Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Waiting For Perfection

Mon 2nd Apr 2018, 09:27

Willie beats Gordon in Ryanair sponsored Grade 1.
©Healy Racing Photos
The day after Sea The Stars won the Arc he was paraded in front of a media throng at John Oxx's yard. An unaware news reporter asked me what we were looking at: I told him it was the nearest thing to perfection either of us would ever get. He looked at me like I was high. But the finest horse of a generation was the exception proving the rule that waiting for perfection in racing involves waiting forever.

It is perfectly possible to both laud Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott as maestros of the training profession and query if them having all nine runners in a Grade One is a healthy state of affairs. Neither is it a pick and choose deal to point out how the Ryanair Gold Cup was both competitive in itself and an illustrative of wider competition worries.

It's also perfectly possible to argue how Irish National Hunt racing is enjoying unprecedented success at Cheltenham on the back of a concentration of resources among a select few owners and trainers which has left others gasping for survival. Or that the superb excellence of Mullins and Elliott has resulted in a duopoly, the evidence of which is stamped all over today's Irish National.

Only the colour-blind, those with an agenda, or those congenitally disposed to cheerleading, can definitively point one way and disregard the other.

For instance it is perfectly legitimate for Michael O'Leary to argue his investment, and that of others, has resulted in the best horses racing here every day, unlike in the past when they were sold to Britain and everyone had a much better shot of getting their hands on ordinary material. But then again you've got to be able to afford your national fervour and a lot of people can't anymore.

The beau ideal might be a spread of exceptional talent across multiple connections but that really would mean waiting forever. And even then there'd probably still be sniping from the sidelines, with tales of commercial woe that always come up against Elliott's unlikely rise to stardom: that's the ultimate illustration of what's still possible given enough talent and drive.

What does seem safe to say however is that National Hunt racing's image of itself has been transformed. A lot of clichés have had to be binned and there's no going back. It's in that context that the launch of a new EBF Auction Hurdle series appears to represent at least one practical step in offering potential opportunities to those outside the elite.

A total of 14 maiden and novice hurdle races for horses bought for €45,000 at a recognised store sale - with weight allowances depending on purchase price - will be run from this September with a final in April 2019 worth €75,000. It's an attempt to replicate the auction series on the flat which is widely regarded as a success.

It's hardly a perfect silver bullet to the difficulties a lot of trainers and owners have. And it remains to be seen what tangible impact it will have.

But it's very setting up is an acknowledgement that simply trusting the market, or blithely encouraging those struggling to get up off their arse, is the preserve of those not sweating on their next mortgage payment. Opportunity is all one can reasonably ask for and this initiative looks like it might provide some.

If Mendelssohn's 18 length demolition job of his Meydan opposition in track record time can be taken at face value then Aidan O'Brien and Coolmore are unlikely to ever have a better opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby.

For once the phrase 'awesome' appeared appropriate. If he really is as good as he looked on Saturday then only an exceptional American or bad luck could prevent a first European victory in the 'Run for the Roses.' There are a couple of nagging doubts though.

Clearly Mendelssohn can gallop like a dream on the dirt he's bred to love. But he got a clear run in the UAE Derby in terms of kickback. His two stable companions, Threeandfourpence and Seahenge, didn't and ran like drains. And it's asking a lot for him to go to Louisville and avoid kickback by again dominating from the front.

Horses can make all in the 'Durby' but it's rare. War Emblem managed it. Seattle Slew overcame both a swerve at the start and a speed duel at the front to still win over 40 years ago. But 'Slew' was another once in a generation type talent who happened to emerge in a decade full of them.

But the real nag is the Meydan factor itself. The World Cup card seems to operate in its own microclimate sometimes in terms of form subsequently not transferring elsewhere. In the past horses have put up spectacular displays in the desert and abjectly failed to subsequently replicate that level again away from Dubai.

There were other exceptional performances at the weekend. Thunder Snow has been an eminently likeable and admirable top-flight turf horse in Europe. But he looked like a world beater with his dominant World Cup display on dirt.

Another Godolphin stalwart, Hawkbill, is also an admirable performer, too long in the tooth for the pre-race histrionics he put in before the Sheema Classic, despite which he put up the best performance of his career in a dominant display.

It's a tantalising thought that Mendelssohn is the real dirt dream that Coolmore have always wanted to send from Ballydoyle. Just as enticing is the prospect of new ground being broken with a European winner of America's most famous race. And there's something enthralling about the idea of Aidan O'Brien following a world record year with a ground-breaking success.

It makes for a wonderfully exciting run-up to a true global event. It's 32 years since Bold Arrangement came within an ace of pulling off the impossible, a performance by Clive Brittain's star that time has made look even more staggering. It's just a pity those niggling doubts ain't going to go away.

However the triviality of such things has been starkly illustrated by news of Pat Smullen's cancer diagnosis. The measure of the jockey is recognised worldwide. The measure of the man can be gauged by the depth of concern for both him and his family.

Often it's the randomness of this disease that can seem very frightening. But it's picked on the wrong guy this time for a fight. And he can be assured of all the goodwill and support in the world backing him up.

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