Ben Linfoot chats to Aidan O'Brien about his quest to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and finds the changing times at Ballydoyle could deliver fresh attempts at landing the prize.
Since Giant’s Causeway locked horns with Tiznow down the Churchill Downs home stretch on November 4 2000, there has been a burning desire within Ballydoyle to take back to Ireland the trophy for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
‘The Iron Horse’ was beaten a neck in a pulsating contest, but that short distance between glory and defeat is still the closest Aidan O’Brien has come to winning one of the most prestigious races in the sport.
Fast forward 22 years and it has become a holy grail for O’Brien. Fifteen more Ballydoyle combatants have lined up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic since Mick Kinane was edged out by Chris McCarron that autumn evening at the turn of the century.
Next to have a go was Galileo. An almost perfect racing career ended with two defeats, the first at Leopardstown in the Irish Champion Stakes, where he was beaten a head by Fantastic Light, the second a gallant sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, seven-and-three-quarter lengths behind Giant Causeway’s old foe, Tiznow.
For Galileo, that was the end of the beginning. And, while he died last year at the age of 21, his staggering impact on the breed continues as he approaches his 100th Group/Grade 1 winner as a stallion.
Hawk Wing, Hold That Tiger, Oratorio and George Washington all tried and failed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for O’Brien after that. The latter was sixth at Churchill Downs in 2006, but tragically broke his leg and had to be euthanised a year later in the slop at Monmouth Park. It didn’t deter O’Brien from going again and again.
The next two renewals were run on the short-lived Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita, offering European-trained horses a chance away from the traditional American dirt. Raven’s Pass took advantage for John Gosden in 2008 – with O’Brien’s Henrythenavigator less than two lengths back in second – while Rip Van Winkle was sent off 2/1 favourite for Ballydoyle in 2009. He finished 10th behind a certain Zenyatta.
The Ballydoyle Breeders’ Cup Classic attempts kept coming. So You Think was sixth, Declaration Of War was third, Gleneagles was eighth. Churchill ran seventh to Gun Runner in 2017 at Del Mar.
And then there was Mendelssohn. Now here was a different approach. By Scat Daddy, out of Leslie’s Lady, his was an American pedigree through and through. His half-sister, Beholder, was a three-time Breeders’ Cup winner on the Dirt. Mendelssohn himself won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf after a traditional European juvenile campaign – but after Del Mar things changed.
O’Brien trained him for the Kentucky Derby. It didn’t work out, but the American dream lived on. He ran at Belmont twice and Saratoga before returning to Churchill Downs for the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic where he ran a very good race, leading for a long way before finishing fifth behind Accelerate.
A change in approach, but there have been no Breeders’ Cup Classic runners for O’Brien since him. The pandemic had an impact but the lack of an O’Brien contender for the race has meant the lack of a European contender for the race. Eyebrows have been raised. Only this week, Marcus Hersch in the Daily Racing Form wrote: "European horses have all but given up trying their turf horses on American dirt.”
So, Aidan. Have you given up?
“No, no, we surely haven’t,” O’Brien told me outside the European quarantine barns at Keeneland on Tuesday. “It’s a very good Classic this year and we didn’t have the horse for it. But obviously our whole team will be changing over the next couple of years because Galileo has gone.
“I think the whole thing will change. You saw this year with our two-year-olds they are much sharper and faster horses than we maybe would’ve had for the last so many years.
“The whole thing is changing and we try to adapt with the breed of horse that we have. We think this will bring us right back into the dirt races you know.
“Obviously Galileo is going to be an unbelievable influence still, even in dirt pedigrees, I think.
“American Pharoah and No Nay Never are going to come more strong with us now Galileo has gone, too. The lads are obviously getting them to cover more mares that used to be covered by Galileo, so it is changing all the time.”
Clad in Ballydoyle blue ‘Justify’ baseball cap and Ballydoyle blue ‘St Mark’s Basilica’ jacket, you sense O’Brien is relishing the post-Galileo era. The stalwart for so long, an endless supply of Group 1 winners, he’s hard to replace. The search for his heir has gone on for more than a decade.
Perhaps you can’t replace the irreplaceable. But a change in direction could well bring with it the horses to be competitive in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race O’Brien will be watching with fascination, like the rest of us, come Saturday evening.
“He looks incredible doesn’t he?” O’Brien says of Flightline. “We’re looking forward to seeing him. He’s the horse that we all look forward to watching all the time on the tele. A horse doing what he does, he looks out of this world.”
The burning desire is still there. O’Brien will be back in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Hoping to finally deliver on an ambition now over twenty years in the making.
We are committed in our support of safer gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.
If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline / GamCare on 0808 8020 133.