Mahler ran a cracker in the 2007 Melbourne Cup. Indeed, when Stephen Baster allowed the Galileo colt to stride on at the end of the back straight, when he led by over a length at the top of the home straight, still travelling easily as those around him pushed and kicked, you thought that we were set for another victory in the great race for Europe, another for Ireland, another summit scaled by Mahler’s trainer, Aidan O’Brien.
When you talk of summits and scaling, Aidan O’Brien is tops. When you start to list O’Brien’s achievements, it is difficult to know where to start and where to stop. Perennial champion in Ireland, often champion in Britain too, top-level victories in eight different racing jurisdictions, the only person to train the winner of the Epsom Derby three times in a row in the 235-year history of the race. And so on.
Aidan O’Brien didn’t add the Melbourne Cup to his CV in 2007. Mahler was pressed by Purple Moon a furlong and a half from home before Efficient collared the pair of them, but Mahler stuck his neck out willingly to retain third place. And you thought, it’s only a matter of time.
The trainer returned to Melbourne in 2008. While Mahler was the lone raider in 2007, Ballydoyle sent a strong team in 2008, a three-pronged assault that was comprised of Irish St Leger winner Septimus, Doncaster Cup winner Honolulu and Lingfield Derby Trial winner Alessandro Volta.
The controversy over O’Brien’s last attempt
Alas, nothing went right. The three Ballydoyle horses occupied the first three places in the race from early and, with the trio clear as they raced towards the end of the back straight, an historic victory looked possible. However, although Septimus led as they straightened up for home, he struggled on the fast ground, and he was passed early in the home straight, with Viewed ultimately clinging on for victory from Bauer.
The aftermath generated as many headlines as the race. The three Ballydoyle riders – Johnny Murtagh, Wayne Lordan and Colm O’Donoghue – were questioned about race tactics. Aidan himself was asked to come back to the racecourse, hours after the race had been run, to leave the dinner table at his hotel, to answer questions on the tactics employed and the performances of his three runners.
The trainer said that the ground was too fast for all his horses, that they really shouldn’t have run. He said that he really should have taken all three horses out of the race, that at least one of the owners didn’t want to run. These things are easy in hindsight. Septimus and Honolulu both finished lame, and Alessandro Volta was reportedly in poor shape after the race.
Perhaps it is because of that experience that Aidan O’Brien has not had a runner in the Melbourne Cup since. Perhaps he just hasn’t had a suitable horse. Perhaps horses that might have been suitable had alternative targets. Times moves on, however, and things change. Last year, O’Brien sent Adelaide to Moonee Valley and, under an inspired ride from Ryan Moore from a poor draw, he got up to win the prestigious Cox Plate by a short neck in a thriller.
This year, O’Brien’s Antipodean challenge steps up a notch. Highland Reel will attempt to emulate Adelaide in the Cox Plate on Saturday (Oct. 24), while the trainer entered three horses in the Melbourne Cup, Order Of St George, Bondi Beach and Kingfisher. Last month, Australian owners Nick and Lloyd Williams bought into all three horses. Lloyd Williams has owned four Melbourne Cup winners so far. It’s an exciting match-up.
Credentials of Ballydoyle’s 2015 challengers
Unfortunately, Irish St Leger winner Order Of St George will not be travelling. The prospect of fast ground has convinced connections to err on the side of caution. But he is a hugely exciting young horse - he won the Irish Leger by 11 lengths, and he could have a big future ahead of him. 2016 could be his year.
Kingfisher and Bondi Beach, however, are reportedly bang on track for Flemington on the first Tuesday in November. Kingfisher won the Saval Beg Stakes at Leopardstown in June, then went to Royal Ascot two weeks later and finished second to Trip To Paris in the Ascot Gold Cup. If he had had a cleaner run through the final furlong of that race, he could have won that too.
He saw out the two-and-a-half-mile trip well that day, but he also has pace, as he showed in the Saval Beg over a mile and six furlongs, and when he won the Dee Stakes at Chester last year over 10 furlongs. As well as that, he goes well on fast ground. He has a lot of the attributes that you look for in a potential Melbourne Cup horse.
As does Bondi Beach. The Galileo colt is the only horse in history to have lost the (British) St Leger, won it, then lost it again in the space of two weeks. Whether or not the St Leger result should have been reversed, or reversed again, is a moot point. What is not in doubt is the quality of the performance that Bondi Beach put up in getting to within a head of Simple Verse (one of the big winners on British Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday) in the final British Classic, the pair of the nicely clear of their rivals.
He is another who appreciates good or fast ground. Also, he has 12-furlong pace, but he has won over a mile and six furlongs and he was staying on well at the end of the extended 14 furlongs at Doncaster. That was just his fifth race ever, so he still has lots of scope to progress further.
It is 13 years since Ireland last won the Melbourne Cup, since 2002, when Damien Oliver rode the Dermot Weld-trained Media Puzzle to an emotional victory. This year, the O’Brien duo and the Willie Mullins-trained Max Dynamite constitute a strong team. This year’s race could stop two nations.