Blow for O'Brien as injury forces St Nicholas Abbey out of Derby
Months of meticulous planning to deliver St Nicholas Abbey in the pink of condition for Saturday's Epsom Derby foundered yesterday morning at Ballydoyle when champion trainer Aidan O'Brien was obliged to call a temporary halt to the Montjeu colt's campaign and switch focus to the heavily backed Jan Vermeer as his prime candidate.
While the dust hasn't finally settled on their altered Classic scenario, indications are that O'Brien and the Coolmore partners will rely on Johnny Murtagh's presumed mount Jan Vermeer, Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial scorer Midas Touch and likely pacemaker At First Sight for the English showpiece, with the undefeated Cape Blanco waiting for Sunday's French Derby.
It will be a case of running the various routine tests over the surviving Classic contenders after their morning exertions before the ultimate plan for the weekend will be drawn up later today.
"Following St Nicholas Abbey's hold-up, all is up in the air and there's some juggling still to be done, although it's increasingly likely, but not fully decided, Cape Blanco will go to France with Viscount Nelson," said O'Brien.
Hopes that the deposed ante-post favourite could attempt to redeem himself on the gallops after failing to please there last Friday were dashed when St Nicholas Abbey emerged stiff behind from his box as the first lot were warming up, and the assessment, after urgent veterinary examination, was the horse had sustained "a slight muscle injury high up in his hind quarter."
"This meant he could not work today and we were advised to give him an easy few days. Obviously this will preclude him from running in the Derby. We always thought St Nicholas Abbey could walk on water and it is very unfortunate for all concerned to have a setback like this so close to the race," O'Brien explained, underlining how highly he regarded last season's top-rated juvenile.
It is a body blow to the Wexford native's prospects of following up his 2001 and 2002 victories in the world-famous Epsom highlight with Galileo and High Chaparral, as their English Guineas sixth finisher had repeatedly been clocking fast times on the home gallops until failing to assert his superiority over Midas Touch last Friday morning.
That surprising outcome, which set the alarm bells ringing and was confirmed in a mid-morning statement from Ballydoyle, sparked a sustained gamble on Jan Vermeer, which assumed the mantle of ante-post favourite on foot of a fluent Gallinule Stakes success at the Curragh the previous Sunday on his seasonal debut.
While disappointed by the sidelining of St Nicholas Abbey, O'Brien, in company with joint owners John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, is fortunate to also have a trio of high-class colts such as Jan Vermeer, Cape Blanco and Midas Touch to step into the breach and conceivably capture the English and French Derbys in little more than 24 hours.
Though a rapid return to action at Royal Ascot would looks odds against, a full recovery by the colt for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby is probably on the cards and success at the Curragh would represent handsome compensation even if a small fortune in ante-post wagers remains in the coffers of the leading bookmakers.
Ladbrokes estimate that the colt's defection has cost punters in the region of £2m and scuttled their hopes of a much higher pay-out.
"This one of the biggest ante-post setbacks to hit racing in years," remarked spokesman David Williams.
Jan Vermeer is now on offer at 7/4, with Workforce next best at 6/1 and 7/1 about Midas Touch, Bullet Train and Cape Blanco.
Godolphin have done their prospects of upsetting the main fancies no harm by booking six-times British champion and triple Epsom hero Kieren Fallon for outsider Al Zir from Saeed bin Suroor's yard.