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O'Brien is running out of bullets to reach the top


Joseph O'Brien with Australia

Joseph O'Brien with Australia


Joseph O'Brien with Australia

IT IS a weekend to draw breath. It is a hollow of calm sandwiched between the fireworks of last weekend and the next four or five Saturdays with Group races about to ping at us faster than the late Joan Rivers' one-liners.

Between Irish Champions Weekend, Doncaster's St Leger and Longchamp's Arc Trials there was plenty to keep tongues wagging, but nothing exercised the post-mortem mandibles more than that ride in the Irish Champion Stakes.

Nick Luck set the tone on The Morning Line last Saturday when he suggested that we could anticipate a "marquee performance" from Australia on his home track over his ideal distance on his perfect ground.

Instead, circumstances conspired to bring about Australia's third career defeat during a two-minute spell that Joseph O'Brien will want to permanently erase from memory. The only parallel to the shock reaction of the crowd in that moment was the numbness I remember when the PA announced the (attempted) assassination of Pope John Paul II back in 1981 while I was competing for the school in an event at Santry stadium. The incredulity last Saturday stemmed from witnessing the Titanic sinking before our eyes. Much has been spoken and written about the event in the meantime. Amid all the heat generated by the debate, two items crystalise clearly for me. Namely, the best horse didn't win the race; and that if you had swapped jockeys on the first and second for that two minutes the result would have been different.

The first assertion isn't rocket science. It's closer to Junior Certificate geometry. In a semi-circle arc, the wider you are the more distance you cover. QED.

Australia travelled wider than the hare later that evening in the Greyhound Derby at Shelbourne Park for practically the whole duration. One wag in the stands described the scene as the horses fanned out into the straight as racing "in double-spacing", with Australia tracking widest of all. Assuming a horse-width is about a third of a length, Australia forfeited about four lengths compared to The Grey Gatsby relative to their track trajectory on the turn alone. The margin of defeat was a neck.

In a 400m race at the Olympics the outside lane gets a 50m concession from the inside lane for having to keep to the outside circumference. In Champion Stakes terms, if Australia had been forced by the rules to stay in the outside lane for the duration, he would have been entitled to a head-start of a furlong and a quarter versus the inside.

Instead of being forced to stay out wide last Saturday evening on Australia, it was a choice made by the jockey to do so - albeit under circumstances evolving rapidly. The old cliché about sport at the highest level being a game of inches is certainly true of horseracing.

All sport at its pinnacle is a cauldron of pressure. What distinguishes the great from the good is not just skill, capability or talent, it is one thing mainly - how they show up in the moments that matter. It is the ability to make the split-second decisions under maximum pressure that characterises champions. Over 90 minutes in a football match a manager has more time than, say, a motor-racing driver. Jockeyship is much closer to motor-racing in that the wrong split-second decision in a five furlong sprint will cook your goose in less than a minute.

Joseph O'Brien was man enough to acknowledge he would do things differently given the time again, and that events conspired against him in the race. One ill-judged race doesn't mean the lad is a bad jockey. O'Brien has demonstrated masterful decision-making on many other occasions. He was additionally unlucky that it was Ryan Moore, riding at the peak of his powers at present, on board The Grey Gatsby.

The hallmark of Moore's current brilliance is not infallibility - it's that he makes more right split- second decisions than his contemporaries.

But even Moore isn't immune to mistakes as he demonstrated on Adelaide the next day in the Prix Niel, where he got trapped in a pocket at the crucial stage of the race.

In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell introduces the '10,000 Hours Rule', demonstrating that all virtuosos in any field have honed their craft through 10,000 hours of practice. During that time they learn more from their mistakes than their successes. Joseph O'Brien is 21. He only became professional in 2009 and won his first classic as recently as 2011. The spontaneous right action muscle just hasn't had the same time to develop as much as Moore's. There will be days like this.

O'Brien's main regret understandably is "not to make the most of him (Australia) on every occasion". It is particularly understandable given the colt will soon be despatched to the breeding sheds. In the world of commercial breeding, mistakes on the racetrack are expensive. Australia's neck defeat last Saturday could certainly run into seven figures.

Furthermore, there is something emotionally unsatisfactory about the unfinished symphony of Australia. The trainer's moniker of "best ever" is as yet unrealised on the race-track and time is running out. The Qipco Irish Champion was a precious bullet that missed the bullseye. And there are very few bullets left.

Sunday Indo Sport