As Ralph Kramden would say, “One of these days, bang! zoom!”
You know it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. You know that one of these days Aidan O’Brien is going to set off that bang and that zoom in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. O’Brien has come agonizingly close on several occasions and he’s back yet again, this time with his brilliant miler Gleneagles, winner of the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas and St. James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. It’s pretty apparent by now that O’Brien is on a mission, judging by the top-class horses he runs in the Classic, whether they’re milers, mile and a quarter horses or mile and a half horses.
There is no doubt that perseverance is a major attribute of O’Brien’s. It was 15 years ago that he first attempted to win America’s richest horse race with the gutsy Giant’s Causeway, only to fall a gallant neck short of knocking off the equally tenacious Tiznow. In the heat of battle, both colts had proven on numerous occasions they were like terriers grabbing on to a pant leg and refusing to let go. On this occasion, it was Tiznow who got first jump and wouldn’t let go, even when Giant’s Causeway pulled on even terms in the stretch.
For the past 15 years, O’Brien has been trying to make up that neck difference, sending over a vast assortment of horses, from the great Galileo the following year to Declaration of War in 2013, who just added to O’Brien’s woes and frustrations by getting beat a nose and a head.
In between, he has finished second with Henrythenavigator when the race was run on a synthetic surface at Santa Anita, only to get beat by the colt’s arch rival Raven’s Pass, and suffered the cruelest blow of all when he brought the indefatigable George Washington out of retirement for a second crack at the Classic only to see the horse suffer a fatal injury in the slop at Monmouth Park in 2007.
It was a gut-wrenching moment for the entire O’Brien family. As the victorious Curlin’s connections celebrated in the winner’s circle, O’Brien and his family were departing through the tunnel. O’Brien, refusing or unable to speak to anyone, put his arm around his wife, Annmarie, who was in tears. It was a sad ending for a gallant horse, who had finished a respectable sixth in the previous year’s Classic behind Invasor and Bernardini. “George,” as he was known around the barn, had suffered an open fracture of the cannon bone in the right front fetlock joint, as well as fractured sesamoids. It was an injury Dr. Wayne McIlwraith called “hopeless as far as repair.”
O’Brien, crushed but undaunted, was back for another try at the Classic the following year with Henrythenavigator and Duke of Marmalade, and after his tough defeat with the former, he returned in 2009 with the hard luck and often-injured Rip Van Winkle and then again in 2011 with So You Think, who was beaten only 3 1/4 lengths.
In all, O’Brien has run in the Classic 13 times, and despite the bitter, heartbreaking moments, he has never let it discourage him. Here he is, back again on the 15th anniversary of Giant’s Causeway’s defeat with a colt whose dam is a full-sister to Giant’s Causeway. Maybe it’s in the cards. Maybe this is the year.
If there’s one thing O’Brien has proven, there isn’t an American dirt horse, no matter how talented, he’s ever been afraid to compete against in the Classic, and that includes Curlin, Zenyatta, Tiznow, Bernardini, Invasor, Saint Liam, Fusaichi Pegasus, Medaglia d’Oro, Street Sense, and War Emblem, so he’s hardly going to cower in fear over facing American Pharoah and Beholder.
Despite the lofty purse and prestige of the Breeders’ Cup Turf and Breeders’ Cup Mile, O’Brien has still competed in the Classic with the winners of 43 group I races, including the winners of English and Irish Derbys, two winners of the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas, four winners of the Eclipse Stakes and Juddmonte International, three winners of the St. James’s Palace Stakes and Sussex Stakes, and two winners of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Prince of Wales’s Stakes, and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
O’Brien, who just turned 46, still looks half his age and hasn’t seemed to age in 15 years. I can still remember the young trainer trying to acclimate and get accustomed to Churchill Downs and American racing back in 2000. On Giant’s Causeway’s first day at the track he was accompanied by none other than D. Wayne Lukas on the pony. Lukas, who trained some horses for Coolmore, was actually the enemy this year, saddling the previous year’s Classic winner Cat Thief.
“Wait until they get my bill,” Lukas said from atop the pony, with O’Brien following behind on foot. Before heading out, Lukas had met with O’Brien and filled him in on the shoeing process, the medication rules in Kentucky, and introduced him to starter Roger Nagle. Despite being an adversary on race day, Lukas said he felt it was the sporting thing to do.
With O’Brien trying to keep up as they walked back to the barn, Lukas told him Giant’s Causeway took being ponied to the track for the first time in stride, and said he definitely would send a pony with him in the post parade, because the colt did have a tendency to look around at things in the infield.
