How many of you recall the story of Red Rock Canyon? We’re not talking about any of several areas in America by that name that may be the origin of the brand of the leading range of agricultural machinery. No, the Red Rock Canyon in this instance was a horse trained by Aidan O’Brien.
He never exactly set the world alight in his own right. After finishing a neck behind no less a horse than Teofilo on his debut run - a Roscommon maiden in July 2009 - was hardly where he was supposed to end up. Yet, it turned out to be sole win of his career. Horses like him still have a role to play for a Ballydoyle/Coolmore operation that is always thinking about the bigger picture.
They do whatever is necessary to claim racing’s biggest prizes. Even the likes of Red Rock Canyon have a role to play in that. It’s something that often leaves a sour taste in the mouth – the manner in which the operation goes about things. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel the Flat racing scene is a little bit elitist as the likes of Coolmore and the Arab bankrolled yards leave the ordinary man with little or no chance.
As bad as it is from a spectator perspective, those in the corridors of power across the water take an even dimmer view of it sometimes. And it was for that reason – rather than anything else he actually achieved – that gained Red Rock Canyon notoriety a few years ago. The English stewards disciplined O’Brien for the manner in which he ran Red Rock Canyon – as a pacemaker for Duke of Marmalade.
It hasn’t stopped him from using the tactic. Indeed, there was a far more unsightly case of it at The Curragh recently which the authorities here inexplicably ignored. On that day the pacemaker never came back! Neither did Homecoming Queen on the day of the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket. It is happenings like that which leave some people with a slightly uneasy feeling about how things are done sometimes. Maybe it’s as much to do with the numbers they actually field in races as much as how the horses are actually run.
No matter what anyone thinks of it though, Aidan O’Brien’s only interest is in producing the – often super demanding – results those who supply him with ammunition are forever seeking. Surely, the same theory must apply to all those who train horses – in both racing disciplines – for Coolmore?
With respect to the others, what O’Brien has achieved and continues to, is incomparable. At forty-three, he could quite easily still be riding in races – a la Fallon, Murtagh and, previously Kinane. Seeing him taking up training in his 20s and displaying such genius at it – in both codes – said there was something special afoot.
It was noticed too, as Magnier, Tabor and Smith quickly moved in to secure their man when Dr Vincent O’Brien retired. It had to be a bit of a gamble for both sides. More so for Aidan, though. Going to work for the triumvirate, of course, meant ending his National Hunt adventure which had already yielded three Champion Hurdles with Istabraq. Then there was the matter of taking over from Dr O’Brien and assuming the reins at the Ballydoyle empire which he personally developed and relentlessly dominated racing from.
Having the material at your disposal is one thing, knowing how to best utilise it and come up with the goods is entirely another. Several National Hunt trainers have seen stock belonging to Gigginstown House Stud relieved from their care for not mastering it. O’Brien has repaid the faith shown in him and dealt with what sometimes seems to be an unrealistically demanding environment in spades, however.
One interview last year heard that Aidan was ‘sorry’ ‘knew that he got it wrong’ after So You Think was beaten in a race. Yes, there’ve been days when it’s gone wrong, when the pacemakers haven’t worked, when even playing the numbers game and flooding races with runners hasn’t been able to halt nature!
There are two factors unreasonable people wouldn’t take into account at this stage – the quality of the opposition and the limitations of their own horses. That was clearly evidenced by the admonition the trainer got after the Australian import got turned over. Put simply, despite showing glimpses to the contrary, the horse has proven to be nowhere as good as he was blown up to be since O’Brien got him. Certainly not worth the farcical money Coolmore forked out for him.
So to Excelabration, a newcomer to the O’Brien team this term having been plundered from Marco Botti. Botti did an outstanding job with the horse, so much so that the conglomerate thought they might increase their chances – via the O’Brien influence – of toppling the irrepressible Frankel. It didn’t, and you suspect nothing or nobody will. You suspect, too, that Peter Moody knows this and that’s why he swerved away from sending Black Caviar for a meeting with Henry Cecil’s superstar.
On the occasion of Frankel’s latest procession – past Excelabration and others – it was that usual honesty, humility and decency – whether in victory or defeat – that makes O’Brien and his family so likable and why you’d wish them many more successes to come their way.