You can’t keep a good man down for long. Just ask Aidan O’Brien, who produced the stand-out performance of a terrific Qipco Guineas Festival at Newmarket over the weekend.
Only 24 hours after the mystifying flop of odds-on favourite AIR FORCE BLUE in the first colts’ Classic of the new Flat season, O’Brien bounced back by saddling the first three home in the fillies’ equivalent, courtesy of mind-blowing winner MINDING, who was followed in by the luckless BALLYDOYLE and the solid benchmark, ALICE SPRINGS.
It was the first time such a feat had been achieved by a trainer in a British Classic for fully 98 years and only the fifth time it had been done in no fewer than 1,123 such races.
And on a weekend when historical statistics and perspective were very much to the fore, given that Newmarket was celebrating 350 years of organised horse-racing in the town, one other telling landmark is worth repeating -- the completion by the Ballydoyle maestro of 250 Grade One winners in a training career that began in earnest only 20 years ago. It is a record worthy of far more respect than he sometimes receives within the racing press and social media.
Typically of the man, O’Brien attempted to deflect blame for Air Force Blue’s crash-landing on himself. Typically, he heaped credit for the triumph of Minding on his staff. In truth, both were turned out impeccably for their seasonal re-appearances. But whereas the colt failed to rubberstamp the superiority of his juvenile form, the daughter of Galileo did, and even bettered the visual impression she gave when striding to victory on the same track in the Fillies’ Mile last autumn.
Always travelling, always perfectly positioned, she required none of the stoking up it took her to hit top gear as a two-year-old. This was all very straighforward, very professional as she powered clear once the button had been pressed by Ryan Moore, who is convinced she is the best filly he has ridden.
Minding will probably double up now in the Irish 1,000 Guineas on Sunday, May 22 before the inevitable clamour to go up in trip to tackle the Investec Oaks at Epsom two weeks later. Amid the acclamation of her Guineas success, one or two supposed experts got a bit carried away, describing the Oaks as “there for the taking” and asserting that “nothing in her pedigree” can prevent her being as effective over 12f as 1m. Err, pardon? Nothing?! Try the fact that she is a full sister to a miler out of a dam, Lillie Langtry, who was also a miler, albeit a top-class one. It is certainly not a certainty that Minding’s stamina will stretch to the Epsom distance, notwithstanding her sire and her style of racing. Encouragingly, Lillie Langtry’s dam is by Darshaan who, of course, is renowned for infusing staying power. But at this stage and at the prices, I’d be just as interested for Epsom purposes in stablemate EVEN SONG, who ran a blinder in the Pretty Polly Stakes later in the day, despite lacking any racing room for most of the contest, and is sure to stay the 12f.
Whatever Minding does go on to achieve, I have little doubt that Sunday’s race was top-class and one that towered above the 2,000 Guineas in terms of quality. I do not wish to depreciate the triumph of the game and progressive GALILEO GOLD, which oozed feelgood vibes, given that it was the first Classic success for Hugo Palmer, a rising star of the training ranks, and owners Al Shaqab, the racing operation of the Qatari royal family who deserve to be rewarded for the fortunes and faith they have invested in the British game. What’s more, it chalked another notch on the Group One bedpost of the irresistible Frankie Dettori, still as effective a jockey as any on the planet.
However, even after a couple of days of reflection, it is a race that has left me in a state of puzzled deflation. The demise of Air Force Blue, fitted ominously for the first time with both a tongue-strap and a crossed noseband, presumably to help him get the mile, was hard enough to take. But the demotion of the first three in the market to the last three places devalued the outcome. Both MARCEL, so impressive in the Group One Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster last backend, and STORMY ANTARCTIC, so impressive in the Craven Stakes only two weeks earlier, ran stinkers. Yet MASSAAT, hammered by Air Force Blue in the Dewhurst, was an excellent runner-up, O’Brien’s second string, AIR VICE MARSHAL, was a fine fourth, and KENTUCKYCONNECTION, rated only 90, was a close-up fifth.
A further curious aside to emerge from the result was that the front pair were both beaten as two-year-olds by John Gosden’s CYMRIC, who duly ‘celebrated’ by doing nothing for the form when trailing in a distant last in the Listed Newmarket Stakes just over an hour later! It was one of a handful of high-profile disappointments at the meeting for the champion trainer, who saw JACK HOBBS pulled up after a relentless gallop seemed to drag him out of his comfort zone in the Jockey Club Stakes, and JAZZI TOP drift alarmingly in the betting before bombing in the Dahlia Stakes, despite compelling reports of sparkling homework. Mind you, Gosden soon recovered in the shape of exciting three-year-olds SWISS RANGE and TAQDEER, who landed the closing races of the weekend in scintillating style and announced themselves as Group winners in waiting.
Names such as USHERETTE, GLOBAL APPLAUSE, DOUGAN, PRIZE MONEY and EXOSPHERE are also ones to take from a weekend that was an unqualified success. Newmarket, as a track, too often belittled, undeservedly, and Newmarket as a town, so recently denigrated, undeservedly, has every right to extract tremendous pride from it. Here’s to the next 350 years!
Former pupil Skelton is now the only UK threat to master trainer Nicholls
A vibrant week of action at Punchestown finally wrapped up the Jumps season and left me reflecting on a thousand and one things I wish I’d had the time and space to mention in this column.
Top of the list is a tribute to Dan Skelton. Nine years an assistant to Paul Nicholls. Now the only UK trainer capable of dislodging Nicholls from the UK champion’s seat that he has made his own.
In only his third season, Skelton took his tally of winners past 100 for the first time and his tally of prize money past £1 million for the first time. He also broke his duck at the Cheltenham Festival, where all his horses punched proudly above their weight. I love his organisational skills, his knowledge and his professionalism but, most of all, his unbridled ambition.