THE JONATHAN QUAYLE HIGGINS COLUMN
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Three days before Derby Day 2021 Aidan O’Brien threw a massively unexpected element into the dynamic but it didn’t alter the fact that a momentous outcome is almost upon us, one that will create a numerical record few believed could ever be challenged.
The surprise was that far from following his tradition of the past decade and a half and running multiple horses, O’Brien decided to withdraw five of his six declared colts before today’s 48-hour stage, relying on just the one, Bolshoi Ballet, now the even-money favourite in a likely field of nine.
Since riding his ninth winner of the Derby back in 1983 on Teenoso, 29 years after his first, Never Say Die as an 18-year-old in 1954, Lester Piggott has stood supreme. But the advent of a colt sired by the at-the-time pre-eminent stallion Sadler’s Wells and trained by a young O’Brien, would change everything, although it has taken two decades for that mind-boggling situation to be upon us this Saturday afternoon.
When Michael Tabor, former East London bookmaker turned big-punting owner joined forces with John Magnier at Coolmore stud, he was continuing the earlier partnership between Magnier, his father-in-law Vincent O’Brien, among whose great horses were the last UK Triple Crown hero Nijinsky – and Robert Sangster.
As Sangster’s commitment to that partnership waned, largely due to his own massive investment in the Manton training establishment in Wiltshire, so Tabor stepped in to fill the void, enabling the team to continue buying the best American stock at Keeneland sales from where under his own steam Tabor had already bought and raced the 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch.
As Victor Chandler his former business partner and long-time racecourse counterpart said to me after that success, “It could only happen to Michael.” In those days he was operating on a smaller scale in the UK and although he had already enjoyed success with the likes of Stewards’ Cup winner Danetime and multiple Group winner and future star stallion Danehill Dancer, with Newmarket trainer Neville Callaghan, this was an animal of a totally different colour.
Magnier clearly admired his branching out into such refined waters and soon after approached Tabor. The Irishman, with Vincent now ready to retire after his stellar career, needed funding to take the place of Sangster. By the time Galileo was ready to make his seasonal debut in the closing weeks of the Irish season of the year 2000, the impossible was about to be set in motion.
Magnier, as well as recruiting a co-investor, also had identified the man to take the great Vincent’s place. Aidan O’Brien (no relation to Vincent) was a young man, still in his 20’s who had already won three consecutive Champion Hurdles with Istabraq.
Aidan took to training top-class Flat racers with all the alacrity and skill that had made him champion Irish jumps trainer. He was preceded in that achievement by his wife Anne-Marie who promptly retired from the fray to concentrate on bearing and rearing their four remarkable children, Joseph, Sarah, Donnacha and Anastasia.
Galileo won his first race by 14 lengths; won the two accepted Derby trials, the Ballysax and Derrinstown Stud Stakes both at Leopardstown, yet still started only joint-favourite for Epsom with Sir Michael Stoute’s colt Golan. He won comfortably but what was to ensue in the breeding shed for the next two decades in Co Tipperary was of far more importance.
My own first inkling that something strange might have been about to explode was one day at Royal Ascot the Friday of the then four-day meeting in 2006 where eight of Galileo’s first crop took to the stage. In the event none of them won, but before racing I took the liberty of knocking on Box Number One’s door and requesting a word with Mr M.
After a brief delay I was asked into the holy of holies and said: “John, I’m not sure you realise what you have with Galileo.” When asked to elaborate I said: “He has his first-crop of three-year-olds and yet here he is with eight of those three-year-olds all running on the same Royal Ascot card. Mathematically I reckon that’s impossible.”
Three months later at York – Doncaster was closed that year for rebuilding – four of the unsuccessful octet appeared in the St Leger and three of them, Sixties Icon, trained by Jeremy Noseda, 50-1 shot The Last Drop (Barry Hills) and Brian Meehan-trained Red Rocks filled the first three places in the Classic. Two months later Red Rocks under Frankie Dettori won the Breeders’ Cup Turf race at Churchill Downs propelling Meehan’s career forward.
Statistically, that suggestion to Coolmore’s supremo might not have been exactly correct, but starting in 2013, a dozen years after his own Epsom triumph, Galileo has now been responsible for four winners of the race; Ruler Of the World, Australia the following year, Anthony Van Dyck in 2019 and Serpentine last year. If Bolshoi Ballet does the business that will be five in nine years.
When Australia won he was the 11/8 favourite and second winner of the race for jockey Joseph O’Brien after Camelot, by Montjeu, won the 2012 race as the 8/13 favourite. Had the Godolphin colt Encke not been in the field Camelot would have emulated Nijinsky 42 years earlier and it was so frustrating when later in a scandal involving the disgraced Dubaian trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni, Encke was found to have steroids in his system but not at the time of the St Leger.
