As the advance guard of the 67,000 crowd began to gather at Santa Anita Park, Los Angeles, at 9 a.m. Saturday – some might say unseemly early - for phase two of the Breeders’ Cup and the first of three warm-up races, about 5,500 miles, eight time zones further east and at least 25 degrees Fahrenheit cooler, one of the O’Brien racing clan waited in driving rain at Chelmsford racecourse for the first of two winning rides on the evening card, writes Tony Stafford.
Not for Donnacha O’Brien the warmth of Santa Anita and the Breeders’ Cup. That was the centre of focus for the rest of the family, for Ryan Moore and Wayne Lordan, whose minimum riding weight of 8st fits more readily into the structure of American, and indeed Australian, racing. Wayne will be going on to partner one of the seven family horses – there along with a few former inmates – in tomorrow morning’s Melboune Cup.
The truly amazing thing about Donnacha O’Brien is that he has regularised – in the manner of a Lester Piggott or more recently George Baker – his weight so that as little as 8st12lb is not impossible.
Earlier in his career – and he’s still only 21 - Donnacha was routinely listed in racecards as *possible 2lb overweight, with 9st2lb the absolute minimum. That discipline which characterises every day of his riding career was tested to the full on Saturday as the wind came across the arid wastes of the old Essex Showground along with the squalls of rain that drenched your correspondent as he waited in the paddock for the debut of Ray Tooth and Clive Washbourn’s Mayson Mount.
Donnacha was in attendance –along with Seamie Heffernan, whose ride in that race had to be withdrawn – on the second leg of a brief UK tour based around Friday night’s eventual running of the Vertem Futurity, switched from waterlogged Doncaster six days earlier. Rather than a six-runner affair with Andrew Balding’s Kameko the only interloper preventing an Aidan O’Brien monopoly, the switch to a first floodlit and all-weather UK Group 1 resulted in a field of 11 with four home and two other Irish challengers.
The main new element was Ralph Beckett’s once-raced Kinross and I bet now Rafe wishes he’d stuck to the original plan of the Horris Hill Stakes, also switched from the previous weekend at similarly-inundated Newbury to Newmarket on Saturday. Kinross had recently made his impressive debut in very soft ground there and as a result was the short-priced favourite on Friday but he never made an impact. In the end Kameko won impressively, leaving the O’Brien contingent having to be content with the next four home with Heffernan second on Innisfree and O’Brien only fourth on original short-priced favourite Mogul.
Donnacha’s initial interest at Chelmsford was the once-raced Battle of Liege, a War Front colt whose full-brother Hit It A Bomb had won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the same Evie Stockwell colours four years earlier under Ryan Moore at Keeneland. Facing Battle of Liege was a once-raced Charlie Appleby juvenile Desert Peace, a $1.3 million colt who’d won nicely on debut at Kempton and he started 100-30 on. In the event it was the Clive Cox colt Emirates Currency who split the pair.
It was probably a decent race, evidence being that Ahmad Al Shaikh, once the resident journalist and television presenter for Sheikh Mohammed in Dubai but nowadays a notable owner of among others last year’s Gimcrack winner Emaraaty Ana, was a surprise arrival before the race to see his Emirates Currency make his second start.
In the manner of one of my usual coincidences he greeted me with: “I was just talking about you to someone an hour ago!” as he swept into the owners’ room while I tucked into my first bowl of the always excellent soup. There’s no need to go into the whys and wherefores but it surprised me that he would choose to be there on such an awful evening at what Derek Thompson always refers to as “Essex’s principal racecourse” <of one!>. He said: “We like the horse very much,” prophetic words as Emirates Currency produced a fine second effort.
Preceding Ahmad to the paddock, I saw Clive Cox and said: “Your owner’s here” to which he replied: “He’s not!” It’s never disappointing to prove someone wrong and the look on the trainer’s face as Mr Al Shaikh approached was one of my moments of an interesting evening.
