Luxembourg’s emphatic success in Saturday’s Vertem Futurity, the final Group 1 race of the year in the UK, reminded us not to under-estimate the power of the Aidan O’Brien team, writes Tony Stafford.
As he conceded after the victory, things have been going rather less his way than we have come to expect, but a year in which St Mark’s Basilica, Snowfall and now this feasible 2,000 Guineas alternative to the Charlie Appleby two – Native Trail and Coroebus - have been around, it is hardly the disaster it was being painted of late.
More of Luxembourg later but eight hours before the big race at Doncaster, a ten furlong Group 1 race, the private property of that unforgettable Australian mare Winx between 2015 and 2018, was being decided.
The Ladbrokes Cox Plate, run at the tight Moonee Valley racecourse in Melbourne, is universally known as Australia’s principal weight-for-age race – the even more valuable Melbourne Cup is a handicap. Joseph O’Brien, already winning trainer of two of the last four Melbourne Cups, as against his father’s still frustrating blank in the race that stops Australia on the first Tuesday of November every year, took the £1,700,000 first prize on Saturday morning with the three-year-old colt State Of Rest.
As befits a race of its value, the opposition was stern and the second and third home, the joint-favourites at 13-5, fully deserve such a description. It took a full 20 minutes’ deliberation from the stewards to decide that Craig Williams’ objection to the winner and his rider John Allen on behalf of short-head runner-up Anamoe would be rejected. Third, staying on, was the champion mare Verry Elleegant, veteran of both successful and less so Group 1 tilts with William Haggas’s globe-trotter Addeybb among 12 wins from 30 starts.
Moonee Valley might not be Verry Elleegant’s favourite track, but the five-year-old had to concede only 1lb to her three-year-old rival (actually she counts as only a year and a half his elder because of the difference in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere breeding seasons. Anamoe, who had won a Group 1 two weeks before, the £678k to the winner Caulfield Guineas over a mile, carrying 9st as the 11/10 favourite, was foaled seven months after the winner. He received 16lb from the O’Brien horse and while the same age, will not actually be three years old until next month.
Topically, Saturday was the anniversary of State Of Rest’s final run as a juvenile when finishing fifth behind subsequent Irish 2,000 Guineas winner Mac Swiney in last year’s Futurity. He had a busy time running six races between June and October of his juvenile season and was probably ready for a quiet spring.
O’Brien delayed his comeback until the last week in June when he tackled a one-mile Listed race at The Curragh.
Conceding 10lb to both the winner Fourhometoo and runner-up Khartoum, he struggled to get a run until the last 100 yards, then flew home and would have galloped right by those mid 100’s rated and race-fit rivals in another few strides.
Until Saturday, there had been one more run, a highly-ambitious challenge to his father’s beaten Derby favourite Bolshoi Ballet at Saratoga. After Epsom, Bolshoi Ballet had gone some way to restoring his reputation with a win the following month at Belmont Park and the Saratoga Derby, a Grade 1 worth £390k and run over 9.5 furlongs at the Spa in mid-August at the time looked his for the taking. Its timing for the younger O’Brien was ideal as it gave State of Rest time to recover from his returning Curragh exertions.
Understandably, dad’s runner was a shade of odds against while the main dangers according to the betting were Jessica Harrington’s Cadillac at 9/2 and Charlie Appleby’s Secret Protector at 5/1.
Having looked back at the Curragh comeback third and the way he finished the race it seems inconceivable that State Of Rest could have been allowed to start at more than 20/1 in that company. The betting clearly suggested the home team was nothing much, yet here was a horse already worth a rating in the mid-110’s starting that price – and he had legendary East Coast rider John Velazquez in the saddle to boot.
The outcome was a one-length win in the colours of Teme Valley Racing, while Bolshoi Ballet was only fourth and the other raiders were further back. The win was much to the elation of the owners’ Racing Manager Richard Ryan, who has a wealth of experience in many facets of the racing industry.
Ryan was the long-term assistant to the late Terry Mills, who made his money in the waste disposal and demolition businesses. Many Epsom habituees ascribed much of the stable’s success to his quiet and ever discreet right-hand-man. Then after Mills’ death and son Robert’s brief spell at the helm, he left Epsom and worked the sales, before joining Ian Williams as assistant.
