Aidan O’Brien wins the Irish Derby. That’s the rule. It is difficult to think of any top race in the world in which a trainer is as dominant as the master of Ballydoyle is in the Irish Derby.
It all began in 1997, when O’Brien sent Desert King to The Curragh to land his first. Galileo followed four years later, then High Chaparral, and then, after a break of four years, came an unstoppable flood, a relentless stream of top-class horses that carried the prize from The Curragh back to Ballydoyle with metronomic regularity.
Remarkably, Aidan O’Brien sent out seven Irish Derby winners in a row from Dylan Thomas in 2006 to Camelot in 2012.
Fame And Glory’s win in 2009 provided Aidan with his seventh Irish Derby winner, taking him past the total of six set by his predecessor at Ballydoyle, the legendary Vincent O’Brien. Not only that, but Aidan has been responsible for the 1-2-3 in the Irish Derby on three occasions: in 2007, 2010 and 2011; and the 1-2-4 in 2009, when Golden Sword chased Fame And Glory home. It is an unprecedented level of dominance of Ireland’s flagship race.
This year, it looks like Australia is on track to carry the Ballydoyle flag to The Curragh. Always highly regarded by those closely associated with him, the Galileo colt lived up to the hype when he demolished a high-class field to win the Derby at Epsom two and a half weeks ago.
He only got home by a length and a bit in the end, but he travelled through the race like a top-class horse, and he could have been called the most likely winner before they reached the two-furlong pole. Under a ride from Joseph O’Brien, which was superb in its simplicity, Australia showed a race-winning turn of foot to take it up just outside the furlong pole before keeping on well all the way to the line to hold Kingston Hill at bay, the pair of them clear of their rivals.
The path from Epsom’s winner’s enclosure to The Curragh is a path that has been well worn by Ballydoyle horses. Vincent O’Brien completed the Derby double with Nijinsky in 1970 and The Minstrel in 1977, while El Gran Senor and Law Society, both second at Epsom, went one better at The Curragh.
The four Aidan O’Brien-trained Epsom Derby winners before Australia all went on to contest the Irish Derby, with three of them – Galileo (2001), High Chaparral (2002), and Camelot (2012) – completing the double. It is the logical step. An Epsom Derby winner who can follow up by winning the Irish Derby – a dual Derby winner – is a top-class performer. Outside of the three aforementioned Ballydoyle horses, subsequent Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Sinndar is the only other dual Derby winner in the last 20 years.
The worry with Australia is the ground. There is some rain forecast for The Curragh between Wednesday and Saturday, and Aidan O’Brien has been forthright in his assertion that his Epsom Derby winner would not run in the Irish Derby if the ground happened to come up soft.
Perhaps Camelot is still fresh in the trainer’s memory. Camelot won the Irish Derby in 2012, but that victory did not come without its toll. The ground was heavy at The Curragh that day, bordering on unraceable, and not ideal for a top-class, good-moving son of Montjeu.
O’Brien blamed himself for running Camelot in the Irish Derby on ground that he knew was not suitable. He said it took so much of an effort from Camelot to win that day that he was never the same horse afterward.
Sure enough, the evidence backs up that hypothesis. Camelot was unbeaten in five runs up to and including the Irish Derby, and counts among his wins a Racing Post Trophy, a 2,000 Guineas, and an Epsom Derby – three Classics among four G1 victories. In five subsequent runs, by contrast, he won just once, a G3 at The Curragh for which he was sent off the 1-to-3 favourite on his debut at age 4.
However, Aidan O’Brien is being hard on himself. The decision to run Camelot that day was a collective decision, taken by team Ballydoyle and no doubt influenced by the fact that it was the Irish Derby. John Magnier intimated as much in his post-race interview when he spoke of the importance of the quality of the Irish Derby, and of how the sponsors deserved to have the Epsom Derby winner line up in it.
But with Australia you sense that the decision on whether or not to run in Saturday’s race will be determined exclusively by what is deemed to be best for the horse. On good or fast ground, all things being equal, he will run and he will be long odds-on to win. On soft ground, however, you sense that he will not be risked.
All is not lost if Australia does not run at The Curragh. He has a legitimate alternative target in the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park Racecourse the following week. Actually, you could argue that it is a more suitable target.
It may be that the 10-furlong trip of the Eclipse is a more suitable distance for Australia than the 12 furlongs of the Irish Derby. Although he is by a Derby winner and out of an Oaks winner, he had the pace to finish third in a really good Guineas, he has reportedly been clocking serious fractions at home, and it may be that he was reaching the end of his stamina boundaries when he reached the winning line at Epsom.
The Eclipse would not be an easy target. On the contrary, the brilliant Sea The Stars is the only Derby winner to win it since Nashwan in 1989. But therein lies the attraction for Australia. It may be that he would achieve more in winning the Eclipse – a Derby winner dropping down in trip and beating his elders as well as his contemporaries – than he would in winning the Irish Derby, in beating more or less the same horses he beat in the Epsom Derby over the same trip.
It could all come down to the weather, and even Aidan O’Brien cannot control the weather.