Monday 19 March 2018

Engels takes on O'Brien's Power show

Maestro seeks 12th Phoenix Stakes win, writes Ian McClean

"We don't know who discovered water -- but we're pretty sure it wasn't fish." So remarked philosopher, futurist and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan whose centennial is being celebrated this year. He was hardly mindful of horseracing when he said this but we are presently deeply immersed -- whether we acknowledge it or not -- in the Aidan O'Brien era.

So much so that we can hardly credit it in the moment. There are many measures of dominance, but on the day of this afternoon's Phoenix Stakes we should take a breath to pause and reflect on a history-maker in our times. The Group One is the most important two-year-old race of the season so far and the Master of Ballydoyle is bidding to win it for no less than the 12th time since his first attempt in 1997.

It's not that this is without precedent, Paddy Prendergast equalled the feat, but while it took Prendergast 24 years (1950-1974) to accomplish it, O'Brien managed it in half the time. The statistic makes O'Brien almost single-handedly responsible for a green-wash of the famous race (first run at the eponymous Phoenix Park in 1907) with no foreign invader appearing in the winner's circle since Mark Johnston's Princely Heir in 1997. By contrast, only two Irish trainers had managed to keep the prize at home in the 12 years before that.

O'Brien fields one-third of the line-up this afternoon, including favourite and Coventry Stakes winner, Power, and combined odds of his three runners make it about an even money shot that he embellishes his already impeccable Phoenix Stakes record even further.

However, to every Goliath comes a David, and the David in today's instance is 67-year-old Yorkshire trainer David Brown who challenges with his already proven juvenile Frederick Engels. It is an extraordinary position for Brown to find himself in four years after he sold the engineering business he and a friend had built up over 40 years to net himself a fortune.

Brown then decided to make a full-time pursuit of his enthusiasm for horses, which have been a part of his background since he spent his teenage years as a stable lad at racing stables including that of Dick Hern. While working, he had owned good horses with several trainers and enjoyed some success with point-to-pointers.

Frederick Engels provided Brown with his first Royal Ascot winner in the Windsor Castle on the same day Power won the Coventry before consolidating his reputation at Group Two level in the July Stakes at Newmarket where he beat by a length the same horse (Roman Soldier) Power had beaten by a neck in the Coventry. The Newark trainer is relishing the challenge for his stable star.

"He's arrived in Ireland and travelled well," he said. "He's absolutely fine and we're happy with him. He's come on a bit since Newmarket and he deserves a crack at a race like this. I think they are calling the ground good, which should be fine as it's similar to what we've been running on.

"You'd think we'd have a chance on the running with Roman Soldier at Newmarket and you'd think Power has us to beat, so we'll see. Johnny Murtagh always said he would ride him if we went for this race so hopefully he runs a big race. It would be fantastic to win a Group One."

It may also prove significant that Murtagh has won the latest three renewals of the Phoenix Stakes (on Zoffany, Alfred Nobel and Mastercraftsman). The overseas challenge is underpinned by Mick Channon's Gatepost, which was beaten just over two lengths in the Coventry and has been absent since. Channon, a regular visitor here, is unperturbed.

"My horse is in good form," he said. "He was a bit unfortunate at Ascot, but that's racing. We went the zigzag route there and it didn't quite work out for us. We were beaten two and a quarter lengths and you would hope we'd be competitive. He's a very nice horse and I think a lot of him, so we'll see. We're not frightened to take anything on. Frederick Engels could probably be the best two-year-old we've seen and this could be the two-year-old race of the year."

In O'Brien's first attempt to win the Phoenix Stakes in 1997, he fielded three runners, including the favourite Harbour Master whose previous outing had been when providing the rookie Tipperary trainer with his first Royal Ascot win in the Coventry Stakes.

Or as McLuhan once put it: "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." Perhaps he understood more of horseracing than he let on.

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