Taking Stock: Galileo, Coolmore, O'Brien and the Derby

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The late Galileo | Coolmore photo

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By now you've read some of the many excellent remembrances and obituaries of Galileo (Ire), who was euthanized at Coolmore on Saturday at age 23. Any way you look at it, the son of Sadler's Wells was one of the greatest stallions of all time, as were his sire and and grandsire Northern Dancer. This dynastic sequence is now in its fourth generation with Galileo's outstanding son Frankel (GB), who is well on his way to matching the iconic status he achieved on the racetrack as a stallion, and history will note that in the year his sire died, Frankel got his first G1 Epsom Derby winner, Adayar (Ire). Frankel also happens to be responsible for the 2021 G1 Irish Derby winner Hurricane Lane (Ire), but for the scope of this piece, I'm limiting all discussion through the prism of the Epsom Classic to which all Derbys around the world trace. It is the oldest and most hallowed of them all, and Frankel's breakthrough in it seems only right, because Galileo has sired more winners of the race than any other stallion in its 240-year history.

An Epsom Derby winner himself, Galileo entered stud at four in 2002, and his first 3-year-olds raced in 2006. His five Epsom Derby winners through 16 crops of 3-year-olds are New Approach (Ire) (in 2008), Ruler of the World (Ire) (2013), Australia (GB) (2014), Anthony Van Dyck (Ire) (2019), and Serpentine (Ire) (2020).

In addition to Adayar for Frankel this year, New Approach's Masar (Ire) won in 2018, giving the Galileo branch of Sadler's Wells seven winners in the 16 years that Galileo has had foals old enough to contest the Derby.

New Approach is an accomplished sire, but Frankel, already with 17 Group/Grade 1 winners, is an exceptional one, and he's creating some history because it's a long-held view among pedigree historians that exceptional sire sequences last at most three generations before hegemony crumbles.

We're possibly witnessing this phenomenon in real time with the sequence of Northern Dancer/Sadler's Wells/Montjeu (Ire), for example. Like Galileo, Montjeu was a top-class racehorse and a great stallion in his own right, and with four winners of the Epsom Derby, he's tied with several others in second place. Had he not died early at 16, it's possible he'd have had more and been able to compete with Galileo, but to date he hasn't had a sire son like Galileo of the caliber of Frankel, though Camelot (Ire) is good.

Coolmore's Derby Dominance…

Sadler's Wells was raced by Robert Sangster and stood at Coolmore, and as outstanding as he was as a stallion, he didn't get his first Epsom Derby winner until he was 20, and that horse was Galileo. He did get a second winner in High Chaparral (Ire) the next year, but that was it.

Northern Dancer had three: Nijinsky (1970), The Minstrel (1977), and Secreto (1984). All of them were trained at Ballydoyle, the first two by Vincent O'Brien, and Secreto by Vincent's son David O'Brien. Secreto, who raced for Luigi Miglietti, famously upset his father's highly fancied Northern Dancer colt El Gran Senor, flying the Sangster silks, in 1984.

At that time, Coolmore boss John Magnier, whose wife Sue is Vincent O'Brien's daughter, was the junior partner in the Sangster/O'Brien group, but after O'Brien, who trained six Epsom Derby winners, retired from training in 1994, Magnier installed Aidan O'Brien (no relation to Vincent) as trainer at Ballydoyle in 1996. Two years later Galileo was born to the G1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Urban Sea. He was bred on a foal share between David Tsui, who owned and raced Urban Sea, and Magnier's breeding entity Orpendale. The colt initially raced in Sue Magnier's colors and later in partnership with Michael Tabor. Derrick Smith arrived a few years later and together they comprise what we now call the Coolmore racing partners, with John Magnier the senior member.

The arrival of Galileo at the races coincided with the retirement of Montjeu and reignited the Derby fortunes of both Coolmore, where Sadler's Wells was aging, and Ballydoyle, which had gone through a dry spell between the two O'Briens. Montjeu had raced in Tabor's colors and had been trained by John Hammond, but from Galileo onwards, most of the Coolmore partners' big guns have been trained by Aidan O'Brien, including all the top Galileos–and there have been many.

