Twenty Years On: Recalling Galileo's Classic Season

Galileo (dark blue) swings round Tattenham Corner ready to make his challenge in the Derby of 2001 |


This time twenty years ago, Galileo (Ire) was a once-raced winning maiden gradually being honed to full fitness on the Ballydoyle gallops ahead of his Classic season. That debut outing at Leopardstown on Oct. 28, 2000, had started with the young son of Sadler's Wells and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe heroine Urban Sea as evens favourite and ended, after a mile on heavy ground, with him 14 lengths clear of the Aga Khan's Taraza (Ire). 

We've all seen 2-year-olds burn brightly in their maidens only to fizzle out when put to the sword in Classic trials. History, of course, relates that this would not be the case for Galileo. Born to be a champion, he more than fulfilled that birthright on the racecourse, making the diverse challenges of Epsom and the Curragh look like Sunday afternoon strolls before being involved in two epic battles with the outstanding older horse of the time, Fantastic Light, at Ascot and Leopardstown. 

Despite all the prowess displayed by the colt, those involved with him throughout his racing days could not have dared to imagine the level of success that would follow in his stud career. Or could they?

Aidan O'Brien, who trained Galileo for John and Sue Magnier and Michael and Doreen Tabor, is the man that knew the young horse best. He says, “Unusually with him, before he came to Ballydoyle the world was thought of him and I suppose that was because he is out of an Arc winner and he's by Sadler's Wells. Sue named him Galileo very early.”

There's no shortage of Ballydoyle horses with portentous names but it wasn't just Galileo's breeding that led his owners and trainer to dream that his destiny was written in the stars. Though medium-sized and not obviously physically imposing, the athleticism of the colt made an instant impression.

“He didn't walk, he prowled,” O'Brien continues. “It was a very unusual thing with a horse. Horses usually come up to walk but when he used to walk, he would get down to walk. When you'd ask him to go forward the first thing that would go out and down was his head. Most horses when you ask them to go forward, up goes the head and they walk up, but he used to walk forward and walk out. His walking stride was so long and there was so much power from his front and back, so I suppose the lads had him as a king before he came here.”

Just last week St Mark's Basilica (Fr) (Siyouni {Fr})—himself out of a mare by Galileo—was confirmed as the eleventh champion 2-year-old produced by Aidan O'Brien in his 28-year training career. Galileo, having just had that one outing, wasn't one of them, but he would soon atone for his later start.

“We got him ready a few times to run but there was a bit of coughing in the yard that season,” O'Brien recalls. “We thought he was going to be our Dewhurst horse but we never got him out, so he ran in a maiden at Leopardstown, Michael Kinane rode him and he won by 12 or 14 lengths. Everything about him was always very different but obviously we would never have expected what happened to happen.”

Galileo's road to the Classics was altogether smoother, navigated initially alongside another son of Sadler's Wells, Milan (GB), who would go on to win the St Leger.

“He did everything with Milan and went everywhere with him until we saw what Milan was,” says their trainer.

Indeed, Milan was runner-up to Galileo in the Ballysax S. on their first outing of the season, with subsequent four-time Irish St Leger winner Vinnie Roe (Ire) completing a classy trifecta. Galileo's final tune-up for Epsom came in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, the third run of his life and the third time that the horse with the big walk and bigger reputation would line up as favourite.

By the time Derby Day 2001 dawned, Sadler's Wells had already been champion sire ten times. Though his list of Oaks winners by that stage featured Salsabil (GB), Intrepidity (GB) and Moonshell (Ire), and Entrepreneur (GB) and King Of Kings (Ire) had both won the 2000 Guineas, there was a glaring omission from the great stallion's stud record: Epsom's blue riband. Galileo delivered not just his sire's first victory in the Derby but also the first of eight—and counting—for his trainer.

“I remember walking the track with Michael before the Derby and he said what he was going to do, and exactly where he was going to ride him and where he was going to have him at full stretch,” says O'Brien. “It was incredible really, he just turned in and [Michael] had him balanced and slowly let him go, and I remember that his stride just opened up and started getting longer and longer. He pulled up full of running, he didn't look anywhere near empty at the line.”

Galileo's three-and-a-half-length victory over Ballymacoll Stud's 2000 Guineas winner Golan (Ire) made him odds-on to bring up the Derby double back on his home turf at the Curragh. This he did with ease, his four-length victory delivering another first, this time for Kinane, who won his 'home' Derby at his 18th attempt. Galileo may have got noticeably warm at the start, but it was no sweat for Kinane throughout the Irish Derby as he unleashed his cruising mount two furlongs from home before easing him ahead of the line.

With the Breeders' Cup Classic, over ten furlongs on the dirt, nominated as Galileo's unorthodox end-of-season target as early as midsummer, the colt nevertheless remained at a mile and a half for arguably the best performance of his life. The regard in which the Derby winner was held was evident in the fact that he was chalked up as as the odds-on favourite for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth S. ahead of Godolphin's 5-year-old Fantastic Light, who arrived at Ascot on the back of wins in the G1 Tattersalls Gold Cup and G1 Prince of Wales's S. 

In its Racehorses of 2001 annual, Timeform noted, “On a sweltering afternoon and before a record crowd of 38,410, Ascot, it seemed to some, was to be the scene not of a contest but of a coronation.”

