O'Brien Resolute in Pursuit of the Classic

Few, if any, owners and trainers have been more on a mission to win a single race than Coolmore and Aidan O’Brien when it comes to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which has eluded them for 17 years.

Here they are still trying to avenge the neck defeat of Giant’s Causeway at the hands of Tiznow back in 2000. In between, there has been another gut-wrenching defeat by a head, a tough loss to an archrival from back home over a synthetic surface, and the heartbreaking fatal injury to one of Ballydoyle’s most beloved stars, who had been brought back in training after being retired.

They even ran their superstar Galileo, who has taken over as Coolmore’s foundation sire and is responsible for the vast majority of their major stakes winners, producing them in mass quantity as if off an assembly line.

Perhaps this is O’Brien’s year, as he broke Bobby Frankel’s all-time record for group/grade 1 wins in a single year just today (Oct. 28), saddling Saxon Warrior to win the Racing Post Trophy, his 26th group 1 victory of the year. His first group 1 winner of the year just happened to be Churchill, one of his two possible starters in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. What a way that would be to bookend the year.

One thing O’Brien has proven over the years is that there isn’t a horse alive he is afraid of, even if means taking him on with a horse who has never run on dirt or all-weather and doesn’t have much of a dirt pedigree.

After running in the Classic against the likes of Curlin, Zenyatta, Tiznow, Bernardini, Invasor, Saint Liam, Fusaichi Pegasus, Medaglia d’Oro, Street Sense, and War Emblem, he even had the audacity to take on Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015 with five-time group 1 winner Gleneagles, who finished last.

O’Brien said several years ago, “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.”

This year it could be doubly special. After a one-year absence, O’Brien is back again with, not one, but two possible runners to square off against former Horse of the World Arrogate and the red-hot Gun Runner, and several other top-class American horses.

One of them, War Decree, looks extremely logical, being by Claiborne stallion War Front and coming off an impressive victory on the all-weather track at Dundalk. The other, however, is the aforementioned Churchill, whose first preference in the Classic came as a surprise, considering his victories in the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas and placings in the one-mile Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and Juddmonte International stretching out to 1 5/16 miles. The son of Galileo looks like a pure miler, but O’Brien has always loved stretching milers out to 1 1/4 miles in the Classic. So, as of now, we’ll look at two possible starters for the Classic.

Regardless of where Churchill runs and even with the heavy dose of talent in the Classic that includes six U.S. grade 1 winners, don’t overlook War Decree, who will be a huge price. Yes, he’s strictly a guess and seems up against it form-wise, but if you’re confused who to lean towards among the American horses, you might want to consider him in the hope he can be another Declaration of War, who nearly pulled it off in 2013, getting beaten two noses by Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge. And War Decree, like Declaration of War, is a son of War Front.

War Decree looked like he was going to be a major player right from the start, winning two of his first three starts, including an impressive victory over future UAE Derby and UAE 2,000 Guineas winner and group 1 Prix Jean Prat winner Thunder Snow, the Irish 2,000 Guineas runner-up, in the group 2 Vintage Stakes at Goodwood. In that race he also defeated Boynton, who had delivered him his only defeat in the group 2 Superlative Stakes at Newmarket.

Following a disappointing effort in the Craven Stakes, O’Brien wheeled him right back two weeks later in the French Derby. Sent off at 4-1, he was caught looking sideways at the start and broke about three lengths behind the field. Shuffled back to the rear of the 12-horse field, he found himself engulfed by horses in the stretch with nowhere to run. He was in so much traffic he was barely visible. Ryan Moore kept angling him out looking for room, getting bumped along the way. He finally found an opening and closed resolutely to finish fifth, beaten only 2 1/2 lengths by Brametot, winner of the French 2,000 Guineas and eventual fifth-place finisher in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Sidelined for almost four months after that race, O’Brien skipped Champions Day at Ascot and ran him in a 1 1/4-mile race on the all-weather track at Dundalk, obviously with the Breeders’ Cup Classic in mind.

Facing a pretty strong field, headed by the classy filly Abingdon, second in the group 2 Lancashire Oaks and third in the group 2 Prix de Pomone, War Decree sat comfortably behind horses, then showed an excellent turn of foot, charging to the front after switching leads beautifully and drawing off with fluid strides to win by 2 1/4 lengths under a hand ride without being touched by the whip. You had to love the way he was striding out at the wire.

O’Brien said he was “absolutely thrilled” with his comeback run. Jockey Donnacha O’Brien said the colt has “a lot of natural talent and needs hard ground.”

War Decree now drops seven pounds off that race, in which he carried 129 pounds. He is not one of O’Brien’s afterthoughts for the Classic following an extensive campaign and having already run in his targeted race, such as the Arc or Champion Stakes. He is still on the improve, is fresh, and has shown he at least handles an all-weather track. And being by War Front, he should, like Declaration of War, have no trouble taking to the dirt.

As for Churchill, he obviously has proven a lot more than War Decree in top-class company all year, but as mentioned has never run on dirt and is bred more for the grass, being by Galileo. But he is extremely talented and was narrowly beaten for second in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on soft ground by Europe’s top miler Ribchester, who is headed for the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

If O’Brien does decide to run Churchill in the Classic, you can bet there is a good reason for the decision. We’ll stay tuned with him.

But if you’re willing to take a shot that maybe this finally will be the year O’Brien conquers the Classic, there are enough angles and enough unknown factors to suggest that War Decree could be worth the gamble at a big price.

And if it doesn’t work out for O’Brien 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.”

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