A Classic Game Of Play Your Cards Right

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Native Trail is the stand-out at present but will he be usurped by stable-mate Coroebus? | PA Images

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The betting for the QIPCO 2,000 Guineas suggests that Godolphin has a very strong hand for Europe's early Classics, with Native Trail (GB) (Oasis Dream {GB}) a solid favourite and Coroebus (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}) a clear second pick. However, such strength in depth brings its own complications. The European calendar boasts three principal Guineas races (chronologically, in Great Britain, France and Ireland) and the obvious aspiration when one has the two most likely candidates is to win all three.  It is a tough, albeit not impossible, assignment for one horse alone, so the conundrum is which horse to run where. Godolphin will be hoping that things work out as well as they did in 2005, when its two stars were Dubawi (Ire) (Dubai Millennium {GB}) and Shamardal (Giant's Causeway). Similar pairings of stable talent were seen in 2002 with Rock Of Gibraltar (Ire) (Danehill) and Hawk Wing (Woodman), as well as during a different era in Ballydoyle with the Northern Dancer colts El Gran Senor and a certain Sadler's Wells.

In the days when Saeed bin Suroor was Godolphin's principal trainer he had masterminded Dubawi's 2-year-old campaign superbly, the colt from the sole crop of Dubai Millennium ending the 2004 season unbeaten after winning the G1 National S. at the Curragh. Shamardal had been with Mark Johnston as a 2-year-old. He too had ended 2004 with a perfect three-from-three record, his hat-trick culminating in victory in the G1 Dewhurst S. at Newmarket.  Already Dubaian-owned, he was transferred to bin Suroor's stable after the race and bore the royal blue livery for the rest of his career.

Shamardal was the first to run in 2005 but it was not an auspicious start: he ran poorly on dirt in the UAE Derby and clearly needed longer than four weeks to recover from that chastening experience so he didn't run in the 2,000 Guineas, in which Dubawi started the 11/8 favourite.  On the day Dubawi wasn't good enough, finishing fifth behind Foostepsinthesand (GB) (Giant's Causeway), but thereafter things fell into place perfectly.

Shamardal made a victorious return to European racing 15 days later, taking the G1 Poule d'Essai des Poulains at Longchamp to initiate a top-level hat-trick, completed by wins in the G1 Prix du Jockey-Club over 2100m at Chantilly and, dropping back to a mile only nine days later, the G1 St. James's Palace S. Sadly that proved to be his final race as he went amiss shortly before the G1 Eclipse S., in which he had been due to clash with the wide-margin Derby winner Motivator (GB) (Montjeu {Ire}).

Dubawi, meanwhile, had also kept himself busy. Heading to the Curragh three weeks after Newmarket, he was a ready winner of the G1 Irish 2,000 Guineas, beating Oratorio (Ire) (Danehill) by two lengths. Saeed bin Suroor had played his cards perfectly, with both Dubawi and Shamardal ending the spring as Classic winners.

Despite the obvious doubts about Dubawi's potential stamina, Sheikh Mohammed took the sporting option of sending his diminutive star to Epsom two weeks after his Classic triumph. The genuine little horse did his best, but the testing 12-furlong course proved to be a bridge too far as Dubawi weakened in the final two furlongs, finishing third of the 13 runners.  Undaunted, he returned to the fray later in the summer, confirming himself to be a top-class miler with two excellent efforts in weight-for-age company, winning the G1 Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville before coming off second best in a terrific duel with the international superstar Starcraft (NZ) (Soviet Star) in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II S., run that year at Newmarket.

Happily, the history books now show that the splendid racecourse achievements of Dubawi and Shamardal were merely the first part of their stories as each proceeded to establish himself in the highest echelons of the world's stallion ranks.

Godolphin, of course, is not the only operation to have found itself with the enviable but tricky task of making the most of a strong hand.  It is a problem to have faced both of the O'Briens to have brought glory to Ballydoyle, Vincent and Aidan. For Vincent O'Brien, the year in which Ballydoyle most notably contained a pair of great Classic colts was 1984.

At the start of 1984, all eyes in Europe were on the unbeaten Dewhurst winner El Gran Senor. Bred in partnership by E. P. Taylor, Vincent O'Brien, Robert Sangster and John Magnier, El Gran Senor was a full-brother to the 1977 Dewhurst winner Try My Best and had oozed class from the outset, so much so that his connections had opted to name him in honour of the human 'El Gran Senor', Northern Dancer's trainer Horatio Luro.  The equine El Gran Senor lived up to this compliment during an unbeaten 2-year-old campaign, his final victory coming when he trounced Rainbow Quest (Blushing Groom {Fr}) in the Dewhurst, winning with such authority that Timeform gave him the startlingly high rating (for a 2-year-old) of 131, the same figure with which Nijinsky II (Northern Dancer) had ended 1969.

The highest hopes generally lead to disappointment, but on 2000 Guineas Day the dreams of racegoers came true as a great Classic was run before their eyes. Pat Eddery deployed El Gran Senor's brilliant acceleration to devastating effect. Chasing El Gran Senor home were three outstanding horses: Chief Singer (Ire) (Ballad Rock {Ire}), Lear Fan (Roberto) and Rainbow Quest.

Timeform's Racehorses of 1983 had rated El Gran Senor's chances of staying the Derby distance as “doubtful” but Vincent O'Brien naturally took up the challenge of the greatest race of all, as he had previously done so successfully with the other supposedly doubtful stayers Sir Ivor and Nijinsky after their brilliant 2,000 Guineas victories in 1968 and '70.  It turned out that El Gran Senor was indeed not nearly as effective at a mile and a half as he was at distances up to a mile, but even so he nearly won the Derby (only just touched off by his paternal half-brother Secreto, trained by Vincent O'Brien's son David) before cruising home in the Irish Derby ahead of the valiant Rainbow Quest (himself, of course, subsequently the winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe).  

