Nicholas Godfrey on the Breeders' Cup

In his latest update for attheraces.com, Nicholas Godfrey throws Aidan O’Brien’s record at the Breeders’ Cup under the spotlight.

  • Thursday 04 October
  • Blog
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Why caution is the watchword with Aidan O’Brien in America (unless they’re males on turf)

Snooze and you lose. So went a notorious Racing Post headline on a fine James Willoughby article after a lamentable set of results for Ballydoyle at the Breeders’ Cup at 2002 when Rock Of Gibraltar was among those compromised by leaving the gate with the same level of enthusiasm my daughter applies to her latest homework assignment.

While they’ve improved matters to some degree in the subsequent decade and a half, Ballydoyle’s Breeders’ Cup runners – and, for that matter, frequent runners elsewhere on the North American calendar – can still offer a major conundrum to punters.

Aidan O’Brien habitually arrives mob-handed at the Breeders’ Cup, an event at which he has sent out more Breeders’ Cup winners than any other European trainer; indeed, more Cup winners than anybody else except for those US training giants Bob Baffert and D Wayne Lukas.

LEADING BREEDERS’ CUP TRAINERS

NameWinsRunsStrike RatePrize Money
D Wayne Lukas2016412.2%$22.6m
Bob Baffert1410813.0%$27.6m
Aidan O’Brien121249.7%$22.0m
Chad Brown107114.1%$12.6m
Bill Mott109510.5%$18.4m
Richard Mandella94221.4%$12.0m
Shug McGaughey96314.3%$10.5m
Todd Pletcher91316.9%$17.1m
Sir Michael Stoute73918%$10.7m

Moreover, Ballydoyle looks sure to go to Churchill Downs in prime form, a mid-season slump already receding into memory. The big guns will surely be blazing in Kentucky – and yet, for all that a blank would seem almost unthinkable, the lessons of recent history send out a distinct message to punters regarding Aidan O’Brien and the Breeders’ Cup. It’s not quite a Zammo – “Just say no!” – but it pays to be wary.

Although O’Brien has averaged a winner a year since Man Of Iron took the Marathon (now a minor Grade 2 on the Friday card) at Santa Anita in 2009, there are some fairly stark facts to be digested about his overall record.

O’Brien may have had more Breeders’ Cup winners than anybody else from Europe but he has also had vastly more runners, 12 victories coming from 124 runners at a strike rate just under ten per cent. Not in itself a disaster – and somewhat better than, say, Saeed Bin Suroor’s three wins from 51 runners – but still one that results in a heavy level-stakes loss of £48.45 to a £1 stake.

AIDAN O’BRIEN’S BREEDERS’ CUP WINNERS

Year / Horse / SP / Race
2001 Johannesburg 36-5 (Juvenile)
2002 High Chaparral 9-10f (Turf)
2003 High Chaparral 11-2 (Turf, dead-heat)
2009 Man Of Iron 13-2 (Marathon)
2011 Wrote 9-1 (Juvenile Turf)
St Nicholas Abbey 5-1 (Turf)
2012 George Vancouver 6-1 (Juvenile Turf)
2013 Magician 7-1 (Turf)
2015 Hit It A Bomb 36-5 (Juvenile Turf)
Found 4-1 (Turf)
2016 Highland Reel 7-2 (Turf)
2017 Mendelssohn 9-2 (Juvenile Turf)
*(industry SPs from 2003 onwards)

A couple of warning signs are flashing loud and clear: avoid O’Brien’s dirt horses and avoid his fillies and mares. O’Brien hasn’t had a winner on dirt since Johannesburg way back in 2001, while remarkably Found is the only Ballydoyle filly ever to win at the Breeders’ Cup – and that was against males in the Turf.

If lack of success on dirt is hardly a surprise given O’Brien’s travails in the Classic over the years, I have to admit to being stunned that the stable’s hugely powerful band of females have evidently found things so difficult.

Given that O’Brien has hit the bar a number of times as well, with 16 seconds and 10 thirds on his BC CV, perhaps this is some kind of statistical anomaly just waiting to be corrected. Still, it remains a fact that among those defeated in the last couple of years have been a litany of top-class females, including Rhododendron, Seventh Heaven, Roly Poly, Happily, September, Hydrangea, Found (only third in 2016) and Alice Springs. None of these can be regarded as second-raters: indeed, none started at double-figure odds.

Their record in North America elsewhere is hardly stellar, either. Athena, a 10-1 winner of the Belmont Oaks Invitational in July, was the first Ballydoyle female to strike since Together at Keeneland in the QEII Challenge Cup in 2011.

AIDAN O’BRIEN’S RECORD IN NORTH AMERICA

YearWinsRunsProfit/Loss to £1 Stake
2018114-2.60
2017225-4.30
2016222-10.20
2015312+4.60
201419-6.90
2013180 (level)
2012116-9.00
2011722+10.85

All worth thinking about, maybe, with Just Wonderful near the front of the market for the Juvenile Fillies Turf  – a race O’Brien has never won, though Heart Shaped was beaten a nose in the inaugural edition.

