Declan Rix

Declan Rix recaps on the stunning July Cup success of Ten Sovereigns, a victory he puts down to Aidan O’Brien awakening the mind of the three-year-old colt.

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As a general fan of sport, the mental aspect of competition – especially professional - has always fascinated me. Mental fortitude and sharpness can often be the winning and losing of an event for a sportsperson, and while more widely associated with human endeavours, it remains an interesting and underappreciated subject in horse racing.   

Interesting, because it can be an indicator in the level of equine performance, and well-being. Underappreciated, probably because it’s an extremely hard variable to tie down in terms of concrete analysis, and also the possibility of the subject not appealing to the vast majority of racing fans.

The majority of fans see a horse running and their enjoyment simply comes from the end result, be it from the horse itself, the associated connections or winning a bet. But what about all the intricacies of how a horse gets to the winning post?

Saturday’s brilliant bounce back July Cup success of Ten Sovereigns once more brought home how a better and sharper mental state in a horse can see an improved performance. It reminded me of a number of quotes Aidan O'Brien made about Istabraq many years ago in a documentary entitled, “Aidan O'Brien - The Young Prince of Ballydoyle”.  

When talking about the great hurdler, O’Brien said, “Obviously, he was brilliantly bred by Sadler’s Wells out of Betty’s Secret, a half-brother to a Derby winner. He has a great technique of jumping, he has a high-cruising speed, he stays very well, and he loves to win. And his mental state then, when you kick his mind into gear – it just makes him very different. He’s able to pump more adrenaline through his body than any other National Hunt horse I’ve seen”.

Later in the enriching watch, when discussing how Istabraq’s seasons were laid out, O’Brien continued, “Always at the start of the year, JP (McManus) would go through the campaign that he had planned out for him and say how he would like him brought along. Through the year, he (Istabraq) is physically fit, but mentally, he is asleep, but when you wake him up mentally he won’t last too long because his mental state will self-destruct his body”.

In talking about a gelding with no stud career on the horizon and a horse already considered a National Hunt great, there is no hidden motive to O’Brien’s words, and when considered in this context, make for fascinating unravelling on a number of fronts.

Where Ten Sovereigns and the July Cup are concerned, I think it’s fair to say we saw a ‘different horse’ to the one witnessed in the 2000 Guineas and in the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot – his performance figure alone says so.

I can’t be sure on a physically different animal, but mentally the Ten Sovereigns that lined up in the first Classic of the campaign compared to the July Cup were poles apart.

At Newmarket, the son of No Nay Never was relaxed in trying a mile for the first time. Having jumped nicely, he was easily reined back by Ryan Moore in trying to conserve as much energy as possible, and simply didn’t run like a 6f horse, for all, the trip and possibly a lack of a run found him out. The pace bias in the race also meant he was on the ‘wrong side’ which was far from ideal.

Going to Royal Ascot for the Commonwealth Cup, at a price of even-money, Ten Sovereigns really didn’t strike as a bet (how I probably approach a lot of my writing in mind) and appeared to offer terrible value, despite being the second-best juvenile the season previous.

Heading there, he just hadn’t shaped like a 6f horse in the Guineas and his pre-race demeanour didn’t curb any of my doubts; the three-year-old colt walked around Ascot half asleep, like a three-mile chaser. In the race itself, he was more alive, but it still looked like Ryan Moore needed to keep the revs up - the horse running like an unnatural sprinter - before Ten Sovereigns never really picked up and indeed, probably looked outpaced.

Despite getting a near perfect set-up in terms of how Ascot straight-track tactics play out, he was well-held in fourth and disappointingly beaten two-and-a-half lengths.

The fact that he looked awkward under pressure late in the race didn’t exactly fill you with confidence going to Newmarket, on what is a comfortably quicker track, taking on older sprinters for the first time.

In truth, I just couldn’t fancy him on Saturday, or especially back him with any real conviction, for all punters were getting a much bigger price than the even-money (Commonwealth Cup) and 9-4 (2000 Guineas) on offer in his two previous races.

As big as 10/1 the evening before, last season’s Middle Park Stakes winner returned a SP of 9/2, having at one point hit as low as 3/1. It was one of the biggest gambles of the 2019 Flat campaign so far and the market confidence proved accurate as the Coolmore-owned colt strode out purposely to annihilate the field by 2¾ lengths in what was probably the best performance of the British season, or certainly up there.

Ten Sovereigns wins the July Cup
Ten Sovereigns (left) destroys the 2019 July Cup field under Ryan Moore

I didn’t foresee the significant turnaround the market predicted, especially just 22 days after Royal Ascot. Whatever happened in between that three-week period, Ten Sovereigns turned the form with Commonwealth Cup winner Advertise by nearly five lengths and improved circa a stone in the ratings.

A number of variables I’m sure contributed, but the significant factor at play must be a better mentally equipped athlete. Ten Sovereigns simply looked more on his game - he looked like a sprinter again. The signs were there immediately as he hit the gates quickly under Ryan Moore, travelling sweeter compared to Ascot before quickening and showing a relentlessness late.

Everything about the Ballydoyle inmate looked harder, better, faster, stronger, which happens to be a song title from the Daft Punk album “Alive”, which is what Ten Soverigns’s mind now was/is. When O’Brien spoke of waking Istabraq up mentally, the mere mortal horse racing fan must be intrigued with what we saw in Saturday’s July Cup? I am.

How did O’Brien awake the mind of Ten Sovereigns in 22 days from Ascot to produce a different horse and how does he go about waking up his horses generally? Is it more quick and sharp pieces of work? I honestly have no idea.

The victory and post-race comments of O’Brien, where he said, “mentally, it hadn't clicked in for him yet” once again brought home the importance of mental well-being in the horse as an athlete bidding to fulfil his or her potential. With the money that came for Ten Sovereigns, which in no doubt was a “in the know” punt (I have no problem with it), it’s clear something had clicked since the Royal meeting.

You often hear trainers suggesting training race horses is easy, “you just have to get them fit”, I’ve heard it uttered many a time, but that in some ways does a disservice to a trainer’s and stable’s role in a horse’s career. Manging an equine mind is maybe just as important as the body, especially where the likes of O’Brien are concerned when dealing with some of the best stock in the world.  

Declan Rix
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