Some of the best horses Aidan O’Brien has trained have been dogged diggers. Horses who produce only just enough, and only when required.
Giant’s Causeway and Rock Of Gibraltar are two that spring readily to mind. Into the same category steps CHURCHILL, winner of Saturday’s first Classic of the new Flat season, the Qipco 2000 Guineas, and author of more record-breaking history for the incomparable O’Brien.
Through his 2yo season, the imposing son of supersire Galileo was never spectacular, even though he racked up five wins on the spin, from Royal Ascot to the Dewhurst. But to use one of the well-worn phrases from the lexicon handbook of racing TV presenters and pundits, he always “got the job done”, including at Group One level twice. And the monumental volume of support he received ahead of his Royal meeting win -- when, as a maiden with no right, on form or trends, to land the Chesham Stakes, he was backed into 8/11 favourite -- told us all we needed to know about highly regarded he was at Ballydoyle.
So it came to pass in the Guineas too. More persistent market support, even though many professionals and media tipsters were keen to oppose him, and another trademark display that put tenacity before flair.
In some quarters, Churchill’s win was wildly overplayed. I read descriptions such as “wonderfully authoritative” and “quite brilliant”, which were very wide of the mark. Workmanlike was the best tag. Indeed so workmanlike that you were almost tempted to question the value of the form. But Churchill is a colt who has been transmitting misleading form signals since his early days. Always performing as if he was a work in progress, with better to come next time or more to follow in the future. More spunk than sparkle.
And I am sure there is much more to come from him. Paddock observers on Saturday were taken aback by his appearance as a powerful bull of a beast, very heavy-topped, very deep-girthed, with enormous hind quarters. It must have been a hell of a job to get him fit for this first assignment of the campaign. Indeed, there was still development pending on his coat and muscle definition, so O’Brien deserves huge credit for preparing him for such a high-profile race with such expertise, particularly as most of his rivals had benefited from a run this spring. I will be staggered if those in behind ever reverse placings over 1m.
Mind you, O’Brien is well used to such expertise. This was his eighth 2000 Guineas winner since he moved to Ballydoyle 21 years ago, surpassing the previous record for the historic contest, held by John Scott, which had lasted for no fewer than 155 years. And all were making their seasonal bows.
With customary humility, O’Brien would point to the teamwork behind his success ahead of his own skills. And no doubt such teamwork was called upon to devise the tactical masterplan that ushered in Churchill’s success. In the knowledge that his three main rivals, BARNEY ROY, AL WUKAIR and EMINENT, needed plenty of stoking up before hitting top gear, O’Brien and Co opted to dictate a debilitating, leisurely tempo via stablemate LANCASTER BOMBER and then help create the space for Ryan Moore to ease the perfectly positioned favourite to the favoured stands’ rail to make his move.
It worked splendidly and by the time Churchill had hit the front, Barney Roy had got his galloping knickers in a twist on the Rowley Mile undulations, Al Wukair was being asked to come from too far back and Eminent (the paddock pick, incidentally) was looking uncomfortable on the fast ground to half-support racecourse rumours that he had been suffering from sore shins in the days leading up to the gig.
Things didn’t quite pan out as planned 24 hours later when RHODODENDRON was expected to complete a Guineas double for O’Brien in the fillies’ equivalent. This time, after travelling beautifully, the favourite hit trouble in running at a key stage of the contest and had to be exaggeratedly dragged left by Moore to get a run. But it didn’t stop the Ballydoyle team celebrating another victory because stablemate WINTER, freshly acquired from the yard of the retired David Wachman, took full advantage
Winter’s convincing win gave O’Brien his third Guineas double since 2005 and only the fourth achieved by anyone since the Second World War (the other being by Noel Murless back in 1967). And given that the grey had shown only modest form for Wachman in three juvenile starts, it could hardly have been a better advertisement of O’Brien’s unique feel for a horse.
Inevitably, the conclusion of the first Classics immediately triggered a debate about whether the big guns should now move on to Epsom and whether they will be suited to the extra half-mile of the Derby or Oaks.
In the case of Churchill, he looks like a sprinter, is the son of a mare who was a very speedy sprinter (Meow) and is closely related to an even speedier Group One-winning sprinter (Airwave). But O’Brien is convinced he’s a colt who is so relaxed and so professional that “he could probably go as far as you want”.
In the case of Winter, again the dam was a sprinter (Laddies Poker Two), who won the Wokingham at Royal Ascot. But she wasn’t stopping up the Newmarket hill on Sunday and jockey Wayne Lordan is sure she will get at least 10f.
In the case of Rhododendron, my suspicion is that she could yet turn out to the best of all three. Her dam, Halfway To Heaven, was top-class at up to 10f and in the aftermath of the Guineas, it was most revealing to hear O’Brien tell Racing UK viewers that Rhododendron had “always been considered an Oaks filly, and this was a race just to get her season started”.
Of course, when it comes to assessing stamina, it must be remembered that all three are progeny of Galileo, who infuses not only staying power but hardiness for a battle. So wherever they go over the coming weeks, it would take some persuasion to oppose them.
O’Brien’s normal modus operandi is to support the two Guineas races in Ireland, but because they fall only a week before the Epsom Classics this year, I doubt that any of the trio will be asked to tackle both. My hunch is that Churchill will run in the Irish 2000 Guineas, Winter in the Irish 1000 Guineas and Rhododendron in the Oaks, with a cluster of his middle-distance colts in the mix for the Derby.