Aidan O’Brien has his team in sparkling form as the season draws to a close.
Gleneagles proved the stable star over the summer, though it’s probably fair to say that Ballydoyle failed to dominate in middle-distance events as they have in the past. John Gosden’s outstanding colts Golden Horn and Jack Hobbs have proved a cut above the rest, and though O’Brien sent out Qualify to cause a huge upset in the Epsom Oaks, the likes of Pleascach, Covert Love and Legatissimo have proved the outstanding fillies.
The Ballydoyle team will be hoping that Found can fulfil her potential before the season closes. She ran well in the Irish Champion Stakes and then looked unfortunate in running at Longchamp in the Arc. She may well be taking on the fellas once more with the proposed run in the Qipco Champions Stakes at Ascot on Saturday.
But it was the Dubai Future Champions Festival at Newmarket that revealed the huge potential for continued success over the coming seasons. It came as no surprise to see the Coolmore operation bossing the main events, yet even O’Brien himself could not have anticipated the gulf between his leading pair and the rest.
First Minding slaughtered a strong looking field in the Dubai Fillies’ Mile. A daughter of Galileo out of the Group 1 winning mare Lillie Langtry, she had already defeated the stables hotshot Ballydoyle in a previous run at the Curragh. She appeared to improve further for this step-up to a mile winning by more than four lengths with the minimum of effort.
Ryan Moore had the steering job and was clearly impressed, saying: “She's a truly exceptional filly. She travelled well all the way through. As soon as I pulled her out the race was over in seconds.” Minding was installed favourite for both the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks at Epsom. She looks exceptional, and has the pedigree to match.
On Saturday it was the turn of an O’Brien colt to provide the headlines, when Air Force Blue stormed to victory in the Dubai Dewhurst Stakes. Billed as a duel with Emotionless it was unfortunate that Appleby’s stable star failed to perform to his best. The Godolphin colt was never travelling, and when Moore sent the favourite to win his race Emotionless was unable to respond. Found to be lame after the race, the horse has a minor knee injury and will undergo an operation. Appleby hopes to have him back in action ready for a tilt at the 2,000 Guineas.
As for the winner, the son of War Front proved unstoppable. He drew well clear in the closing stages and is now a short-priced favourite to win the Guineas next spring. The American stallion was responsible for a previous winner of the Dewhurst when War Command took the event in 2013. He too proved an impressive youngster, having earlier won the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot by six lengths. He finished his juvenile campaign with four wins from five starts.
However, he failed to make an impact when down the field in the 2,000 Guineas the following spring. He also put in a disappointing performance in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, before his final lacklustre outing in the Coral-Eclipse. He was certainly an exceptional juvenile, but sadly War Command failed to carry that level of performance into his three-year-old campaign.
And there-in lies the million dollar question; will Air Force Blue be as dominant at three? His sire remains unproven at the highest level. Declaration Of War is arguably the outstanding offspring to date, and although War Front is without doubt a stallion in great demand, his progeny have yet to reach the heights that many would have anticipated.
Aidan O’Brien appears in no doubt that he has a star on his hands, saying: “Everyone has been over the moon with him and he's been so impressive. Joseph got off him the last day and said he'd ridden nothing like him. He's getting bigger and stronger. He's something like we haven't had before.”
Then asked if Air Force Blue was the best juvenile he had trained, O'Brien added: “I'd say no doubt. The size of him and the scope and the way he travels. When you let him go he delivers. In February he was totally an unfurnished baby, but was head and shoulders above everything else.”
Time will tell if the trainer’s lofty opinion proves justified. One thing is however certain, and that is that O’Brien and the team at Ballydoyle remain the most powerful outfit in Flat racing. Their recent performances prove that to be the case, and at Ascot in less than a week’s time, we are likely to be provided with further evidence.