Monday Outlook: O'Brien's trainers' title under threat
Weld's lightning start to season leaves Ballydoyle playing catch-up
THE first domestic Group One of the season is still five days away but, even at this early remove, it looks as if the trainers' championship might yet be more than a one-horse race.
For the past 15 years, Aidan O'Brien's relentless domination has gone uninterrupted. The Ballydoyle whiz has been crowned champion Flat trainer 16 times in all since 1997 and the only man to disrupt that hegemony held a lead of around €347,850 after yesterday's card at Navan.
Dermot Weld recorded the latest of his eight titles in 1998, a year after O'Brien won his first on the level. His stable jockey, Pat Smullen, is also 11 clear in his bid to regain the jockeys' crown that he won for a sixth time in 2010, but the prospect of Weld disrupting the current order is something of a novelty.
Of course, he has remained a force of considerable influence throughout, to the extent that he has been the leading handler in terms of winners trained on six occasions since 1998.
Weld is 13 clear in the numerical table at the moment, last topping that category in 2007 for a 22nd time, having first done so in 1972.
However, despite being one of the world's most innovative globe-trotters, like everyone else he has struggled to compete with Coolmore's financial clout. Still, he never lost his touch when he had the material, and that has been especially evident of late.
Unlike in the past, when many of his team would be campaigned to peak at Ballybrit in the height of summer, Weld's horses have carried all before them at the upper end of the scale from the outset.
Early on, he lost his promising Classic contender Free Eagle until at least the autumn, yet fellow three-year-olds Fascinating Rock, Tested, Afternoon Sunlight, Mustajeeb, Vote Often and Tarfasha have filled the breach in style.
There have been 21 Pattern races run in Ireland so far this term, with Weld responsible for 10 of the victors. In 2013, he amassed just nine such winners all year. The incorporation of some smart Aga Khan horses into his team has been an unexpected boon, but none of those 10 Pattern wins have been for his new patron.
What will be fascinating to watch now will be whether his initial surge of supremacy can be sustained and translated into big-race success. So far, the two most lucrative prizes to wing their way back to the Curragh's Rosewell House have been Fascinating Rock's Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial promotion and Stuccodor's Irish Lincoln coup.
Each of those contributed €61,000 to the coffers, but there is €478,200 on offer in win prize money alone for next weekend's three Group Ones at headquarters. Weld's lead could conceivably be wiped out in one fell swoop if O'Brien's bluebloods hit form, which they often do at this time of year.
The good ship Ballydoyle is taking longer than usual to turn, but it has the potential to thrash its way through the remainder of the campaign once it does. Australia, Magician, Ruler Of The World, Verazzano, War Command and Orchestra are among those with immense potential.
On the other hand, a lot of their work might be done abroad. Were O'Brien to win the Epsom Derby and have a successful Royal Ascot, he could even launch a more potent challenge on the British championship, which he has been runner-up in for the past three years.
Moreover, each of the 12 Irish Group One races went to a different stable in 2013. Sure, the chances of that occurring again are quite slim, but that it happened at all is indicative of how the landscape has altered ever so slightly on the Flat scene.
There has been no meaningful shift in power, but Flat racing here is currently more competitive than it was. Jim Bolger threw his weight around in 2013 and Weld has picked up the mantle this time, while the likes of John Oxx, Paul Deegan, Ger Lyons, David Wachman, Mick Halford and Eddie Lynam all make their presence felt.
Maybe it will be a case of 'as you were' by the time the curtain comes down in November – but as of now things are teed up intriguingly ahead of Guineas weekend.
Chrome's triple crown bid not certain to happen
California Chrome's bid to become the first horse to complete the American Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 could yet fail to materialise. The fairytale of the rejuvenated chestnut colt with four white socks grew further legs when he justified odds-on status in the Preakness at Pimlico on Saturday.
His rags-to-riches tale is enhanced by the fact that he is trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman, but the Orange County handler, who was born in Brooklyn, says that one of the horse's owners might yet veto a trip to New York on June 7.
When I'll Have Another won the first two legs in 2012, the New York officials informed connections that the nasal strips he sported in doing so would not be permitted in the Belmont Stakes. Sherman fears that Perry Martin, who first mooted the idea that California Chrome try the same strips when his six-race winning streak began, will not allow him run without the strips.