So Messrs Magnier, or rather his wife Susan, daughter of Vincent, and Tabor were owners of Galileo and the following year’s winner High Chaparral. Then when the Galileo’s came fully on stream by which time another former bookie, Derrick Smith, Ladbrokes main man on course in the last quarter of the 20th Century, had added his considerable resources to keep the pot boiling nicely.
The four Galileo winners were preceded by Pour Moi in turn sire of the surprise 2017 winner Wings Of Eagles who under unknown jockey Padraig Beggy overcame multiple interferences to win at 40-1.
An at least as unexpected winning horse and especially jockey happened in the Covid-delayed 2020 race as Serpentine careered away at the front of the field and never looked like coming back. That provided journeyman Emmet McNamara, another Ballydoyle backroom boy, with his own date with destiny.
Jockeys dream all the time of the big win which will thrust their name in the headlines and project their careers forward, and Aidan and the owners have never minded lesser-known day-in day-out work riders to use their knowledge on outsiders on Derby Day when often up to half a dozen lightly-raced and mostly unexposed sons of Galileo have taken their place in the line-up.
Wings of Eagles was the second-biggest outsider of their sextet when he confounded almost all the critics – though not Seamie Heffernan who had guided him into a closing second behind Ryan Moore-ridden Venice Beach in the Chester Vase when winning in 2017.
As he reported after the Chester race: “I was just about to go for him then Ryan got first run on us on Venice Beach, so we sort of took our time.” A few of the Ballydoyle contingent had him in their alternate picks on the day.
Beggy and McNamara remain important cogs in the Coolmore wheel, among 60-70 riders out on the gallops for each lot every morning, all linked by walkie-talkie to the boss. Aidan never stumbles on anyone’s first name as he questions them on how the work went.
This year, and bear in mind it was only four and one year respectively after they won the Derby, between them they have had just the one ride for the trainer, an unplaced one on a 28/1 outsider returning to racing for the first time this season. That was Beggy, while McNamara hasn’t been sighted.
Their unexpected successes, however, proved that any of the Aidan O’Brien horses and indeed jockeys could win – that’s why they are normally there. For every short-priced winner of this most coveted of races he sends out, there has been mid-range priced winners such as Ruler Of The World (7-1) and the ill-fated Anthony Van Dyck (13-2) rather than the stable’s number one. And as the two difficult to spot “rags” tell us, none can be dismissed without the most careful of scrutiny. This year though, Aidan, the Magniers, Tabor and Smith will have a single focus.
After winning both the preps that Galileo himself took in on his road to glory, Bolshoi Ballet, in taking the same two trials, has endeared himself to Ryan Moore who says he is the easiest of horses to handle.
Accustomed to the frustration of being on the wrong end of lesser-fancied opponents within the team Ryan Moore knew High Definition was probably the most likely to deny him a third Derby. He is sure to be relieved not only that he now goes straight to the Irish Derby, but that Dettori, his likely rider, will now be on the Ed Dunlop colt John Leaper.
The absence of five of the Ballydoyle squad will at least reduce the fear of potential hindrance to Bolshoi Ballet’s progress around the turns and cambers of this unique racecourse. If he wins, Piggott’s tally of nine will have been passed by Sue Magnier and Michael Tabor, taking them into double figures.
Vincent O’Brien’s daughter would have been attuned to the idea of big-race wins from the cradle, but for the one-time trainee hairdresser from East Ham, who was tempted for a while to buy his boyhood club West Ham United before talking some sense into himself, this must be the panacea.
Piggott took almost three full decades of scheming and browbeating, persuading and often with bare-faced cheek, talking himself on and his rivals off what he thought the most likely winner of England’s greatest Flat race.
In only two-thirds of that time, with the simple expedient of aligning himself with the best, Michael Tabor is on the brink of something that few others could dream of achieving. Mrs Magnier of course is his junior by a number of years but it is almost inevitable that one man will catch and pass him. That has to be the great Aidan O’Brien, one behind because Pour Moi left his stable before he ran to be trained in France by Andre Fabre. The first of Tabor’s wins came when the Londoner was already in his 60th year.
Twenty years on, Coolmore’s partners show little sign of easing off, but neither does their trainer and while his own two talented sons will be snapping at his heels if there is ever a hint that their parents want to take it easy and leave Ballydoyle to one or other of indeed both of them, that tally of Derby wins could go far higher. I envy anyone who will still be around to see how far he can go!
Best wishes to all for Derby weekend!
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