O'Brien prepares for epic War effort in Breeders' Cup
At the end of what has been a roller-coaster campaign, Aidan O'Brien sends Declaration Of War in search of a suitably epic swansong victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Saturday night.
With just eight Group One wins in 2013, the Ballydoyle maestro is on the verge of his worst tally in elite contests since securing a mere three in 2004.
He hasn't failed to hit double figures since, yet while he has contenders in four Grade Ones at the Los Angeles track tomorrow and Saturday, a single elusive triumph in the heady $5m climax would suffice.
From the outset, this has been a year of fluctuating fortunes for O'Brien, and the retirements of Camelot and St Nicholas Abbey were major setbacks.
By and large, his Classic crop has misfired, with Magician's 2,000 Guineas coup at the Curragh his sole domestic Group One.
On the plus side, O'Brien bagged his fourth Epsom Derby victory with Ruler Of The World, and witnessed his champion jockey son Joseph topple Mick Kinane's 20-year-old record of 115 winners in a Flat season.
The brilliant 20-year-old is now perched on 126, while his father is also en route to setting a record all of his own. It went unheralded due to confusion over statistical inaccuracies, but O'Brien senior's running total of 132 Flat winners trumps the previous best of 122 that was set by his mentor Jim Bolger in 1990.
The landmark was achieved four days after Joseph's historic win on Marvellous at Navan – when Century scored for the duo at the Curragh on October 13 – but the absence of any fanfare will not have upset the softly-spoken Ballydoyle supremo, who has alway been a paragon of humility.
Recently, O'Brien has recaptured some of the popular appeal of his early ascendancy from Carriganog Hill in Piltown by saddling Carriganog and Noah Webster to win three hurdles. While it will be fascinating to see where the rejuvenated jumps venture leads, his focus is now firmly on conquering one of the few remaining outposts on the international Flat scene.
Along with Tuesday's Melbourne Cup – in which he has no runner – the Classic has proved frustrating for O'Brien ever since Giant's Causeway's galling defeat to Tiznow at Churchill Downs in 2000.
Galileo, Hawk Wing, Rip Van Winkle and So You Think have all failed to measure up in the 10-furlong finale, while George Washington's second attempt ended woefully when he was fatally injured on a sodden dirt track at Monmouth Park in 2007.
A year later, the temporary switch to a synthetic surface at Santa Anita resulted in Henrythenavigator finishing an honourable second to his nemesis Raven's Pass, trained by John Gosden and ridden to victory by Frankie Dettori. It might count for nought, but at least Declaration Of War has an American pedigree with a distinct dirt bent.
In many ways, the son of War Front has epitomised the oscillations of Ballydoyle's campaign, with three meek reversals in between his smooth Queen Anne win at Royal Ascot in June and his defeat of the Irish Derby winner Trading Leather in the International at York.
As big as 9/1 to bring O'Brien's infuriating record in the Classic to an end on Saturday, he will be ridden by Joseph, who memorably announced his big-race cool when steering St Nicholas Abbey to a sensational rout in the Turf at Churchill Downs two years ago.
Joseph can't do the weight on the stable's other four contenders, with Ryan Moore stepping in on Magician and Cristoforo Colombo in the Turf and Mile.
Tomorrow, Moore and O'Brien team up for Giovanni Boldini in an effort to plunder the Juvenile Turf together for a third time, with William Buick pencilled in for Wilshire Boulevard in the same Grade One.
Others of Irish interest are Wordly in the curtain-raising Marathon contest tomorrow, and Dimension in Saturday's Turf Sprint. Both are trained by natives of Co Cork, Brendan Walsh and Conor Murphy.