SUNDAY TIMES SPORT – 2000 Guineas. May 4, 2019
Never lose the freshman’s thrill. 21 years ago a young Aidan O’Brien came to Newmarket and saddled a colt called King of Kings to win the 2,000 Guineas. Afterwards he was overcome with how lucky was his lot. Yesterday he turned out Magna Grecia to win this opening classic for a record time and said “I am just so proud to be part of this team.” Only the names have changed.
What is astonishing about O’Brien’s continuing enthusiasm and modesty is that it has increased as his fame has grown. 21 years ago the Ballydoyle operation was impressive but it was old school compared to the high tech training quarters that now adorns the Tipperary scene. What’s more, Aidan and his wife Anne Marie’s second son Donnacha would not be born until that July. Yesterday Donnacha was winning the 2,000 Guineas for the second year running and his older brother Joseph’s had won the race for his father in 2012 on Camelot.
Some people get overwhelmed by the mix of work and family life but Aidan seems only to have been energised by it. When Joseph and Donnacha and their two sisters were children all four siblings would be part of the entourage at even the biggest of meetings. Now the already retired but multiple classic-winning Joseph is an internationally successful trainer. Ana assists her father after a serious head injury cut short a highly promising riding career. Sarah is a veterinary student who on graduation will no doubt add to the Ballydoyle Brains Trust and it was no surprise to hear that Donnacha is already in charge of a bunch of his father’s two year olds. At almost 6 foot the strain of doing yesterday’s 9 stone is likely to soon close out his brilliant riding career just as it did for his equally lengthy elder sibling.
To look at the postage stamp of a saddle on which Donnacha had to ride confirmed how tough a regime he has to make the weight. He is clearly on borrowed time and put his position with admirable bluntness afterwards. “It absolutely sucks sitting in the sauna for however long it takes” he said, “but when you are riding these horses it’s worth it.”
21 years on from King Of Kings, John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud operation which owns Ballydoyle and breeds and buys the horses for O’Brien to train, has established itself as the most powerful individually based establishment in world racing, only rivalled in size and success by Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin team whose three runners in yesterday’s classic were a disappointing 12th (Dark Vision), 13th (Royal Marine) and 16th (Al Hilalee). One race does not make a season but Coolmore will have extra pleasure in Magna Grecia’s better fancied stable mate Ten Sovereigns finishing a close up fifth.
Magna Grecia who started at 11/2 was a clear two and a half-length winner from the 66-1 outsider, King Of Change, but the form of the race was rendered a little suspect in that the first and second were part of a three strong group that detached itself from the 16 strong main group to plot a separate path along the stands rail. Led by the free running Shine So Bright the trio set a quicker tempo than their rivals who were clearly behind them a good three furlongs to the finish.
With no strong pace setter in the main pack, Ryan Moore was forced to commit the stamina suspect Ten Sovereigns earlier than he would have liked only to finally be headed out of third and fourth by Skardu and Madhmoon. The fact that Skardu was a full length and half off King of Change does reinforce the idea of the rails side trio’s advantage but that can be discussed further when some of the principals meet again in the Irish 2,000 Guineas in two weeks time. That seems the likely plan for Magna Grecia, King Of Change and Skardu while Ten Sovereigns may drop back to sprinting and Madhmoon could give his 86 years young trainer Kevin Prendergarst another thrill by running in the Derby.
Aidan O’Brien, who was winning his 33rd English classic said afterwards, “I’m delighted with Magna Grecia. He’s a lovely horse who developed well over the winter and matured great. He’s very exciting and we thought he’d get a mile well even though he had plenty of pace last year. Donnacha was always in a fantastic position and it’s a massive team effort.”
Magna Grecia ran in the colours of Derrick Smith but as usual is owned in a partnership including John Magnier and Michael Tabor, joined this time by the Niarchos’s Flaxman Stables. Magnier, Smith and Tabor are a magnificently proven association to which O’Brien likes to pretend he is only an additional player. “They make the plans,” he said in the winner’s enclosure, “and we just try and go along with them.” One thinks it might be a little more than that.