On the wider issue, if you thought the successes of Cape Blanco in 2011 would have opened the floodgates for O’Brien in North America, then you could hardly have been more wrong. A lucrative 2015 stands out like a beacon, but since then his stats have gone markedly downhill.

They can still win, of course, Athena is proof of that, while Declarationofpeace did his bit to massage the figures with a 14-1 success on last year’s Breeders’ Cup undercard in what is now a BC race.

Race replay: Declarationofpeace wins at Del Mar on the Breeders' Cup undercard in 2017.

Looked at another way, though, Athena also highlights how, for an organisation famed for its meticulous approach, this all looks rather haphazard, given that she was beaten in the Pretty Polly only six days earlier.

Maybe everything at about 4-1 or below should just be ignored: in the last three seasons, the only winner you’d have missed would have been Highland Reel, a 7-2 winner in the BC Turf in 2016; on the other hand, you would not have backed 21 losers. (Idaho deserves special mention here, being well beaten at 7-5, 23-10 and 29-20; also note a dismal overall record at Woodbine in Canada, with no winner since Joshua Tree in 2010, and the last six O’Brien runners no bigger than 9-2.)

But what of the Breeders’ Cup itself? Any straightforward assessment of O’Brien’s successes suggests that punters might as well bother only with the Turf and the Juvenile Turf. Given that it features male horses and is run on turf, the new Juvenile Turf Sprint (the Declarationofpeace race) probably needs to be added to the portfolio.

Race replay: Mendelssohn become O'Brien's fourth winner of the Juvenile Turf last year.

Then we get to the dirt, where Mendelssohn is set to become Ballydoyle’s latest Classic hope after performing with immense credit in last weekend’s lung-busting Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Frankly, he wouldn’t need to do too much to improve O’Brien’s record. Johannesburg stands as the trainer’s lone Breeders’ Cup winner on dirt, Man Of Iron having scored on a synthetic strip at Santa Anita (when, intriguingly, he was the only O’Brien horse to use Lasix; they’ve followed a blanket policy since with their Cup team, to no obvious upturn).

The Breeders’ Cup Classic has plainly loomed large in the Coolmore mindset for two decades: O’Brien has saddled no fewer than 16 runners, more than any other trainer apart from Bob Baffert, who has run 20. Baffert, though, has won three times; O’Brien has zilch.

AIDAN O’BRIEN’S CLASSIC RUNNERS

YearHorsePositionSP
2000Giant's Causeway2nd76-10
2001Galileo6th100-30

Black Minnaloushe10th51-1
2002Hawk Wing7th6-1
2003Hold That Tiger5th5-1
2005Oratorio11th68-10
2006George Washington6th4-1
2007George WashingtonDNF6-1
2008Henrythenavigator2nd11-1

Duke Of Marmalade9th9-1
2009Rip Van Winkle10th2-1
2011So You Think6th4-1
2013Declaration Of War3rd9-2
2015Gleneagles8th7-1
2017Churchill7th16-1

War Decree9th40-1
*(industry SPs from 2003 onwards)

Admittedly, sometimes it has nearly worked out - the wonderful Giant’s Causeway, Henrythenavigator (on Pro-Ride), Declaration Of War - but more often than not it hasn’t. A series of absolute Ballydoyle top-notchers (on turf) have been trounced, tragically so in the case of George Washington on the Monmouth Park quagmire.

Giant’s Causeway, though, was a US-bred horse himself; the pedigrees of any number of others, like Galileo, Gleneagles, Churchill and So You Think, offered rather less encouragement. As did their performance.

There are commercial reasons for trying Galileo and his various sons in North America’s most prestigious race, a chance to show dirt-obsessed US breeders that their grass horses are worth using at stud. But it is a policy that has failed so far.

Mendelssohn’s US preparation represents Ballydoyle’s most single-minded attempt to date to win the Classic, though they’ve tried US dirt preps before, with Hold That Tiger, a son of Storm Cat who was second at Belmont before coming fifth in the Classic, and Dylan Thomas, who followed a sluggish start in the Jockey Club by not running a yard and missing the Classic.

Given his US dirt pedigree, Mendelssohn has always looked the right type of horse, though he won the Juvenile Turf 12 months ago. While the jury is still out on whether that idiosyncratic Dubai dirt track can ever be trusted, Mendelssohn, World Cup victor Thunder Snow and dual Golden Shaheen winner Mind Your Biscuits all ran admirably last weekend to put themselves firmly in the mix.

Having cost a fortune as a $3m yearling, Mendelssohn is already worth a fortune; as a half-brother to three-time Breeders’ Cup heroine Beholder (by Justify’s sire Scat Daddy), he will be very popular indeed as a US-based stallion. Were he to win the Classic, his value would go off the charts.

Still, I can’t help thinking he endured a really tough race in that enervating battle with Diversify at Belmont, and surely there must be a danger all the miles travelling back and forth to Ireland will take their toll in the end?

What is more, the trends you couldn’t possibly back this gorgeous specimen, despite his obvious status as the most serious long-term Classic project they’ve ever undertaken. Then again, what did Mark Twain (or Disraeli) say about lies, damned lies and statistics?

*My thanks to Ron Wood at the Racing Post for his assistance with the statistics featured here.*


Nicholas Godfrey on the Breeders' Cup
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