'The King', as he had long been regarded by his co-breeders at Coolmore, was crowned. Galileo joined an elite group of horses to have won the Derby, Irish Derby and King George, adding his name to the illustrious sextet of Nijinsky, Grundy (GB), The Minstrel, Troy (GB), Shergar (GB) and Generous (Ire).  

This sixth consecutive victory would prove to be Galileo's last but his following race, back to ten furlongs and again up against Fantastic Light in the Irish Champion S., would go down as one of the most memorable duels of the modern era. Once their respective pacemakers had cried enough, the Leopardstown straight was there for the taking, royal blue and dark blue locked in battle as Fantastic Light, getting first run up the rail when Galileo was forced wide around Give The Slip (GB), maintained his advantage to the line by a rapidly diminishing head. 

“I think it's harder than we realise for the 3-year olds going up against the older horses in the summer,” says O'Brien. “A 3-year old against a 4-year old is very tough but a 3-year old against a 5-year old is even tougher. I think they need every bit of it [the weight allowance] and it's only the very good ones who can do it. Age at that stage—from three to four, four to five—age is an awful advantage, that toughness and the foundation. Really 3-year-olds are only babies, especially those middle-distance horses at that stage.”

With Galileo apparently never considered to be given the chance to emulate his mother's Arc victory, America beckoned, but not for the potentially easier and more obvious target of the Breeders' Cup Turf. Galileo became the greatest to gallop around Southwell's fibresand during an away day in preparation for his trip to Belmont Park for the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race which would see him take on the previous year's winner Tiznow and Arc winner Sakhee. Just a nose separated that pair at the wire with Galileo battling home in vain to take sixth.

“With the benefit of hindsight it was an unrealistic target to ask him to do that after having such a tough season and racing against the older horses, but it was the belief that was in him, the belief that everyone had in him, that we thought it could be possible that it could happen,” O'Brien reflects.

Timeform noted that Galileo returned from the race with swollen eyes and sore heels and his trainer recalls the effect the dirt kickback had on him.

He says, “I remember when he came in, he was after trying so hard he was almost crying. He was so genuine.”

If that at the time felt an inauspicious end to Galileo's career, in truth it was only the beginning of something far greater. His phenomenal run at stud continues apace: with 12 champion sire titles he is closing in on his own outstanding sire's record of 14. He has already surpassed Sadler's Wells's tally of Group 1 winners and last year set a new record of 85, passing another Coolmore great, Danehill, when Peaceful (Ire) won the Irish 1000 Guineas. Moreover, the Derby winner of 20 years ago is now the most successful Derby sire of all time, with Serpentine (Ire) becoming his fifth winner of the Epsom Classic in 2020.

Galileo's success is far from restricted to his own former stable but he has had an extraordinary influence on the fortunes of Ballydoyle as well as the rampant training career of Aidan O'Brien, with whose name he will forever be entangled. That his own athletic genes have been imparted so successfully is beyond question but the trainer knows that preparing racehorses goes beyond just getting them fit. Young Thoroughbreds must be mentally equipped to deal with the challenge and it is in this sphere which Galileo's own natural blend of talent and fortitude gives his offspring an edge.

“The mental attitude is vital. That's what makes them different to others,” says the man who has trained more of Galileo's stock than any other. “You can't see it physically when you see a Galileo, because it's in their mind, but when you start working them and galloping them, then you see it. It's that will to win and that absolute genuineness. It's the way they move and that action which makes them get down and gallop and it doesn't allow them to give up. Most horses when they're starting to get tired, they come back and curl up, but Galileos, their movement and their determination doesn't allow them to do that. It's very rare and I think that's why his influence will continue for a long, long time.”

Of Galileo's contribution to Coolmore and Ballydoyle over the last two decades, he adds, “It's incredible really, and to have that for John, Sue, Michael and Doreen, it was incredible. I suppose what made it very different was because they had called it all the way with him. John was so sure about his pedigree and the way he was bred, and John and Michael had it in their heads, the mares that were going to suit him, even before it happened really. It's incredible the amount of individual Group 1 winners by him that we've had, from six furlongs to two-and-a-half miles.”

In Galileo's Classic season, O'Brien also trained Imagine (Ire) to win the Oaks, the filly leading home a 1-2-3 for Sadler's Wells, while Galileo's erstwhile workmate Milan went on to win the St Leger. Of course, with Galileo, Sadler's Wells is only one half of a heady combination. His dam Urban Sea already looked a special broodmare by the time he won the Derby and her extraordinary development into a true blue hen has been aided especially by Galileo's half-brother, Sea The Stars (Ire), whose superior racing versatility saw him win the Guineas as well as the Derby and retire in a blaze of glory following the Arc. When discussions turn to the best racehorses of the recent era, opinion is usually divided between Sea The Stars and Galileo's own masterpiece, the outstanding Frankel (GB).

Inevitably, though, the son will always be measured against the father in the pantheon of champion sires and Galileo will not be found wanting.

“I don't think anyone could have believed that there was ever going to be another horse even anywhere close to Sadler's Wells,” says O'Brien.

For we fortunate followers of breeding and racing in the 21st century, it has been a privilege to watch history in the making. 

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