Why City of Troy could be the greatest racehorse of all time

Aidan O’Brien, master handler at Ballydoyle, praises the three-year-old as unlike anything he has trained, with the 2,000 Guineas and Derby in sight

Brough Scott

Friday February 16 2024, 12.30pm, The Times

It is the oldest claim in the racing world: that a new horse could be the best we have ever seen. It’s been made before by Ballydoyle, but this time we may have to believe the tales from Tipperary. The would-be wonder colt is called City Of Troy.

He is a three-year-old sired by the American unbeaten Triple Crown winner Justify and he boasts the splendid credentials of three unbeaten and unchallenged races on the track and the extremely rare if performance-irrelevant distinction of having a black mane and a grey tail.

Two weeks ago City Of Troy was cantering alongside the equally grandly named and nearly as promising Henry Longfellow. They were among 50 Aidan O’Brien classic hopes and City Of Troy was already only 33 gallops and 94 days away from the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, his next step towards immortality.

The detail in which O’Brien lays out the programme is dwarfed by the admission that: “Yes, I have never had anything like him before.”

Cynics can say he and Ballydoyle have a bit of previous. The first time I came here was in 1974 when the “best we have ever seen” horse was a tall and also unbeaten bay called Apalachee, trained by the legendary Vincent O’Brien, who was an inspiration rather than any relation to the warmly intense, softly-spoken, 54-year-old now at the helm. Apalachee blew out in the 2000 Guineas and never ran again and there have been plenty of stumers since. In April last year, odds-on Auguste Rodin became the tenth Aidan O’Brien favourite to crash out in the 2000 Guineas.

But O’Brien’s world renown includes ten 2000 Guineas winners, and Auguste Rodin went on to win both the English and Irish Derby before bookending last season with a brilliant success at the Breeders’ Cup in California. So it’s worth listening both to the trainer and, especially, to the 55-year-old former top jump jockey Dean Gallagher, who rides City Of Troy every morning.

The colt has already rendered his usually buttoned-up jockey Ryan Moore practically shirtless in his emotions after three victories ending with an imperious domination of the Dewhurst Stakes over the Guineas course at Newmarket in October. Now his trainer sits down and puts his own name on the line.

“Of course everything can go wrong but this horse is very unusual,” O’Brien says, relaxed in the place from which he and his wife, and life project partner, Anne Marie, take just one week-long Barbados break before returning to this ultra-rural but super-technological racing kingdom in southwest Ireland and what he describes as “holidays every day”.

Since early morning his “kid-with-a-train set” enthusiasm has been just as unfeigned as it was when he first came to Ballydoyle back in 1996.

“There are so many people involved and it’s great to play a small part in it really,” O’Brien says, without a trace of false modesty. “It’s constant, it’s relentless, it’s 24 hours a day. Everything is logged: timings, weights, heart rates, everything. Every horse has a programme. City Of Troy would be 50 per cent there. He has already been away to the racecourse. A hundred of them went over to Tipperary for just a nice easy mile. But now we begin to step it up.

“There is no doubt that he looks different from anything else we have had at this stage,” he adds carefully. “Because of his stride length, his pedigree, the way he goes through a race, his heart capacity, everything about him is very different at the moment.”

As to the colt’s future, O’Brien cannot look ahead without dropping his voice into wonder at how infinite are the possibilities. “After the Guineas, if all goes well, I imagine he would go for the Derby and after that? It’s too early to say but there is a strong possibility that he would go to Saratoga for a dirt race. The Travers Stakes over a mile and a quarter. This horse is very unique,” the trainer says, shaking his head. “He could do anything.”

Even allowing for the enthusiasm and not to mention the need to boost future stud fees (for example, Frankel’s 150 annual consorts have to pay £350,000 each for the privilege) O’Brien’s words are heavy register. Yet it is the former jockey and City Of Troy’s daily saddle companion Gallagher whose testimony is even more persuasive.

“I have ridden some fantastic horses here,” he says. “The best for the past 14 years: So You Think, St Nicholas Abbey, Rip Van Winkle, Australia, Camelot, Minding, Magical. I have ridden them all at certain times of the year, certain days of the week. They have all got their specialities, their brilliance, and he has got all that, so there is no reason whatsoever why he can’t go to the very top.

“His stride pattern is so unique,” Gallagher adds. “His normal trots and canters are nice and loose like other horses but when he goes into his big action that’s the difference. In layman’s terms it’s like being in an aeroplane going down the runway and you know you are on the ground. Then all of a sudden you take off and it’s all very smooth.

“It’s like that when you are riding him. When you let the rein down and say ‘go forward’ you can’t even feel him touching the ground. It’s all like fresh air.” Gallagher laughs at the coming understatement: “Not many horses do that to you.”

It’s all wonderful, intoxicating stuff. I ought to be proofed against it by now and in the end you have to stop taking witness statements. Over the past 60 years I have watched all the great horses: Sea Bird, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, Dancing Brave, Sea The Stars and Frankel. O’Brien believes City Of Troy could be a match for them. It’s a very, very tall order, but so do I.

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