A record total of 28 Group/Grade 1 winners worldwide last year set an impossibly high bar for Aidan O’Brien to surpass in 2018 but any regression has been speeded along by a bug in the Ballydoyle barns, writes Tony Keenan. We know this because the trainer has been so open about the situation, commenting in early August that it would take six to eight weeks for his horses to come right. He added at the recent Irish Champions Weekend launch that “it went through the whole yard and all the horses got it. We hadn’t leaned on any of the horses up until last weekend [Phoenix Stakes day at the Curragh] and we thought if we got through last weekend we might be able to start leaning on them a little bit more”.
His reference to the six to eight week timeframe might be the most interesting point; his horses were probably incubating something when not at their best in June and July and aren’t expected to come back to form until mid-September at the earliest. That’s an important stage of the Irish season – Champions Weekend is on September 15th and 16th – but also shows how harmful a mid-season illness can be to a big stable as the majority of major races are at this time. Below is the breakdown of Group 1 races in Ireland and the UK by month; I have taken the race dates from 2017 here but bar one or two that are at the turn of the month, the numbers are the same this year. Those mid-summer months are vital and so too is September with six Group 1s over Champions Weekend as well as the St Leger, Sprint Cup, Cheveley Park and Middle Park.
UK and Irish Group 1 Races by Month
|Month||Number of Group 1 Races|
Group 1 winners may be thinner on the ground than they were last year – O’Brien has eight at this point – but any virus in the yard has not been reflected in his record at home. His overall win strikerate (first table below) has been better than any of the previous four seasons and he seems sure to break the three-figure winner barrier as he has done in each of the two previous campaigns. His record in Group races (second table below) has dropped off a little but hardly so much that it is statistically significant.
Aidan O’Brien in recent Irish Flat Seasons
|2018 so far||86||366||23.5%||167||45.6%||0.92|
Aidan O’Brien in Irish Group Races
|2018 so far||17||94||18.1%||38||40.4%||0.80|
But Group 1’s are ultimately where it is at for Ballydoyle and only Lancaster Bomber has managed to win an Irish Group 1 in 2018, from seven in all thus far. That obviously takes in the Classics too and 2018 is in danger of becoming the first year since 2005 in which O’Brien failed to train an Irish Classic winner; since 2009, he has won 19 of the 49 Classics as we can see below. It is odds-on however that he maintains that impressive record with Order Of St George set to go off a very short price for the Irish St. Leger, his task eased by Torcedor moving to be trained in Germany in recent days.
Irish Classic Winners since 2009
|Year||2,000 Guineas||1,000 Guineas||Derby||Oaks||St. Leger|
The place where the yard’s issues have really been felt is with the UK runners and the next table reveals how his strikerate, win and place, has fallen dramatically. UK races are vitally important to the Coolmore/Ballydoyle operation: there are few cases when a trainer would not prefer to win a UK version of a race than the Irish equivalent, the Epsom Derby being typically a better race than the Curragh one for instance, with the Irish Champion Stakes a notable exception. Not only that but the UK simply has far more Group 1 opportunities, 36 Group 1’s versus 13 in Ireland this year.
With this in mind, Ireland is sometimes the training ground for the O’Brien runners but the UK is the testing ground and by-and-large in 2018 they have been failing. Part of that might be the standard of competition: in the UK so far this year, the average field size in Group races has been 9.2 runners whereas in Ireland it is 7.1 and oftentimes there will be [many] more than one O’Brien runner in the latter. His horses seem able to get away with being just a little off concert pitch at home but not on their travels. Interestingly however, the lack of success hasn’t deterred the trainer, with O’Brien having more UK runners than ever before this season. I wrote last year that as his yard gets bigger this was an inevitable consequence as he sought more suitable targets for them. (link: https://www.geegeez.co.uk/irish-champions-weekend-2017-the-best-gets-better/)
Aidan O’Brien in recent UK Flat Seasons
|2018 so far||13||142||9.2%||43||30.3%||0.59|
O’Brien has had eight Group 1 winners this year: Saxon Warrior (2,000 Guineas), Rhododendron (Lockinge), Lancaster Bomber (Tattersalls Gold Cup), Forever Together (Oaks), Merchant Navy (Diamond Jubilee), Athena (Belmont Oaks), Kew Gardens (Grand Prix de Paris) and U S Navy Flag (July Cup). That none of them has managed a second Group 1 thus far hasn’t helped; as you can see below, eight horses won multiple Group 1’s for the yard last year. That table includes all their Group 1 winners from 2017 and their fates since. There have been some untimely injuries, notably with Capri, but these things are inevitable with a stable of that size. It is the fillies from last year that have been the most disappointing; the big four juveniles (Happily, Magical, September and Clemmie) have contributed little while the two flower girls, Rhododendron and Hydrangea, have regressed from promising returns.
2017 Group 1 Winners
|Horse||2017 Group 1 Wins||2018|
|Wings Of Eagles||1||Retired|
|Capri||2||1 run, injured thereafter|
|Sioux Nation||1||1 win (Group 3) from 5 starts|
|Hydrangea||2||0 wins from 3 starts|
|Happily||2||0 wins from 4 starts|
|Order Of St George||1||2 wins (Group 3, Listed) from 3 starts|
|Clemmie||1||0 wins from 3 starts|
|Rhododendron||1||1 win (Group 1) from 5 starts|
|U S Navy Flag||2||1 win (Group 1) from 5 starts|
|Saxon Warrior||1||1 win (Group 1) from 4 starts|
|Mendelssohn||1||2 wins (Group 2, Listed) from 4 starts|
With all this in mind, the next few weeks take on an additional significance. By the sounds of things, the O’Brien horses are only really starting back at the Ebor meeting and it will be fascinating to see how the market deals with them. Certainly the trainer left the impression in recent comments that Saxon Warrior’s main autumn aim was the Irish Champion Stakes rather than the Juddmonte International, and historically the Ebor fixture has not been a good one for O’Brien (see below), perhaps all the more so this year as he builds towards Irish Champions Weekend, the Arc meeting and beyond.
Aidan O’Brien at the Ebor Meeting (since 2003)
|Winners||Runners||Strikerate||Places||Place Strikerate||Level Stakes||Actual/
So what might all this mean? In reality, very little. A drop-off from the highs of 2017 was likely and Aidan O’Brien does not strike me as a man under pressure, at least judging by his dealings with the media. There were times in the past when a down period like this might have produced some external evidence of stress but seemingly not anymore. His status as Master of Ballydoyle is like that of Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford or Bill Belichick at Foxboro yet he now deals with the media much better than the latter in times of adversity; if you have never seen Belichick’s ‘Moving on to Cincinnati’ interview following a heavy loss, here it is!
O’Brien certainly hasn’t blanked media questions with ‘moving on to Irish Champions Weekend’ comments, in fact quite the opposite; he has been utterly open about wellbeing or otherwise of his horses this season and is in general a much-improved communicator with the media. Regardless of what unfolds between now and season end, I suspect he will look back fondly on a season when his sons trained and rode the Irish Derby winner with Latrobe, a Group 1 race he didn’t want to win!
- Tony Keenan