October 2020 has not exactly been kind to top international trainer Aidan O’Brien.
At the start of the month the stable was lining up a big presence in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Leading that charge was Love, the chestnut daughter of Galileo, who would be attempting to land her fourth successive Group 1 win after remaining unbeaten as a three-year-old with victories in the 1000 Guineas, the Investec Oaks at Epsom and the Yorkshire Oaks.
That run of victories by Love brought the highest praise from O’Brien at the time. “I don’t know whether we’ve had such an exciting filly at this stage,” said O’Brien. “I can’t name one. We all saw what she did in the Guineas and the Oaks and we couldn’t have been happier with her today (in the Yorkshire Oaks). It would be very hard to say we’ve ever had a more exciting filly than Love.”
Love was in fact marked up as favourite, marginally ahead of Enable, for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, but in the week leading up to the race the heavens opened up and dropped so much water on the track that O’Brien felt forced into the decision to withdraw Love from the contest.
A disappointment but not a train-smash as O’Brien still had four representatives in the race at that stage … Mogul, Serpentine, Japan and Sovereign … but, ultimately, they too would not face the starter after feed contamination concerns close to race-day turned into real drama, the details of which were announced in a media release from Ballydoyle.
‘Unfortunately, the results of the urine samples taken from the horses have come back positive from the French laboratory,’ the release stated. This, after a report had stated that the stable had been using a feed product which appeared to be contaminated with the banned substance zilpaterol.
“There is a possibility that the contaminant may have left their system by the time of racing however we have no guarantee of this and in order to protect the integrity of racing we have decided to withdraw all our horses
That concern then switched to the team of six O’Brien horses who had travelled to Australia.
It was in fact a time of great concern for O’Brien. He had alerted Racing Victoria of the food contamination issue, but it would take a worrying wait until the matter was finally resolved.
“Is it going to come up positive in Australia? We’ll know when they do the blood and the urine and the feed samples down there,” said O’Brien, knowing that, if there was a positive return, the worrying period would continue while they waited to see if the drug would pass through the horses’ systems in time for them to race at the end of their period of quarantine.
Thankfully though, that contamination episode ended with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and it was now all systems go for the O’Brien raid down under.
But not for long.
The bad news came through on October 14 that Aidan O’Brien’s Cantala Stakes favourite Wichita, who had run second in the 2000 Guineas and third in the St James Palace Stakes … both Group 1 races … before winning the Group 2 Park Stakes in his last start before heading to Australia, had fractured his right hind leg in trackwork at the Werribee International Horse Centre.
The injury not only took Witchita out of the Spring Carnival, but it put the colt’s racing future in doubt.
Another big setback.
On October 17, a win in the Caulfield Cup by Anthony Van Dyck would have settled things down quite nicely for the O’Brien camp and the five-year-old son of Galileo certainly had to right credentials.
The 2019 Epson Derby winner has underlined his well-being for the trip to Australia by winning the Prix Fou at Longchamp beating no less a talent than Stradivarius at level weights. To put that win in perspective, Stradivarius has won fifteen of his nineteen starts, including four Goodwood Cups, three Gold Cups … an extraordinary record … so Anthony Van Dyck came into race primed for the occasion.
But, again, things did not go O’Brien’s way as Australia’s top race-mare Verry Elleegant simply refused to be beaten and held Anthony Van Dyck at bay by just under a quarter-of-a-length in a pulsating finish.
No disgrace there, but no cigar either.
The wind of fortune still had not switched in O’Brien’s favour.
And so that brings us to last Saturday and the Cox Plate.
This time O’Brien would have two-pronged attack with Magic Wand and Armory.
No, he wouldn’t!
On the Thursday before the race, both of the O’Brien runners failed a mandatory vet examination. A second examination took place on Friday and Armory passed that test, but Magic Wand failed again and was ruled out of the race.
In keeping with the bad luck that had followed him through the month, O’Brien had just had his strike-force for the Cox Plate halved, but having Armory involved still meant he had some ammunition to fire.
And Armory certainly did come out with all guns blazing and he looked very much a likely winner in the home stretch until Glen Boss urged Sir Dragonet between horses and on to a fabulous victory leaving O’Brien again having to settle for second placing.
You want the punch line.
Prior to this run Sir Dragonet had been trained by …guess who, that’s right, Aidan O’Brien, before the horse’s sale to Australian interests and a switch to the Ciaron Maher and David Eustace yard, for whom Sir Draginet was having its first run. It really was quite an opening act for the stable but another tough result to swallow for the O’Brien yard.
Aidan O’Brien is a professional through and through and he will move on quickly because he knows as much as anyone else that racing doesn’t owe anybody anything … but, if it did, just saying, even O’Brien would be forgiven for thinking that racing owes him one right now.
If nothing else, this last month has shown that it doesn’t matter who you are or how much you have achieved, how high your status is or what celebrations you have enjoyed … the disappointments along the way … big and small …are very much part of the deal.
All of this could be forgotten however if O’Brien is able to win the 2020 Melbourne Cup which is a very real chance with the trainer with two leading chances including race favourite Tiger Moth who is $6 with Sportsbet and Anthony Van Dyck who is $11.
To say it is a tough game is an understatement.
Melbourne Cup 🏆: View the latest Melbourne Cup odds