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Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Almanzor The Obvious Choice

Almanzor beating Found and Minding at LeopardstownAlmanzor beating Found and Minding at Leopardstown
© Photo Healy Racing

Racing’s awards season has began, a big deal in many other racing jurisdictions, but which in this part of the world is generally regarded as the sport’s silly season, a view that won’t have been altered by the decision to make Minding Europe’s Horse of the Year at the Cartier Awards. The task of investing any semblance of relevance or credibility to these things along the lines of America’s Eclipse award won’t have been helped by ignoring the bleedin’ obvious - Almanzor is Europe’s top horse of 2016.

There’s no greater Minding fan than this corner. That much has been obvious throughout the year. Aidan O’Brien’s filly could well have become the first filly to win the Epsom Derby in a century had she been given the opportunity. As it was she managed to win the Oaks despite Ryan Moore’s apparent intent on finding every bit of interference going. Minding’s versatility was also remarkable: winning Group 1’s from a mile to a mile and a half is not unknown but usually the pattern is to extend in trip. Minding successfully dropped to a mile in October’s QEII.

That’s why Minding will be a standout candidate when Irish racing’s Horse of the Year is announced at next month’s HRI bash. And despite that I’ll wager now she won’t get it. In fact I’ll bet a considerable amount the gong will go to Annie Power who in this context possesses the priceless virtue of popularity. The jumps game is more popular anyway, and good jumps mares seem to stir the emotions more than anything. Throw in Annie Power’s redemptive back-story from the previous year’s final-flight fall at Cheltenham, and she’s probably a ‘shoo-in.’

It won’t make it the right call though, just as the decision to ignore Almanzor’s claims for the Cartier Award wasn’t the right call. And even if this stuff is as irrelevant as taste to the new US President it’s still worth pointing out since otherwise what’s the point. Minding won out in a process involving points for Group 1 wins, plus votes from the public and the racing media in Britain. And just as the most important element of any survey is not the answers but the questions asked, so the electoral- college element may be crucial here.

Almanzor winds up 2016 as clearly Europe’s top-rated horse. He won the best race run in Europe this year — the Irish Champion Stakes — and had Minding behind him on that occasion, the only time they met. He beat Found at Leopardstown too, and beat her again in the English Champion. So in form terms he was an outstanding candidate. Visually he was outstanding too. So either those that bothered to vote had given their guide dogs the week off or the voting system is wonky; or maybe, just maybe, the French lost a popularity vote in England: who would have thought.

Anyway that’s all flat stuff and priority for the next six months goes to the jumps and its various thrills and spills. Proof that the spills can result in some notably grim outcomes came yet again at Cheltenham when the brilliant Simonsig had to be put down after a fall.

That those who ride horses as part of our entertainment put themselves at perilous risk every time they go out to race places a proper context on such unfortunate incidents. But there’s no point pretending National Hunt racing doesn’t present an ethical dilemma for many people who can’t just be blithely dismissed as lefty, wishy-washy tree-huggers.

Jump racing will once again get itself into a sweat in April when the general public tunes in for its once-a-year Aintree Grand National love affair with officials desperate for a fatality free race that will spare it the sort of shock-horror headlines which can come with rare expose to harsh news priorities. A much more harsh reality though is that equine fatalities are inevitable, and on any other day when that general public isn’t looking.

It continues to be in racing most fundamental self interest that it can stand over the integrity of its animal welfare standards. Because integrity is what we do when no one’s looking.

Just hours before Simonsig’s demise the sport’s happier face was illustrated by time being called on the career of his stable companion Sprinter Sacre who can look forward to a long retirement and even longer recognition as one of the finest two-mile chasers the sport has seen.

It can’t be claimed about many that they looked unbeatable, but during the 2012-13 season Sprinter Sacre looked to be just that over two miles. His 19 length Champion Chase defeat of a truly top horse in Sizing Europe was a superb performance and if some of us felt his confinement to the two-mile discipline made the rush to anoint him in the same league as Kauto Star seem premature then the excitement Sprinter Sacre generated at his peak made such a rush understandable.

Anyway racing’s most constant reality is it’s the next race which is always the most important and since it seems par for the course at this time of year to nominate horses to follow then here, for what it’s worth, are three.

There are zero marks for originality in nominating Douvan but he is the most exciting talent in the game. Sprinter Sacre’s retirement means he is an even shorter odds-on favourite for the two-mile crown but Douvan’s potential means the sky is the limit. If connections are brave, and he rewards them with a win in the King George then surely the Gold Cup has to be on the cards. Douvan will need to be exceptional to successfully chart such a course. But surely it’s worth finding out.

Kitten Rock has run just twice over fences, the last of which was over ten months ago. But this is a horse that finished less than ten lengths off Faugheen in a Champion Hurdle. He’s always looked likely to get better over fences and he’s trained by a master capable of squeezing every ounce of potential still in him. There’s surely a big pot waiting somewhere.

And finally, Avenir D’Une Vie was one of the Gigginstown squad switched from Willie Mullins and is now with Henry De Bromhead. He failed to figure in the Cheltenham bumper, or at Punchestown, but left quite an impression winning at Naas in February. He could be a novice with a major engine. And if he gets stuffed this week then the guide dog better hide.