As it turned out, Giant’s Causeway, making his first ever start on dirt, turned in another courageous performance, as he had in all his races, but just couldn’t crack Tiznow. It didn’t help that Giant’s Causeway’s rider Mick Kinane lost his right reins when he went to switch sticks in deep stretch. That would be the first of O’Brien’s frustrations in the Classic. Now, 13 attempts later, O’Brien is back with Giant’s Causeway’s “nephew.”
While it would seem to some that winning the Classic has become more of a Quixotic quest, O’Brien still believes it is a realistic one and just a matter of time when things will finally fall into place and work in his favor. Several years ago when discussing his hard luck in the Classic, O’Brien said, “I’ve stopped just dreaming about winning it. We’ve brought all types of horses and we haven’t been able to win it, so we’ll just keep trying to find the right horse.
“You just continue to do your best every day. We’ve had some near misses, but that’s the way it goes. Sometimes you make good decisions and sometimes you make bad decisions. All you can do is try to learn from the bad ones. Some people have just done a better job than we have, but that’s the reality of it.
“Each year, you hope you have a horse good enough to run in it. You need a very good horse and he can’t have any flaws. It’s frustrating never to have won it, and we’ve had some bad luck, but there are loads of things in life than can frustrate you. All you can do is give it your best and hope some day it will happen. In the meantime, you make whatever changes accordingly you feel you have to make, and if it doesn’t go right you learn from it and try again. I think it’s great that the lads (Coolmore’s John Magnier, Michael Tabor, and Derrick Smith) are happy to keep doing it. And it’s just great to have a horse good enough to run in it almost every year. It’s very special.”
As stated in the Irish Times two years ago, “If O’Brien has any ambitions left, victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic is probably at the top of the list.”
O’Brien has had his share of success in other Breeders’ Cup races, having won the Turf four times, Juvenile Turf twice, and the Juvenile and Marathon. He also finished second, beaten a half-length, in the Mile when Antonius Pius ducked in at a crucial point in the stretch while closing in on the leader, which many feel cost him the race.
As for Gleneagles, he has proven to be a relentless closer with an excellent turn of foot who is much more comfortable on firm ground. He seemed to need the recent Queen Elizabeth II Stakes run on good to soft ground after being scratched from several major stakes over the summer. He made a brief bid before faltering slightly, but still was only beaten 2 3/4 lengths by arguably the best miler in Europe, Solow. He’ll be coming back in only two weeks, but that has never stopped O’Brien before.
Although his sire, Galileo, has been one of the most dominant sires in Europe, there is plenty in Gleneagles’ female family to suggest he can handle the dirt. In addition to his dam You’resothrilling being a full-sister to Giant’s Causeway, his second dam, Mariah’s Storm, won eight stakes in the U.S. and was purchased by Coolmore at the Keeneland November sale for $2.6 million.
It is ironic that O’Brien says he no longer just dreams of winning the Classic when a loosely inspired movie about Gleneagles’ granddam Mariah’s Storm winning the Classic is titled “Dreamer.”
Mariah’s Storm’s sire is Rahy, who is a half-brother to Singspiel, winner of the Dubai World Cup, as well as numerous other group I stakes around the world. Rahy’s dam, Glorious Song, captured the Santa Margarita, Spinster, La Canada, Top Flight Handicap, and the Michigan Mile and an Eighth, all on dirt, while finishing a close second to the great Spectacular Bid in the Amory Haskell Handicap and second to Winter’s Tale in the Marlboro Cup.
Mariah’s Storm’s dam, Immense, was a grade III winner at Monmouth and is a half-sister to champion Dearly Precious, winner of the Acorn and Spinaway and many other major stakes on dirt. Immense is by English Derby winner Roberto, who has sired a number of stakes winners on dirt and is out of Bramalea, winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks. In addition, Gleneagles is inbred top and bottom to the major class and stamina influence Hail to Reason.
Gleneagles obviously will be another O’Brien mystery horse. You can either take a shot that he will finally give O’Brien his Classic victory or you can ignore him…at your own peril. Remember how close O’Brien came two years ago with Declaration of War, whose broodmare sire is Rahy, so there is a common denominator in the two pedigrees.
As for O’Brien, if it doesn’t work out this year, you can be sure he’ll be back. One year it is going to happen.
“Hopefully, we’ll live long enough,” O’Brien said. “As long as we’re alive we’ll keep trying.”