In the event, I'll Have Another never made it to the 12-furlong Belmont Grade One, but 11 other horses have tried and failed to secure the elusive third leg since 1978.
Given American racing's liberal drug policies, it would be mildly ironic if such an innocuous breathing aid were to undo California Chrome's tilt at history, though it seems it wouldn't be beyond Martin to spoil the party.
Irked that he had difficulty getting his 84-year-old mother into the winner's enclosure at the Kentucky Derby, he didn't even attend the Maryland venue on Saturday, seemingly much to the frustration of Sherman and co-owner Steve Coburn, who sounded a defiant note on the matter.
"We'll drag his butt to Belmont if he doesn't want to show up," Coburn said. "All I can say is, Perry, you're missing a hell of a party, buddy. You really are."
Dettori enjoys more glory at Newbury
Olympic Glory defied drifting to an SP of 11/8 from a shade of odds-on to give Frankie Dettori his first British Group One for nearly two years in Saturday's Lockinge Stakes at Newbury. Concerns about the drying ground proved unfounded for Richard Hannon's five-year-old, as he scored readily, with Verrazano an encouraging third on his Ballydoyle debut.
The American import wasn't unduly punished by Joseph O'Brien on his first Turf start, and is now expected to add to his two Stateside Grade One triumphs with a tilt at the next month's Queen Anne Stakes at Ascot.
Irish exports excel in Singapore Goup Ones
Eddie Lynam's Balmont Mast failed to figure in yesterday's International Sprint in Singapore, though both of the card's Group Ones went the way of ex-Irish horses.
The winner of the near £500,000 six-furlong contest was Lucky Nine, which landed a Naas maiden for Andy Oliver in 2009. Dan Excel, a smart winner of Leopardstown's 2,000 Guineas trial for Kevin Prendergast that finished fifth in the 2011 Irish Derby, went on to claim the £1.4m International Cup. It was the six-year-old's second top-level success since being exported.
Katie Walsh Outshine brother Ruby in France
Ruby Walsh's Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris spin on Long Run came to nothing but his sister Katie came up trumps by driving the indomitable Thousand Stars to a brave nose triumph in Auteuil.
Walsh was standing in for Sam Waley-Cohen yesterday aboard Long Run, as amateurs are not allowed to ride in the main race nominated for the Quinte bet. Nonetheless, Nicky Henderson's charge ran a lifeless race behind fellow 4/1 joint-favourite favourite Storm Of Saintly.
Ruby's sister, however, did her bit for the amateur cause with a stirring win in the Prix La Barka. She led two-out on Willie Mullins' versatile 10-year-old grey, which clung on desperately to claim a second win in the Grade Two following his first in 2012, and a fourth at the track.
Returned at odds of 8/1, Thousand Stars was winning for a 12th time in all. Ruby Walsh was a length-and-a-quarter back in third on the 7/4 favourite Diakali, with stable-mates Zaidpour fifth and Glens Melody seventh. Mullins' Gitane Du Berlais finished third in a four-year-olds' Grade Three.
Carberry steals show on Hareth at Limerick
Paul Carberry stole the show at Limerick yesterday with a typically daring last-to-first ride to pinch the handicap hurdle on Charlie Swan's well-backed Hareth (9/2 into 7/2).
The evergreen 40-year-old pounced after the last flight, and had just enough in hand to repel the renewed challenge of the favourite Go Paddy Go by a short-head on the line.
"I had the best jockey," his fellow former champion Swan admitted. "He was unreal."
Davy Russell, recently deposed from the summit of the riders' table, was also on mark, making the most of his newfound alliance with Jessica Harrington to get the odds-on Cailin Annamh home with a bit to spare in the mares' chase.
The bumper went to the first-time hooded Macbride (9/2), which scored in JP McManus' silks for Aidan O'Brien and his 7lb-claiming daughter, Sarah.
1.01 What Escape To Glory traded at (1/100) inside the final furlong at Thirsk before it capitulated in the last leg of the Scoop6 on Saturday, costing one punter what would have been a record betting shop pay-out of £6,874,345 for an £8 line.
An Irish punter who had staked the equivalent of a £2 line had selected the eventual third, Capaill Liath, was one of just three holding tickets in the final leg. The bet will roll over for a 12th time on Saturday, with the overall fund estimated to be £15m.