In the spring of 2008 at Ballydoyle, the talk was of the 2,000 Guineas. Signs were that Aidan O’Brien was going to have just one significant bullet to fire at the first colts’ Classic in Britain, as the Godolphin artillery assembled. Rio De La Plata had won the G1 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere as a 2-year-old and Ibn Khaldun had won the G1 Racing Post Trophy, while Dewhurst Stakes runner-up Fast Company had joined the Godolphin ranks. That meant Sheikh Mohammed owned or part-owned the top three in the betting for the Guineas, and five of the top nine.
“Well,” said Aidan O’Brien thoughtfully, "it will be a challenge, won’t it?!”
O’Brien’s bullet Henrythenavigator won the 2,000 Guineas in 2008, getting home by a nose in a thriller from the Jim Bolger-trained New Approach, with Ibn Khaldun back in 10th.
Despite the Guineas reverse, 2008 was still a good year for Sheikh Mohammed. New Approach won the Derby and the Irish Champion Stakes and the Champion Stakes, while Raven’s Pass won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. However, those two colts – top-class performers both – raced in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed’s wife, Princess Haya of Jordan, trained by Jim Bolger and John Gosden respectively. Neither raced in Godolphin blue.
The battle of the blues (navy versus royal) was a feature of the early 2000s. People still talk about the Galileo/Fantastic Light duels: the 2001 King George, in which the Ballydoyle colt was unstoppable, the Irish Champion Stakes six weeks later, when Fantastic Light won the tactical battle and got home by a head in a race that still features in the perennial Irish Champion Stakes preambles.
Years of Ballydoyle dominance
Indeed, many of the battles were fought out in Leopardstown’s premier flat race. The year before the Galileo/Fantastic Light epic, Giant’s Causeway broke Best Of The Bests’ heart before they reached the furlong pole on the way to landing a first Irish Champion Stakes for Aidan O’Brien. The year after, the enigmatic Godolphin horse Grandera got up to beat Ballydoyle’s Hawk Wing by a short head.
There were other battles of the blues. Black Minnaloushe v Noverre in the 2001 St James’s Palace Stakes, Kazzia v Quarter Moon (not exactly blue, but still Ballydoyle) in the 2002 Oaks, Dubawi v Oratorio in the 2005 Irish 2,000 Guineas, Shamardal v Ad Valorem in the 2005 St James’s Palace Stakes, Ramonti v Excellent Art in the 2007 Sussex Stakes and in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes two months later.
In recent years, however, the instances of the two superpowers of racing squaring up against each other have been severely curtailed, and the sport has not been the better for it.
Ballydoyle have been dominant. Since 2010, Aidan O’Brien has won just about every top race in Britain and Ireland at least once. All five Irish Classics including the Irish Derby four times, all five English Classics including the Epsom Derby three times, the Coronation Cup four times, the Juddmonte International three times, the Ascot Gold Cup twice, the Irish Champion Stakes twice. Further afield, O’Brien has saddled six more Breeders’ Cup winners to go with the four that he had in the 2000s, as well as three Secretariat Stakes winners and a Cox Plate winner.
By contrast, the Dubai World Cup apart, Godolphin’s G1 haul has been worryingly light relative to the lofty standards that they set for themselves in the 1990s and 2000s.
There have been factors at play. There have been changes. There was the move from one trainer to two trainers, and the subsequent Mahmood Al Zarooni anabolic steroids scandal. There was also the fact that Godolphin trainers were denied access to the Coolmore stallions, and that was a serious handicap.
A glance into the future
There are signs that changes are afoot, however. When the Ballydoyle colt Air Force Blue and the Godolphin colt Emotionless dominated the market for this year’s Dewhurst Stakes, it was as if the old times were racing back. Unfortunately Emotionless was injured during the race, the duel never really materialised, but it was a peek into the past and it could be a glance into the near future.
There have been more changes at Godolphin. Charlie Appleby is now well established as one of the Godolphin trainers, he sits comfortably beside Saeed bin Suroor. Also, while there had been exceptions – like Dawn Approach – to the policy of moving new Godolphin acquisitions to one of the two Godolphin trainers in the past, 2015 saw a full-scale deviation.
New Godolphin recruits were left with their trainers. That meant that John Gosden, Jim Bolger, Michael Halford, Dermot Weld, Richard Hannon, Willie McCreery, John Oxx, Mark Johnston, Tracey Collins and Richard Fahey all had horses race in Godolphin blue (with navy seams if they raced in Ireland) this season.
The policy worked. Godolphin had their first G1 winner in Britain this season when the Richard Hannon-trained Night Of Thunder won the Lockinge Stakes in May, and they had their second when Jim Bolger sent out Pleascach to win the Yorkshire Oaks in August. As well as that, two Darley stallions, Dubawi and Cape Cross, are hunting up perennial champ Galileo in the leading sires’ lists.
Of course, there are other owners prevalent in the kaleidoscope that is British racing. Anthony Oppenheimer had a fantastic year, thanks largely to the exploits of Golden Horn, while Sheikh Hamdan and Prince Khalid Abdullah and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum and Marwan Koukash all had good seasons, as is usually the case these days. There is also the continued progression of Qatar Racing and Al Shaqab Racing as real emerging forces.
Aidan O’Brien was still king of the Group 1s this season, mind you, with 13 Group 1 wins in Europe and three Grade 1s in America since the start of May. Pleascach and Night Of Thunder aside, Godolphin’s G1 wins were achieved in Dubai and by John O’Shea in Australia.
That said, Godolphin topped the owners’ list in Britain this year by some way with 261 wins and over £5.2 million in prize money. They did have over a thousand runners, but their strike rate was a hugely impressive 24 percent.
These are interesting times. The next battles of the blues may not be that far away.