The Irish Outsider – September 25th, 2013
Last week, I picked up a strange Twitter follower in the shape of @Australia_Horse, described in its profile as ‘the greatest horse that has ever lived.’
One can only assume this account is a wind-up as anyone who tweets about winning the Derby and Nunthorpe in the same year non-ironically should get some help.
Indeed, this whole idea that a horse may be the best Aidan O’Brien has ever trained has become a punch-line lately, the tag attached to So You Think, Camelot and Australia in the last three years.
It is unfortunate that O’Brien has seen fit to throw this moniker around so much; perhaps it is a bias towards to the recent or pure ‘sales talk’ (i.e. a desire to hype a stallion prospect) that causes it.
This shouldn’t take away from the fact that O’Brien is a brilliant trainer who has handled some top-notchers superbly over the years and while the trainer himself seems willing to falsely crown a new superstar at the expense of his past superstars, we the racing public shouldn’t.
With this in mind, it is worth recalling the ten best O’Brien horses. Before I start a few caveats; this list is subjective, a combination of ratings, consistency, winning the right races, beating good horses and simple personal preference. I should also state that I only began following racing around the 3yo careers of High Chaparral and Hawk Wing so it may be biased to the recent.
I also tend to favour consistency over raw brilliance, the ability to perform to a high level more than once rather than the shooting star of one spectacular performance. Interestingly, that has been the hallmark of O’Brien’s best horses, toughness and will to battle rather pure class in the vein of something like Frankel or Sea The Stars, or at a lower level Goldikova or Canford Cliffs.
1. Giant's Causeway
His reputation has suffered somewhat from being falsely compared to Declaration Of War this year but unlike that one who fell into a pair of Group 1s, Giant’s Causeway danced every dance and was the best dancer in almost all. A mile and ten furlongs all came alike to him as he won five Group 1 races in 2000, a season that was sustained by his rivalry with Kalanisi, though his best effort may have come in defeat at the Breeders’ Cup. Competing in the Classic, a race where so many European horses have flopped, he narrowly went down to dual winner of the race Tiznow despite the race being his tenth run of the year.
2. Rock Of Gibraltar
Part of the stellar 2001 and 2002 for O’Brien, the Rock won six Group 1 mile races on the hop in the latter and should have won his final start too, undone by trouble-in-running in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. A proper juvenile too when he won the race now known as the Lagadere and the Dewhurst, he competed against some talented types in Hawk Wing, Banks Hill and Landseer.
3. High Chaparral
Perhaps the most underrated of all O’Brien horses, on a bad day High Chaparral was third in two Arcs but won every other start but his debut. There was no flash to him as he rarely won impressively and his best official rating of 126 undervalues him but he won Group 1 races over eight, ten and twelve furlongs and was as good at the start of the season as the end, winning a pair of Breeders’ Cup Turfs. He’s a horse that should be elevated because of the competition he defeated, beating Hawk Wing when that one was on a going day in the Derby and twice beating the brilliant Falbrav.
4. Dylan Thomas
The case against Dylan Thomas is clear – he could throw in the odd stinker and showed signs of temperament – but his 2007 4yo season was one for the ages. That year, he won the Ganay, King George, Irish Champion Stakes and the Arc (his trainer’s first and only winner of the race), while in between finishing second in the Tattersalls Gold Cup, the Princes Of Wales and the Juddmonte at York. That’s a string of seven 125 plus efforts back to back so the whimper with which he finished the year can be forgiven. The ten and twelve furlong division tends to be the toughest in European racing and horses running in every top race of this kind, much less maintaining a high level of form throughout, is almost unheard of.
The only thing that could beat Henry was slow ground and an in-form Raven’s Pass and he rattled off four Group 1 mile races in the early to middle of 2008. None was a soft race as he beat New Approach and Raven’s Pass in those races and he’s a horse that can be upgraded by his competition. The fact that he peaked in both May and October, winning a 2,000 Guineas and running second in a Breeders’ Classic, is another notable achievement.
At a final figure of 129, Excelebration is the highest rated O’Brien horse with the exception of Hawk Wing and he has much more depth to his form. Clearly his inclusion is a nod to Frankel and any horse that was second to the great one and more or less won his other starts has to be very good; that said, it’s all about the wins and losses and he got beaten a bit too often for comfort and he also only came to Ballydoyle for his final season.
His form tailed off somewhat towards the end of his 3yo season, notably a below par effort in the Breeders’ Cup, but his Derby win was as impressive as we’ve seen in recent times and he formed part of a brilliant rivalry with Fantastic Light. While his reputation as a racehorse may have slightly dimmed with the passing of time, his legacy as a stallion should be much more long-lasting.
Yeats was never better than at Royal Ascot where he won four Gold Cups in impressive fashion but if you’re a stayer then the Royal Meeting in June is the place the peak with the possible exception of the Melbourne Cup. He was pretty good at Goodwood too though tended to struggle in the autumn but his longevity and the fact that he returned from a serious injury as a 3yo are positives. That said, it’s hard to rate a glorified bumper winner any higher.
9. Hawk Wing
There’s only room for one temperamental genius on this list and Hawk Wing gets the nod ahead of George Washington. But on his day, for all that they came infrequently, he was brilliant, such as when winning his side in the 2,000 Guineas but especially in an 11-length victory in the Lockinge, a win that gave him his best official rating of 137. That’s the best figure an O’Brien horse has ever achieved but it doesn’t make him the best horse in my eyes.
10. Peeping Fawn
There are higher rated colts that could be included ahead of Peeping Fawn and like all the best fillies from her yard, her reputation will always suffer from not being allowed to take on the males at the top level; it would make no sense for a stable engaged in stallion-making to win such races with a filly. But one gets the feeling that in that eight-week period in 2007 when she won the Pretty Polly, Irish Oaks, Nassau and Yorkshire Oaks on varying ground and in comfortable fashion, she would have beaten most anything.
Honourable mentions: George Washington (see Hawk Wing), Stravinsky and Mozart (European sprints generally uncompetitive and luck plays too much of a part), Duke Of Marmalade (just not good enough at three), Istabraq (brilliant, but we’re comparing apples and oranges).
As I stated at the top of this piece, my list is subjective and my own personal opinion. I dare say that many of you will take a different view, so why not add your thoughts below?