O'Brien ready to leave 'old order' in his wake
Not for the first time in recent years, the domestic jockeys' championship looks poised to provide a compelling sub-plot to an already intriguing Flat season.
But for the first time since Declan McDonogh prevailed in 2006, there's a real possibility of the 'old order' being disrupted. Reigning champion Johnny Murtagh, a five-time holder in all, and six-time champion Pat Smullen have shared the last five titles, with Murtagh emerging from his Ballydoyle split at the end of 2010 to reclaim top spot last year.
Both men are in the thick of it once again, but, if recent form is anything to go by, they certainly won't have things to themselves. After last night's Killarney meeting, where 19-year-old Joseph O'Brien had one winner, the young rider is now one ahead of Smullen and Wayne Lordan who both have 37 winners.
Cork-born Lordan (30) is also chasing a first championship. This month alone, a tally of nine has seen him outscore Smullen and Murtagh by four and six respectively.
With Coolmore-sponsored backing, courtesy of David Wachman, he might reasonably be considered a contender. As the 20/1 outsider of the four, though, the market says otherwise and it's his teenage counterpart that's threatening to throw down the most telling challenge.
Since July 1, O'Brien has plundered 15 firsts on home soil, giving him numerical substance during a season in which he has already excelled on the big stage. History tells us that the Ballydoyle gig is a uniquely pressurised environment for even the most experienced and skilled practitioners, yet the youngster has stepped up to the plate manfully.
This term, he has been a steady hand in guiding Camelot to three Classic triumphs. He likewise proved to be a stabilising force in helping repair some of the damage done to So You Think's lofty reputation and last Saturday he conquered France by surviving one of their notoriously fickle stewards' enquiries to claim a first Group One there on Imperial Monarch.
In a clear display of intent over the following four days, O'Brien knuckled down to steer home nine domestic winners, travelling by helicopter to Killarney for a double on Monday after next year's Derby favourite Mars had helped secure him an earlier brace at Dundalk. It is that kind of ambition that now sees him vie with Smullen for the market lead in the championship betting, both men generally trading at odds of 6/4.
With Galway around the corner, Smullen has plenty to look forward to as Dermot Weld's stable jockey. Moreover, the Offaly native might be further motivated to repel O'Brien's bid by the fact that he would be supplanted as the youngest holder of the crown should the dual champion apprentice prevail.
All told, then, it is not insignificant that Smullen and O'Brien are the only two of the quartet on duty at both Killarney and Leopardstown today. Murtagh, currently on 35, is a best-priced 11/4 to retain his title. Shane 'Dusty' Foley, who has thrived as Mick Halford's No 1 of late, trails by a further two, and can be backed at up to 25/1.
Murtagh is set to be aboard Native Khan if John Oxx allows last year's Epsom Derby fifth take his chance in the Meld Stakes at Leopardstown next Thursday, although the run is ground dependent. The grey, formerly trained by Ed Dunlop, had been off the track for a year before making his debut for the Currabeg stable on unsuitable ground at the Curragh last month.
But it was an encouraging effort with Native Khan finishing third to Famous Name in the International Stakes over a mile and a quarter. And Oxx would like to turn him out again in next week's Group Three over nine furlongs. "We're hoping to run Native Khan in the Meld Stakes. We're hoping for an improvement in the weather," he said.
Meanwhile, O'Brien's Breeders' Cup Turf and dual Coronation Cup hero St Nicholas Abbey drifted to as big as 100/30 yesterday for Saturday's King George VI Stakes at Ascot. The five-year-old had been as low as 2/1 favourite for the showpiece Group One, but last year's winner Nathaniel and Sea Moon, which has won both its starts for Michael Stoute since finishing second in the Turf at Churchill Downs in November, now share favouritism at 5/2.
Japanese runner Deep Brillante -- winner of the Derby in his native country -- has been clipped into 16/1 after some each-way interest.
King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes -- Coral bet: 5/2 Nathaniel, Sea Moon, 100/30 St Nicholas Abbey, 6/1 Dunaden, 10/1 Danedream, 16/1 Deep Brillante, Reliable Man, 20/1 Shareta, 33/1 Masked Marvel, Brown Panther, 200/1 Robin Hood, Windsor Palace.