O’Brien again faces his ma­jor Clas­sic chal­lenge

Ire­land’s cham­pion trainer hopes to fi­nally break his duck with Churchill

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RACING NEWS, PROGRAMMES AND RESULTS - Brian o’Con­nor Rac­ing Cor­re­spon­dent

Del Mar is where the turf meets the surf but just af­ter mid­night it will be once again where the turf meets the dirt as Ai­dan O’Brien main­tains his dogged pur­suit of Breed­ers Cup Clas­sic suc­cess.

Over the years Ire­land’s cham­pion trainer has thrown 14 horses with­out suc­cess at the $6 mil­lion cli­max to US rac­ing’s shop-win­dow event.

They have in­cluded gal­lant-placed ef­forts by Giants Cause­way and Dec­la­ra­tion Of War as well as blow-outs by stars such as Hawk Wing, Ora­to­rio and even Galileo; all in an at­tempt to pro­vide Cool­more Stud with a com­mer­cial turf/dirt “beau-ideal” stal­lion.

So while the Breed­ers Cup rolls into Del Mar for the first time, O’Brien meets fa­mil­iar chal­lenges such as gaug­ing end of sea­son fa­tigue and adapt­ing to a race-day med­i­ca­tion en­vi­ron­ment even more alien to Euro­pean vis­i­tors than a track which makes Ch­ester look ex­pan­sive.

O’Brien’s over­all Breed­ers Cup record tes­ti­fies to his Bal­ly­doyle team’s ca­pac­ity for suc­cess­fully adapt­ing to those is­sues. But it is meet­ing the dirt that has proved an in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cle to ul­ti­mate Clas­sic suc­cess.

Im­pos­si­ble

The dual-Guineas win­ner Churchill will be backed up by War De­cree as O’Brien at­tempts to se­cure the race he and the Cool­more part­ner­ship covet more than any other at 12.35 on Sun­day morn­ing.

The word im­pos­si­ble is re­dun­dant in any horse race and es­pe­cially one in­volv­ing the world-record break­ing trainer. How­ever, Churchill in par­tic­u­lar is be­ing set that sort of for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge which proved even be­yond his sire, Galileo.

Sud­denly switch­ing to dirt af­ter a ca­reer moulded for grass in­volves an adapt­abil­ity which per­haps can be best com­pared to a top rugby union player be­ing asked to im­me­di­ately mix it with the best in rugby league: the ba­sics might look the same but the nu­ances are all dif­fer­ent.

One of rac­ing’s nu­ances is pedi­gree and Churchill’s pro­vides lit­tle or no en­cour­age­ment that he can pull off a mi­nor mir­a­cle against elite Amer­i­cans who have spent their lives on dirt.

It’s 16 years since Jo­han­nes­burg proved to be an ex­cep­tional two-year-old cham­pion by land­ing the Ju­ve­nile on dirt – a task US Navy Flag is set too on Satur­day night – but there was en­cour­age­ment in his pedi­gree that there isn’t in Churchill’s.

That’s why even the 50-1 War De­cree is be­ing qui­etly mooted as a more likely Bal­ly­doyle con­tender than Ryan Moore’s mount but ei­ther way the scale of the task both Ir­ish horses face is im­mense.

If ei­ther wins they will have proved them­selves truly ex­cep­tional, worth every cent of what­ever strato­spheric stal­lion fee is even­tu­ally pinned to them.

Be­cause while the de­fend­ing cham­pion Ar­ro­gate ap­pears to have never re­cov­ered from an epic Dubai World Cup suc­cess in March that was a per­for­mance for the ages, his old ri­val Gun Run­ner ap­pears to be peak­ing at the right time.

Trou­ble

Ar­ro­gate’s trainer bob Baf­fert has three other starters and it is the rapidly pro­gres­sive and ap­pro­pri­ately named West Coast who could ul­ti­mately emerge as the Clas­sic hero. Sky Sport Arena cov­ers the Clas­sic from mid­night while all the Cup races are shown on the At­ther­aces chan­nel.

O’Brien’s Del Mar team all run on the anti-bleed­ing drug, Lasix, in­clud­ing the de­fend­ing Turf cham­pion High­land Reel who is joined by Cliffs Of Moher and Sev­enth Heaven.

Amer­i­can turf rac­ing al­ways places a ma­jor em­pha­sis on the post-draw but Del Mar’s turns are es­pe­cially tight with Frankie Det­tori quoted as say­ing he sus­pects any­one drawn higher than seven could be in trou­ble.

Even at a mile and a half, that could be the case which means High­land Reel’s run style, al­lied to a per­fect stall three draw, could make him tough to peg back.

In con­trast Rhodo­den­dron is 14 of 14 for the Filly & Mare, a race which sees Queen’s Trust and Lady Eli renew ri­valry from last year al­though the French Oaks win­ner Senga could be a value al­ter­na­tive to them all.

Ai­dan O’Brien: has thrown 14 horses with­out suc­cess at the $6 mil­lion race

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