In what promises to be a year of unprecedented achievement, Aidan O'Brien faces a double indignity here tomorrow. Not only do the bookmakers consider Mike de Kock more likely to win the 26th Arlington Million; the South African trainer also happens to have found the favourite in O'Brien's very own stable.
Archipenko lost his way after winning the Derrinstown Derby Trial for Ballydoyle last spring, and changed hands at the end of the season. Resurfacing at the Dubai Carnival, he made a modest start for De Kock in a handicap. But he was then fitted with blinkers and promptly won a Group Two, was unlucky not to win a Group One on World Cup night, and then plundered a huge prize in Hong Kong. Given a break, he won his prep at Ascot last month and, whatever he cost, he is worth an awful lot more now.
He certainly had his own, rich glow as he emerged from the quarantine barn yesterday, just as the sun's cold, white dazzle pierced the dawn horizon like flashing steel. Kevin Shea, his rider, worked him over the dirt track, then schooled him round the floral, timbered parade ring.
Archipenko must beat an old stablemate in Mount Nelson, who won the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown last month. But Shea had little compunction in detailing his mount's transformation since leaving Ballydoyle.
"When we started with him, he was a real handful," Shea said. "He was a very stressed horse, sweated a lot, had a lot of bad habits. It took us about three months to get him to behave like a normal horse. But see how he runs now. We just worked with him, put the right equipment on him – he used to throw his head up in the air. He still sweats on race day, and purges, too. But that's him, it's all a nervous thing."
If anything, Shea has since discovered unusual strength of character in Archipenko, who has serenely absorbed flights between Dubai, Hong Kong, Britain and now the suburbs of Chicago. "He's one in 100, the way he thrives on travel," he said. "A lot of horses go off their feed, but he's eating well and his coat's looking good. He has a character you don't often see in a good horse. Most of them are quirky, but he's not.
"He's not the greatest worker, just does what he has to do, but raises his game on race day – times three. If you didn't know him, you'd panic [about his work]. But you can tell from the way he's eating. As soon as he finishes all his food and wants to bite you, then you know he's in top form. And he has definitely come on for his run at Ascot."
Shea believes he has himself made parallel strides during Archipenko's odyssey. Though a relative veteran, at 45, his summer sojourn in Britain has prompted him to ask new questions. He has had only a couple of winners, but recently went home to win 10 races in three meetings – one of which he attributes to tactics he might not have tried previously.
"I've got a whole new perspective," he said. "After 25 years you can get into such a rut, or mould. Without a doubt there's a difference in me. I think you get a much broader spectrum about pace, and getting to know all the different tracks."
But Shea's adventures find their fulcrum in his homeland, where an innate hunger to compete was sharpened by so many years simply earning the right to do so. "We've had some tough times and I'm proud of what we do," Shea said. "Mike hasn't got the recognition that cricketers and rugby players have. People don't realise what he's achieved for the breeding industry at home.
"For me, it's been a fairytale. I've been going a long time, and these last two years – well, they have been the times you dream about. Of course I'd also like to be in South Africa now, as well, riding 150 horses for the champion trainer, earning good money. But it's about what you want. It's not all money. It's about being out here. This is where it happens."
Hyperions tips for Worcester: 2.20 Earlsfield Raider 2.50 Distiller 3.20 Wildbach 3.50 Our Choice 4.20 St Mellion Freeway 4.50 Annie Fleetwood 5.20 Megasue.
Nap: Micheals Boy
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