Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

The Poisoned Chalice Stakes

Mon 6th Nov 2017, 08:52

Champion Jockey Colin Keane celebrates his 100th winner of the season at Naas
©Hong Kong Jockey Club
Aidan O'Brien once said as long as he's alive he'll keep trying to win the Breeders Cup Classic. Since neither he or the Coolmore Stud partnership never want for persistence many believe it's inevitable the world's most powerful bloodstock operation will eventually win it. But Churchill's Del Mar eclipse makes it 16 goes and counting. It's what makes the task of morphing a turf champion into a dirt champion too perhaps the greatest challenge left for Ireland's champion trainer.

There was a brief moment when Churchill started down the Del Mar back stretch, in a perfect stalking position behind Gun Runner and Collected, that it felt like this might be the day. The Irish star had broken well, stood up for himself in a bit of scrimmaging and emerged in Position A seemingly travelling well within himself. And then reality hit home.

As his stable companion War Decree floundered further behind, Churchill found himself struggling to keep tabs on horses that have had their careers moulded to the particular disciplines, demands and nuances peculiar to dirt racing. And the stark reality is that they're different to the demands put on horses operating on grass.

The codes might broadly look the same but so do rugby union and rugby league and there's a world of difference. Rare figures can operate in both at the top level, especially given time to adjust. But more usual is the experience of Sam Burgess who was fast-tracked from League into England's 2015 World Cup Union team and emerged spectacularly out of his depth. It's been queried was such a move even fair to Burgess.

Giants Causeway and Declaration Of War came close to becoming Coolmore's commercial 'beau ideal' and their achievements in getting Classic placed appear all the more laudable as time passes. But Churchill is just the latest turf champion pitched in against the best Americans and like George Washington, Gleneagles, So You Think, Hawk Wing and even Galileo himself he floundered on dirt.

You can see the logic for Coolmore. There's little or nothing to lose. Gleneagles barely raised a gallop in the 2015 Classic but retired to stud still worth millions as a dual-Guineas winner just as Churchill will. And if a miracle occurs and one of their turf stars actually transfers that ability to the other surface then it really is pay-dirt.

But for a famously calculating operation it comes across as a rather haphazard hit-and-hope policy. Churchill hadn't a prep' on dirt and his pedigree gave no encouragement he could act on the alien surface.

Persistence is admirable and there's always a chance of an exceptionally versatile talent emerging form such a deep pool. But it can be no surprise that most of Ballydoyle's superstar turf performers sink rather than swim on dirt. Hit-and-hope may eventually work. A more realistic alternative could be to target-and-travel to the US well beforehand.

The succession stakes to replace Joe Keeling as chairman of Horse Racing Ireland appears underway given the number of feelers being put out. Given the role turned into a poisoned chalice for Keeling it's a wonder anyone would want to do such an onerous and unappreciated job for free. But prestige clearly appeals to many.

Given the number of own-goals racing has managed to score under Keeling's watch the appointment of his successor will be an important signal by government about its attitude to the industry.

An appointment of one of the usual suspects from within breeding and even ownership will be taken as a sign to just keep on going but without any unwelcome headlines. Such a course of action will be a wasted opportunity by government to insist on actual reform in return for state subsidy, a missed chance to get an insular sector to acknowledge its dependence on public input.

It's no accident that board chairmanships are usually the preserve of the grey and middle-aged. Chief executives get the pay and the clout and prefer their boards to be acquiescent. CEO's actually run the company or body after all and not unreasonably don't normally appreciate interference.

But it's the chairman's job to run the board and that's crucial when it comes creating the right atmosphere where the right questions can be asked and the right focus is set on the right agenda. A chairman needs to be able to facilitate and negotiate but also step back, a vital consideration one might think in representing state interests rather than allowing HRI to be just one big lobby group.

Boards are not renowned for being chaired by radicals. But there's nothing particularly radical in acknowledging that now is the time for government to ignore the usual suspects and appoint someone from outside the usual racing loop. In fact such a move could be regarded as both timely and politic given what's been going on.

The old argument is that knowledge of the game presumes certain agendas and anyone looking for perfect impartiality is delusional. There's also the reality that anyone truly from the outside could be forgiven for looking at the internecine politics involved and say thanks but no thanks.

But if there's no perfect impartiality neither does any prospective chairman have to be embedded. There's no need for someone to know about foal shares or know who won the Epsom Derby in 1974 in order to run a board properly. If ever there was a time for someone to take a cold, dispassionate and relatively agenda-free look at racing's administration and act appropriately it's surely now.

Even Pat Smullen admirers - and there are many of us - couldn't help but notice an intangible element to the finale of the flat season at Naas on Sunday. It was atmosphere.

Supporters of the wholly worthy new champion jockey, Colin Keane, arrived by the busload from Meath to acknowledge the 23 year olds superb achievement. When he exhibited Tommy Tiernan-type timing by landing a century of winners into the bargain, the place sounded like a football match and felt all the better for it.

Even on the biggest days of the flat season atmosphere is often notable for its absence. Sunday was a notable exception. The fact a young and gifted new talent was stepping onto the elite stage helped of course. Keane seems such an impressive character that his first senior championship may become just a relative footnote in a glittering career. But it was an occasion that will still linger in the memory.

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THE IRISH TIMES