Because of Galileo, Sue Magnier and Michael Tabor have been recognized as the owners with the most number of Epsom Derby winners, with nine–a mind-boggling achievement. Aside from Galileo (2001) and High Chaparral (2002) by Sadler's Wells, their winners (the later ones in partnership with Smith and others) are four by Galileo referenced earlier–Ruler of the World, Australia, Anthony Van Dyck, and Serpentine; two by Montjeu–Pour Moi (2011) and Camelot (2012); and one–Wings of Eagles (Fr) (2017)–by Pour Moi (Ire).

In the broader picture, each Derby winner is a member of the Sadler's Wells sire line, and keep in mind that these nine Epsom Derby wins have come over a period of 21 years, essentially meaning one every other year.

Aidan O'Brien…

Aidan O'Brien is the leading trainer of Epsom Derby winners with eight. He trained all of the above except for Pour Moi, who was trained by Andre Fabre, and he makes no secret of the fact that Galileo is the racehorse and stallion he holds well above any other.

Galileo gave O'Brien his first Derby and has supplied him as a sire with four others, so he knows what he's talking about.

In November of 2018, I made a trip to Ireland to specifically pay homage to Galileo and to speak to O'Brien, who at the time had won the Derby six times. The year before, O'Brien had won a record 28 Group 1 races, many of them with sons or daughters of Galileo, and I needed an explanation from the trainer to digest the sheer volume of gaudy numbers.

The first thing that struck me when I saw Galileo in the flesh was his size. He'd been listed at 16 hands but looked more like the 15.2 of his grandsire, whom he resembled in shape as well, if not as robustly made. But, even as an old man, he had a swagger to him and an intelligent eye that suggested a sound, bomb-proof constitution.

Meanwhile, Aidan O'Brien, who'd been at Ballydoyle for 23 years, still had a youthful appearance to him that belied his own experienced wisdom from learning about and training the great horse and his progeny for almost two decades. He's also unfailingly pleasant and polite and never fails to mention your name frequently in conversation.

When I asked him what is it about the Galileos, he said, “Sid, It's not about the exterior with them. It's not physical. It's a mental trait, Sid.”

And this is what he told me, which I'd published in this space two years ago but will reproduce again as it is poignant in remembering Galileo:

“Galileos are, like, very strange horses, meaning that they try so hard. And always with the Galileos, all you're trying to do is slow them down and relax them. With most other horses, it's the complete opposite. But Galileos, they never remember what happened yesterday. Say they got really tired–and when a horse gets really tired, they feel a bit of pain–some horses get very clever to that and they don't want to go back there anymore. So what happens is that when they start controlling that, you can only train them to a certain level because they won't let you push them any further. But with Galileos, they will give their absolute 150% every day. It's very strange. It's a mental trait, not a physical trait. Of all the horses we've ever trained, we've never seen it in another horse before. It's a gene that will carry on. It's a pure remind of him.”

That “try” that O'Brien described is a rare attribute that needs careful handling and development, something that could go awry without proper recognition and training. A lesser trainer, or one without an understanding of the Galileos, might squander what they see too early and overcook a horse before he's had a chance to show his potential, but O'Brien is meticulously patient in his handling of the Galileos, whom he oversees from as early as the time they are sent to Ballydoyle as yearlings in the autumn to be readied to race at two.

His is the type of symbiotic horsemanship that has brought out the best in the Galileos, and together they've had a mutually beneficial run that has lit up the record books.

O'Brien has won two more Derbys with sons of Galileo since my visit, and I wouldn't be surprised if he attempted to win a Gl Kentucky Derby with a colt from one of the stallion's remaining crops. It's something he mentioned to me, and as one of the architects of Galileo's success, he knows that it's a prize he'd like next to the great horse's name.

And, of course, the trainer will be looking to share a few more Derby wins at Epsom, too, with Galileo.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.

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