I may have been a little hasty in saying that it’s a matter of time before Aidan O’Brien matches Bobby Frankel’s Group One winners record.
Champions Day at Ascot would surely prove the ideal scene for such an achievement. But a closer look at the meeting, his options, and more interestingly his record at the event, shows that the Ballydoyle master still has plenty of work to do.
With four Group One’s up for grabs, you’d expect O’Brien to seize his share, especially the way the horses are running at present. Yet Fame And Glory, Minding and Excelebration are the only Ballydoyle winners at the meeting since its inception at Ascot in 2011, with the latter duo both taking the Group One QEII.
Indeed, recent history suggests that the one-mile showpiece will be O’Brien’s best chance of Group One glory. With three victories in the past 10 renewals, he may decide to drop Churchill back in trip in the hope that the dual-Guineas winner can regain the winning thread. He’s lost his last three, including two at a mile-and-a-quarter. The three-year-old is entered in the Champion Stakes, though that appears the tougher assignment, with Cracksman, Barney Roy and Ulysses all set to take their chance. The mile race is no spot-kick, with Ribchester in opposition, but it does look winnable.
There’s also optimism over the chances of Caravaggio, currently second-favourite for the Champions Sprint, a race O’Brien hasn’t won since 1998 (then the Diadem Stakes). He has a rather formidable opponent to overcome in the Clive Cox trained Harry Angel. He has of course defeated Godolphin’s speedster once before at Ascot, when getting up late to take the Commonwealth Cup at the Royal Meeting in June. However, since that success his form has tailed off somewhat, whilst Harry has become a sprinting sensation. There is a glimmer of hope, with HA currently nought from three at the track.
Hydrangea looks likely to be O’Brien’s only representative in the Fillies and Mares, with both Rhododendron and Seventh Heaven waiting for the Breeders’ Cup. It will be her first attempt at a mile-and-a-half, and she’s far from certain to see out the trip. She looked a non-stayer in the Nassau at 10 furlongs, though came close to landing the Prix de l’Opera over the same distance at Chantilly. Her best performance came at a mile when winning the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown. She’s no mug, but this looks a tough challenge.
Should Churchill revert to the mile, Ballydoyle’s hopes in the Champion Stakes will rest with Highland Reel and Cliffs Of Moher. The former would have a decent shout if the ground remained decent. The faster the better for HR, and it’s worth remembering that he won the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes over course and distance back in June, beating Ulysses in the process. He’s a player if the rain stays away.
Cliffs Of Moher is much harder to fancy. Twice hammered by Ulysses over the summer, he was then well beaten in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. He was a place ahead of Cracksman at Epsom, but has failed to improve, whilst Gosden’s colt looks hugely progressive. This is another race to have eluded O’Brien over the years.
It was a surprise to many when the name of Winter was missing from the Champions Day declarations. Failing to spark at home since her Arc run, her omission is a blow, and had she been entered in either the QEII or the Champions Stakes she would undoubtedly have been well-fancied.
Despite such a successful summer, and the wealth of talent at his disposal, O’Brien now appears dependant on a pair of colts that were the leading lights as juveniles a year ago. Plenty of water has passed under plenty of bridges, but if O’Brien is to surpass Bobby Frankel’s world record this weekend, he is likely to need Caravaggio and Churchill to return to their brilliant best.