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Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Clicking With The Crowd

Anthony Van Dyck puts his best foot forward to win at EpsomAnthony Van Dyck puts his best foot forward to win at Epsom
© Photo Healy Racing

Just imagine the Derby post-mortem had Madhmoon not lined up. Yes it's a bit 'if my aunt had balls.' But only Madhmoon's gallant runner up effort to Anthony Van Dyck stopped Aidan O'Brien having the first five. That's Michael Dickinson - Cheltenham Gold Cup stuff in the world's greatest flat race. A lot of lotion would have been required for all the handwringing.

That Madhmoon came within half a length of producing a fairytale result for his trainer Kevin Prendergast still meant an unprecedented display of dominance by Irish trained horses with the first six home trained here.

Ballydoyle's enormous power means there is a distorted picture in terms of portraying this as a golden period for Irish flat racing. But the Derby remains the ultimate prize and the fact is that in the last dozen years, three other Irish trainers - Jim Bolger, John Oxx and Dermot Weld - have also landed the race that defines the thoroughbred.

Whether that validates any suggestion that Coolmore/Ballydoyle's dominance produces a competitive tide which lifts all boats is debatable. Much more obvious on Saturday was that such a tide dramatically ebbed among the top cross-channel operations. That's reason enough for fretting, both now and probably for some time to come.

It's dangerous to presume such things but it is surely only a matter of time before Aidan O'Brien gets to hold the Derby record on his own. Anthony Van Dyck's exciting victory meant he equalled the seven winners of near-mythical names of the past, Robert Robson, John Porter and Fred Darling, who weren't operating within the global dimensions elite flat racing has now.

O'Brien's achievement is astonishing and at just 49 he shows no signs of stopping. He's got the sport's greatest breeding empire behind him, the best staff, the best training facilities and a supply-chain infrastructure set up by 'the boss,' John Magnier, that is unparalleled in terms of expertise and ambition. Oh, and there's Galileo as well.

The competitive implications of such dominance can hardly be expected to be high on Coolmore's list of priorities. In fact without the support of Magnier in particular it's interesting to speculate on the Derby's overall health considering it's a race that is something of an anachronism in strict commercial breeding terms.

So rather than handwringing, the most fruitful reaction to such overwhelming dominance might be a concentration of minds on how best to compete better.

Something else sprang to mind when such strength in depth was being played out on Saturday. Anthony Van Dyck is the second of O'Brien's Derby winners to have broken his maiden at Killarney. Wings Of Eagles did the same in 2017. Such a concentration of talent means it gets dispersed around the tracks.

Another happy consequence of O'Brien's reign at the top is how the fad for unbeaten records among potentially valuable stallion prospects has all but gone. There was a time when a defeat could mean taking a costly commercial hit. That thankfully doesn't seem to apply anymore. Anthony Van Dyk got beaten in his final three starts as a juvenile, all at Group One level. It's not unreasonable to suspect that what was learned then had a role in him winning when it counted most.

There was plenty of delight about Seamus Heffernan finally winning on the 13th attempt having twice finished a Derby runner up. He and O'Brien have been working together since long before Ballydoyle and his support role there had already seen him carve out a notable big race CV long before Saturday.

Over the years Heffernan has been wingman to Kinane, Spencer, Fallon and Murtagh as well as O'Brien's sons, Joseph and Donnacha, and of course the current Ballydoyle No. 1, Ryan Moore.

Juggling the various arrangements involved in distributing such strength in depth must be a logistical headache sometimes, maybe even sometimes for Moore who on the face of it has best job in racing yet is currently experiencing a comparative Group One lull considering the depth of talent available in Ballydoyle.

It was Donnacha O'Brien who wound up on the right one, Magna Grecia, in the English 2,000 Guineas. Wayne Lordan was on Hermosa in the 1,000. On Saturday it was Heffernan on the Derby winner with Moore relegated to fifth on the favourite Sir Dragonet.

O'Brien always stresses the team element involved in this and no doubt Moore's employment conditions are of a kind most of the rest of us can only fantasise about. But ego is a fragile thing and those runner up efforts on Kew Gardens in the Coronation Cup and Pink Dogwood in the Oaks in particular had the look of a man not exactly bubbling with confidence.

In other news resurfacing the country's sole all-weather track at Dundalk is widely presumed to be a pressing issue although it appears there's far from any sort of panic-mode over the issue.

After 12 years of use the circuit was widely condemned by many professionals last Spring over a lack of 'bounce.' The Trainer Association even stated the vast majority of its members had lost confidence in it. Field-sizes reduced and the Dundalk management announced it would carry out resurfacing, at a reported cost of up to €3 million, with a completion date of next summer.

The not unreasonable question arose as to what that date meant in terms of a winter programme that sees racing resume on September 20, followed by five meetings in October, seven in November and four more in December.

A month ago Horse Racing Ireland's boss Brian Kavanagh said it was possible resurfacing work might be completed later this year and that Dundalk officials would get back to HRI after the tendering process for the job was finished. Well the tenders were reportedly back more than two weeks ago and it seems that important step has resulted in a frenzy of not very much at all.

Apparently HRI officials are still waiting for Dundalk to get back to them about what the tender process means in terms of a timeframe. With the clock ticking such inertia looks an expensive indulgence considering the sport is so reliant on a fully functioning all-weather programme that the majority of those in the industry can plan to use.

Racecourse attendance figures has been in the spotlight recently with the Curragh although there remains a general scepticism about the precise nature of reported crowd sizes generally. If it's a myth rather than a fact that every set of legs gets counted in such totals - with a few more thrown in for luck - then plenty are still prepared to believe the myth.

The really accurate measure would be financial in regards to how much admission money is generated although commercial sensitivity probably makes finding that out a non-runner.

But one hardy racegoer has challenged us 'mej-ya' types to stand outside the gates at some significant meetings, conduct our own guerrilla tot replete with counter-clickers, and then compare it to the official total given out at the end of the day. It's certainly an idea - clicking at a racecourse near you!

Finally anyone doubting the everyday dangers involved in working with horses need just look at footage of Ricky Doyle getting kicked in the KIlbeggan parade ring yesterday. These are wonderful creatures. But portraying the day to day reality of dealing with them in ultra-cloying terms is no good to anyone.

That Doyle got up and later won on the card illustrates how it's all but impossible to overstate the pluck of those riding them.