze.
Without an audience Await The Dawn meekly submitted to the routine of being saddled. Ryan Moore had to mount him on the run as he went straight to the track, missing the main parade. But potential disaster had been averted and the colt's demolition of his rivals in the Group Two contest is now history.
"There is not an ounce of malice in him," said O'Brien afterwards, "but he's a big strong lad, and occasionally wants just to make the point that he's bigger and stronger than us. I could see in his eye that he was just testing us, taking the mickey. And when he's like that, he knows eventually there's a line he doesn't cross."
Await The Dawn's performance put him firmly among the elite Coolmore-owned middle-distance firepower at Ballydoyle, with the Breeders' Cup Classic his long-term target.
Despite ground softer than ideal, Await The Dawn outclassed his rivals to clinch O'Brien's second Royal Ascot trainers' title in three years. He has yet to compete at the top level but holds entries in both the Coral-Eclipse Stakes and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. As do 19 other individual Ballydoyle inmates at this stage, including the Co Tipperary stable's two other senior front-line musketeers So You Think, the most likely candidate for Sandown, and St Nicholas Abbey, pencilled in for the Ascot showpiece.
O'Brien's interaction with Await The Dawn was an education and a pleasure to watch, but the Irishman is never complacent in his knowledge and shouldered the blame for the narrow defeat of Australian champion So You Think, who came to his care earlier this year, at Ascot on Wednesday. "We don't know him as well as we thought," he said, "and didn't make him work enough at home to get him hard fit. That race will have brought him on, though, and we'll try not to make the same mistake again."
Royal Ascot: highlights of the week
Finish of the week
The Prince of Wales's Stakes, in which Frankie Dettori on Godolphin's Rewilding bloodied the nose of Coolmore's ex-Australian star So You Think by a hard-fought neck, was a thrillingly full-blooded encounter between two top-class horses representing the sport's two superpowers. Dettori's use of his whip earned him a ban, but with Rewilding responding willingly to its rhythmic effect, it neither damaged the horse nor ruined the spectacle, only highlighted the unsatisfactory nature of the rules and the penalties they invoke for a breach.
Disappointment of the week
In Tuesday's Queen Anne Stakes clash between proven star miler Goldikova and upwardly mobile Canford Cliffs, something had to give. But after the mare's length defeat by her younger rival, it turned out the playing field had not been level, after her rider Olivier Peslier unexpectedly put up 2lb overweight after putting on someone else's boots. Goldikova's supporters may justly feel things may be on the other foot the next time the horses meet.
Goal of the week
Michael Owen has never been seen in tears of emotion in an England shirt but he produced a fair Gascoigne impression after netting his first Royal Ascot winner with Brown Panther, a colt he not only owns but bred, in the King George V Stakes. There was no such joy, though, for an absent sporting superstar. Hoof It, who runs for golfer Lee Westwood and his manager Chubby Chandler, started favourite for the Wokingham Stakes but managed only seventh.
Perfect result of the week
Freaky superhorse Frankel's three-quarter length defeat of Zoffany in the St James's Palace Stakes could not have been better timed, coming as it did just days after the announcement of a knighthood for his trainer Henry Cecil. The margin of victory was only narrow, but the feel-good ovation it prompted was the meeting's most heartfelt by a distance.
Plan of the week
Back in 1999, an ownership group sent a yearling named Jasmick to Hughie Morrison with the notion of having a Royal Ascot winner. The filly did make it to the meeting, only to stumble and unseat her rider in the 2003 Ascot Stakes. Nothing daunted, the syndicate passed the baton to the next generation and, in a victory 12 years in the plotting, their pride and joy's son, Sagramor, also with Morrison, at last took them into the hallowed winner's circle after the Britannia Stakes.
* Chris McGrath's Nap
Trumpington Street (3.00 Wolverhampton)
Stepped up on his disappointing seasonal debut with a narrow defeat, he and the winner well clear of the rest, and even without improvement that effort should be good enough to secure a first victory.
* Next best
Beechcraft Baron (7.40 Windsor)
Handicap debutant who has shown steady progress in his three runs to date and has scope. Trip and ground should suit; his sire and dam both operated on an easy surface.
* One to watch
With his third maiden run now under his girth, Arabian Heights (Sir Mark Prescott) has the profile of one who will be placed to strike given a step up in trip in handicap company.
* Where the money's going
The Willie Mullins-trained Thousand Stars, winner of Saturday's Grand Course des Haies at Auteuil, is 8-1 for next year's World Hurdle at Cheltenham.
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