In the race, Mayson Mount, experiencing not just the racecourse for the first time, but floodlights and the horrible gusting winds and torrential rain, never put a foot wrong in the preliminaries. He did start a little slowly, but set off after the pack with such gusto that by the approach to the turn he was on terms with the leader. “Then at the two he just blew up,” said Josie Gordon to Shaun Keightley. The eventual distance behind the fourth horse was 14 lengths but the promise he showed was great encouragement for the future.
Then yesterday, Ray’s other horse with Shaun, the Pour Moi gelding Waterproof, made his planned hurdling debut at Huntingdon. Now rated 51 after his good second of 16 at Chelmsford the previous Saturday night, he was confronted by a field of vastly superior Flat-race horses. The eventual first two have both held ratings around two stone higher than his. Waterproof jumped very well and finished third to Building Bridges (ex Jessica Harrington) and Silkstone. His proficiency had first been set in motion with early schooling by Josie and she showed her team ethic by turning up and helping saddle him beforehand, then welcoming him back with a bucket of water.
As I said before, it’s doubtful Ray has another Punjabi on his hands, but the way he jumped and the enthusiasm he showed were two big positives.
While Donncaha was back home riding his final winner of a second c
hampionship season at Naas yesterday, elder brother Joseph was making the journey down to Australia where he has four contenders as he tries to win a second Melbourne Cup following Rekindling two years ago when in only his second year as a trainer.
On Saturday, in the Filly and Mare Turf race, Joseph added to his status as the youngest-ever jockey to win a Breeders’ Cup race, when Iridessa pounced late under Lordan in a race expected to be a benefit for Sistercharlie, who finished only third. Iridessa, who has won five times, including in a maiden on debut under Seamie Heffernan, has chosen her spots well. All her subsequent wins have been at Group or Grade 1 level and each time Lordan has been in the saddle.
Lordan will partner proven stayer Il Paradiseo for Aidan as Ryan Moore stays with his recent Cox Plate fourth Magic Wand and Heffernan gets on Hunting Horn, ridden by Moore to a six-figure win on the Cox Plate under-card last weekend.
Joseph’s quartet could hardly be much stronger. His 2018 Irish Derby Latrobe will be ridden by top Australian rider James McDonald; Frankie Dettori comes in for Master Of Reality; Winx’s rider Hugh Bowman is on Twilight Payment and John Allen stays with Downdraft, my fancy for the race; while many thousands of miles away, Joseph has master-minded a true Australian training and racing schedule for the tough Downdraft, winner of four of his previous eight races prior to his trip to Australia.
Nine days ago he was a close fourth under Allen in Hunting Horn’s race, then on Saturday he did the traditional “Cup paid work-out” over a mile and a half of Flemington racecourse collecting more than 100k in facile fashion. He’ll be super-fit and he’s my pick.
I feel sad for Hughie Morrison, whose 2018 runner-up Marmelo was denied a second shot at last year’s winner, Charlie Appleby’s Cross Counter, when ruled out by the veterinary panel, a decision that the trainer may well pursue, such was his chagrin after two highly-regarded vets had declared him sound. Aidan O’Brien also had the disappointment of a veterinary decision ruling out his main hope Fleeting from Iridessa’s race when she must have been a serious contender.
It was a luckless meeting for Ryan Moore and it will have been no consolation for the jockey that Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck has clearly come back to form in finishing a closing third to Bricks And Mortar in the Turf race. Bar being hampered, causing a slight stumble at a crucial stage, they might have won thereby questioning Bricks and Mortar’s right to what looks an assured Horse of the Year accolade.
Mention of Morrison cannot pass without thanking him for the training of Say Nothing and Sod’s Law, two Ray Tooth home-breds that sold very well at Tatts last Wednesday. Ed Dunlop and Luke Comer, their respective new trainers, can win as many races as they like as Ray still has both dams up at Andrew Spalding’s Hedgeholm Stud.