In that period and then since relinquishing that full-time role he has continued to unearth good horses for the trainer’s clients. Now he represents Goff’s at auctions as well as his role with Teme Valley and also maintains a close relationship with Williams.
To run horses trained in Europe for major races in Australia was always akin to a military exercise, but Joseph outlined in detail the extra hoops that are required post-, or rather, where Australia is concerned, mid-Covid. Those, together with the increased veterinary procedures imposed after Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck’s fatal injury in last year’s Melbourne Cup, have caused a number of UK trainers to abandon proposed Melbourne Cup challenges this winter.
Anthony Van Dyck’s demise took some of the family gloss off Joseph’s success with the seven-year-old Twilight Payment in the Cup last year. At least Aidan can point to his own Cox Plate seven years ago with Adelaide, now a stallion in Australia, while last year’s Cox Plate winner Sir Dragonet spent his formative years, indeed all his races before the Cox Plate, at Ballydoyle.
The beaten 11-4 favourite in Anthony Van Dyck’s 2019 Derby, he ended his time with O’Brien with a second to the great Magical in the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup at The Curragh in July last year. His first run under Chris Waller’s care brought his Cox Plate win at the main expense of another former stable-companion Armory and he was then sixth in the Melbourne Cup, although his form this year has been nowhere near that level.
Doncaster’s confirmation that Luxembourg was indeed a potential Classic horse was underlined on Saturday as he drew steadily if not spectacularly away from three nice horses. Sissoko (Donnacha O’Brien), was just under two lengths behind the winner and only narrowly in front of another of Teme Valley’s (with Jock O’Connor’s Ballylinch Stud), the Roger Varian colt Bayside Boy, and Hannibal Barca inches back in fourth. This made it ten Futurity victories in 24 years for O’Brien enabling him to match the late Sir Henry Cecil’s record within the precise same time scale.
Brian Meehan had been bullish when we spoke on Saturday morning about the place chances of Hannibal Barca and it looked for much of the last furlong that the 50-1 each-way taken about the Sam Sangster-owned colt would collect. Sadly though track position on the far side as they came up the middle probably didn’t help rider Paul Mulrennan on the run home.
I’m going to the sales on Tuesday and it will be interesting to look into the box scheduled to be housing Hannibal Barca who until Sam and Brian wake up after the inevitable party they had for getting the 55,000gns son of Zoffany to a rating of at least 110, they will almost certainly pull him out. Then again they might let him have a spin round the ring with a big reserve. That would be nice. I’ll be there boys – and how I love a show!
Jumping proper started again with two days of Cheltenham and record crowds for the October meeting. The last time they had a crowd at Cheltenham, in March last year, the blame game merchants pointed to that largely outdoor gathering as a major component in the spread of Covid-19. With figures going up again that fixture is again a possible target for criticism, but the 76,000 crammed in at Old Trafford to watch Liverpool demolish Manchester United would potentially be a larger worry I would have thought. The maladies for distraught home fans might extend beyond Covid!
The most impressive Cheltenham performance for me was the flashy chase debut of the Skeltons’ First Time Lucki. A 144-rated hurdler after three wins from seven starts adding to two out of four in bumpers he looks destined for a much higher level over fences.
His jumping was fast, accurate and spectacular. At no time did Harry Skelton have a second’s concern and the eight lengths and the rest he had over some good horses in this initial novice chase could easily have been doubled had the champion jockey wished. Allmankind was similarly impressive for the brothers at Aintree yesterday.
That man (Harry) is going to be very hard to beat in his attempt at a second title and brother Dan might be an outside bet for the trainers’ title. Admittedly Fergal O’Brien is setting a very fast pace already up to 60 and if some of his potential stars waiting in the wings come through he could figure in the argument too.
Meanwhile Hollie Doyle, faced with what had looked a daunting calendar year record score of 152 for a female jockey she set in 2020, has passed it with two months to spare. Her initial title will not be long delayed.
Talking of titles, Johnny Weatherby, long-time Queen’s Representative at Ascot has been knighted. Was it Arise Sir John, or Arise Sir Johnny? I’m not sure if anyone’s taking money on it – it’s a bit like those bets on the Queen’s hat colour every day by those bookies before racing attracting once-a-year racegoers on the way from the main entrance to the grandstand. I’m sure they have their card marked! Psst- it was Sir John!!!