October 16, 2021

O’Brien record watch: after Fillies’ Mile loss, weekend chances to reach Bobby Frankel’s 25 G1 wins

Idaho and Rain Goddess could bring their trainer up to a record tally of Group 1 wins in a calendar year (Photo courtesy of Woodbine Racetrack via Twitter)

Aidan O’Brien entered Friday with a total of 23 Group 1 wins this season, just two shy of Bobby Frankel’s all-time mark for a calendar year, and was poised to make it 24 in the Fillies’ Mile (G1) at Newmarket. But after the scratch of favored Happily, who spiked a fever, and the luckless passage of September, who suffered an agonizing photo loss, O’Brien enters a big weekend of international racing still at 23.

The master of Ballydoyle appeared to hold the aces in the Fillies’ Mile with a three-pronged attack. Aside from Happily, wheeling back from beating the boys in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1), and September, the Deep Impact-Peeping Fawn filly crying out for better going (and more ground) since her Chesham score at Royal Ascot, O’Brien also had a top chance with Magical. Having traded decisions with Happily at the Curragh prior to her fourth in the Prix Marcel Boussac (G1), Magical took over favoritism upon the withdrawal of her stablemate.

But the Karl Burke-trained Laurens denied the O’Brien duo with a relentless front-running performance in the hands of P.J. McDonald. Sent off at a generous 10-1 despite her last-out victory in the May Hill (G2), Laurens controlled proceedings on the stands’ side rail and galloped her nearest pursuers into submission. Magical, racing out wide, couldn’t sustain her challenge.

Meanwhile, September had been traveling well behind a wall of horses with nowhere to go. Finally finding daylight, she powered up the rising ground and joined Laurens on the line. Her freedom came a fraction too late, however, and the tip of Laurens’ nostril reached the wire first.

At this point, the Breeders’ Cup angle to the Fillies’ Mile rests largely with Happily, as O’Brien indicated that the scratched favorite could now point to Del Mar.

As an illustration of the old saying about not counting your chickens before they hatch, the Fillies’ Mile reverse impacts O’Brien’s chances of reaching the Group 1 record this weekend. He’s still got live prospects in four Group 1s across three venues – Caulfield overnight Friday into Saturday, Newmarket on Saturday, and Woodbine on Sunday. A clean sweep, or even three out of four, appears unlikely on paper, suggesting the record-breaking celebrations may have to wait until October 21.

Here are O’Brien’s Group 1 runners over the next couple of days:

Late Friday night US time, The Taj Mahal and Johannes Vermeer make their Australian debut in the Caulfield S. (G1) at about 1 1/4 miles. The former was known as Taj Mahal in the Northern Hemisphere, but had to add the definite article Down Under. A sophomore advantaged at the weights, The Taj Mahal has been highly tried in French and Irish classics, and the improving colt has pretty smart form as the runner-up in Arlington’s Secretariat (G1) and a creditable fifth in the Irish Champion (G1) in his latest. He also picks up the services of Damien Oliver. Johannes Vermeer, among the top weights at 130 pounds, must concede five pounds to The Taj Mahal. The 2015 Criterium International (G1) winner missed most of 2016, and this term, he’s rounded into form with a score in the International (G3) at the Curragh. Most recently upset by younger stablemate Spanish Steps in the 1 1/2-mile Ballyroan (G3), Johannes Vermeer may appreciate the cutback in trip.

Both are looking to upcoming Australian majors. Johannes Vermeer is eyeing next Saturday’s Caulfield Cup (G1), and The Taj Mahal may try Winx in the October 28 Cox Plate (G1). They’ll have to strike top form straightaway to topple market leaders Bonneval and Hartnell, the respective one-two from the October 1 Underwood (G1) over this track. Fellow Irish invader Riven Light is a progressive type for Willie Mullins. Add in the Underwood third Gailo Chop, an ex-European with back class, and reigning Australian Derby (G1) victor Jon Snow fresh off a Group 3 score at this trip at Moonee Valley, and the Caulfield is no easy spot to pad the numbers. On the other hand, a thought experiment: if the Caulfield is deemed more winnable than the bigger pots, perhaps The Taj Mahal and Johannes Vermeer are primed first up rather than taking a mere stepping-stone approach.

Saturday’s Dewhurst (G1) at Newmarket (post time of 10 a.m. EDT) is arguably the most difficult Group 1 of the weekend for Team Ballydoyle. Although O’Brien is throwing four juveniles at the prestigious event, they’ll all need to step up to beat Juddmonte’s exciting Expert Eye. That Sir Michael Stoute pupil turned the Vintage (G2) at Glorious Goodwood into a laugher, and the form has been boosted repeatedly since. Opponents must hope that Expert Eye is a little rusty after missing the Vincent O’Brien National (G1) with a dirty scope, or else the odds-on favorite is eligible to canter in again. Shadwell’s blueblood Emaraaty, from John Gosden’s yard, earned plaudits for his Newbury win, and Mark Johnston’s Cardsharp has been a reliable customer in a series of juvenile prizes. O’Brien’s quartet consists of U S Navy Flag, who has to back up his 10-1 upset of a quizzical Middle Park (G1); recent Champagne (G2) winner Seahenge, improved since his drubbing by Expert Eye in the Vintage; Beholder and Into Mischief’s $3 million half-brother Mendelssohn, a disappointing last in the Champagne and now resorting to blinkers; and Threeandfourpence, a Fairyhouse maiden winner whose best talking point is being a full brother to 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) scorer Hit It a Bomb and last fall’s Cheveley Park (G1) upsetter Brave Anna.

Sunday at Woodbine, O’Brien goes for a Grade 1 double. Idaho is capable of upholding his end of the bargain – if he brings his “A” game to the Canadian International (G1). The full brother to Highland Reel can’t afford any less when taking on defending champion Erupt, Ralph Beckett’s upwardly mobile Chemical Charge, and a solid enough cast of North American regulars including Messi and the red-hot Johnny Bear. Stablemate Rain Goddess has a tougher challenge in the companion E.P. Taylor (G1) for distaffers, where she’ll face fellow Europeans Nezwaah and Blond Me along with a potent North American squad led by Quidura, Rainha Da Bateria, and Fourstar Crook.

Might O’Brien enjoy an overflow of good fortune to make up for the bad-luck Fillies’ Mile? If not, get set for another round of record watch ahead of next Saturday, when O’Brien will have a flurry of stable stars in action on Champions Day at Ascot.