El Gran Senor's form kept being franked throughout the summer as Chief Singer won successively the G2 St. James's Palace S., the G1 July Cup and the G1 Sussex S., while Lear Fan took the G1 Prix Jacques le Marois. However, during this period it became clear that El Gran Senor was not the only outstanding 3-year-old colt in Ballydoyle.

Two members of the stable contested the G1 Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh.  One of these had been rated the second best 2-year-old colt in Ireland in 1983, 10lb behind El Gran Senor.  That colt, Sadler's Wells, reappeared in the spring in the same race (the G3 Gladness S. at the Curragh) in which El Gran Senor resumed, finishing a respectful runner-up behind his superior stablemate.

Winner of the G3 Derrinstown Derby Trial on his next start, Sadler's Wells was the less-fancied of the Ballydoyle duo in the Irish Guineas, with stable jockey Pat Eddery electing to ride the shorter-priced Capture Him (Mr Prospector).  This left the mount on Sadler's Wells free for George McGrath, who had ridden him in his two previous races that spring.  McGrath, Ireland's champion jockey of 1965 and '70, was then in the twilight of a distinguished career, employed mainly as a Ballydoyle work-rider. He had won the Irish Derby 11 years previously but it turned out that, Eddery having chosen the wrong horse, he was able to record his most famous victory when Sadler's Wells came home in front, with Capture Him only fourth.

Sadler's Wells's true ability thus having started to appear, it became ever more clear during the coming months, most notably thanks to two great triumphs at weight-for-age in the G1 Eclipse S. and the G1 Phoenix (now Irish) Champion S. at Phoenix Park.  He further demonstrated his class and toughness with second placings behind Darshaan (with Rainbow Quest third) in the G1 Prix du Jockey Club and behind the previous year's Derby winner Teenoso (Youth) in the G1 King George VI And Queen Elizabeth S., ahead of Tolomeo (Ire), Time Charter (Ire) and Sun Princess (Ire).

Earlier comments about Dubawi and Shamardal going on to glory at stud can be applied, of course, even more emphatically to El Gran Senor and Sadler's Wells.  The latter holds the record for the most sires' championships of Britain and Ireland (14), while in one respect El Gran Senor's figures are even better.  Having retired in 1985 to Windfields Farm in Maryland alongside his father, El Gran Senor was bedevilled by poor fertility throughout his stud career, which ended when he was pensioned aged 19 in 2000. All told, he sired fewer than 400 foals, but his 55 stakes winners (12 of whom won at the highest level) gave him a lifetime stakes winners-to-foals ratio of just over 14%.

As numbers in Ballydoyle are now far larger than was ever the case when Vincent O'Brien was at the helm, Aidan O'Brien nowadays can find himself blessed/cursed (delete as applicable) with an even greater embarrassment of riches. This has never been more obvious than was the case in the spring of 2002.

Hawk Wing was the name on everyone's lips in advance of the 2002 season.  Although beaten by his more experienced stablemate Rock Of Gibraltar in the G3 Railway S. early in the summer of 2001, by the autumn Hawk Wing had been promoted to ante-post favouritism for the 2,000 Guineas, having stormed home in the G1 National S. at the Curragh.  He had captured the public's imagination even more than any of his stablemates, notwithstanding that he had plenty of competition from within his own stable: there were 22 juveniles in Europe in 2001 rated 110 or more by Timeform, and Aidan O'Brien trained half of them!

The aforementioned Rock Of Gibraltar had followed up that Railway S. victory by winning the G2 Gimcrack S., the G1 Grand Criterium and the G1 Dewhurst S.  In the last-named he led home a Ballydoyle trifecta, beating Landseer (GB) (Danehill) and Tendulkar (Spinning World).  Landseer had previously won the G2 Coventry S. at Royal Ascot, with Rock Of Gibraltar only sixth.

Arguably the pick of the squad, though, was another Royal Ascot winner.  Johannesburg (Hennessy) had won all seven of his races as a juvenile including, uniquely for a 2-year-old, top-level contests in four countries: the G1 Phoenix S. at Leopardstown, the G1 Prix Morny at Deauville, the G1 Middle Park S. at Newmarket and the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont. Another Group 1-winning juvenile for Ballydoyle in 2001 had been High Chaparral (Ire) (Sadler's Wells), successful in the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster.

The hand of cards which Aidan O'Brien thus had to play in the spring of 2002 was overflowing with aces. The situation became slightly clearer when it was decided that Johannesburg's Classic target in the spring would (understandably) be at Churchill Downs rather than Newmarket. The policy decided upon was to maximise the advantage conferred by strength in depth and though Johannesburg's Kentucky Derby attempt ended in disappointment, in Europe that plan bore fruit. 

Hawk Wing was the stable's first string in both the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby but he was a beaten favourite in both, each time finishing second to a lesser-fancied, Johnny Murtagh-ridden stablemate: Rock Of Gibraltar at Newmarket and High Chaparral at Epsom. Those two horses, of course, went on to compile magnificent records, ultimately retiring with a Group 1 tally of seven and six respectively; while Hawk Wing went on register the admirable feat of winning at the highest level in each of three consecutive seasons, courtesy of wins in the G1 Eclipse S. at three and the G1 Lockinge S. (by 11 lengths) at four.

Charlie Appleby's hand this year isn't quite as strong as the cards which Aidan O'Brien was holding 20 years ago, but it's strong enough. And the certainty is that Appleby, like O'Brien, is a trainer with the skill to play them to best advantage.

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