RYAN PLANNING TWIN ASSAULT ON MARATHON CROWN
Newmarket trainer John Ryan may not possess the firepower of his more illustrious neighbours, but the former jump jockey holds two aces is his quest to win the £150,000 Marathon Final at Lingfield Park on Good Friday.
He is no stranger to big race success, having won a Lincoln with Ocean Tempest and pattern races with the likes of Silver Grecian and Iver Bridge Lad.
Now he plans to pitch both Fast-Track Qualifiers Aircraft Carrier and the classy Grey Britain into the two-mile championship at Easter and is also preparing for a crack at the two sprint finals with live outsiders Merhoob and Shining Armor.
Ryan has only 14 All-Weather horses in training, but has been punching above his weight this winter, sitting in the top 10 in the prize money charts with an enviable strike rate of 23 per cent.
“We don’t have many horses to run at this time of year but it’s great to have some live prospects for the big races,” says Ryan, who like his father Mick before him, has never shied away from taking on the big guns with horses he believes in.
“To have a winner on Good Friday would mean a lot and I couldn’t split my two in the Marathon. They’ll both go to Lingfield with live chances and that’s a great position for any trainer to be in.”
Aircraft Carrier has emerged as a candidate for horse of the season, with three wins to his name already including a qualifier at Wolverhampton in January. Not bad for a cast off from the powerful battalions of Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle empire.
“He’s really surprised me,” adds Ryan, who paid just 27,000 gns to secure the colt for owner John Stocker at the autumn sales. “He’s a lovely big horse with a big pedigree and looked like he would need a bit of time, but has progressed much quicker than I could have predicted.
“I ran him straight out of the sales and his three wins all came within little more than a month. Martin Harley deserves a lot of credit. He’s ridden the horse with so much confidence and belief but now he’s in Hong Kong I’m going to have to find another jockey come Good Friday.
“He’s earned a short break and now he’s qualified I don’t have to run him again until the Final. I might take him to Chelmsford for another qualifier in March, just to open his lungs, but he could just as happily go to Lingfield fresh.”
Aircraft Carrier wins a Fast-Track Qualifier at Wolverhampton
Ryan has enjoyed a surprising level of success with the horses he’s bought out of Ballydoyle. Battle Of Marathon, a 23,000 gns buy, was third in last season’s Group 3 Winter Derby while Sandro Botticelli was snapped up for just 14,000 gns and won the Listed Esher Stakes at Sandown.
“I have a good working relationship with the Coolmore team and always do my homework before the sales, but I’m not a genius. If you buy a second-hand Rolls Royce it’s second hand for a reason. They only sell horses that don’t come up to their high expectations, so you have to take a chance, but they’re very transparent.”
Grey Britain has also enjoyed a productive winter, winning handicaps at Wolverhampton and Lingfield. Unlike the younger Aircraft Carrier, who remains unexposed, the five-year-old has enjoyed a resurgence this winter that is testimony to Ryan’s skills.
“Grey Britain has been a very good horse, but circumstances conspired against him last year. He won a Listed race at Newmarket in the spring but was restricted all summer by the fast ground, which he hates.
“The silver lining to that cloud was that we went into the winter with a fresh horse and I always had it in the back on my mind that he could develop into a Marathon type. He proved he stays the Final trip when he won at Lingfield at the beginning of February and had excuses in the Fast-Track Qualifier at Kempton last time.
“We went there expecting to win but everything went wrong and he finished third in a muddling race. I feared the worst when Watersmeet - a confirmed front runner - was taken out. It turned into a sprint and we were locked up with nowhere to go.
“Adam (Kirby) was sensible because even if he’d given him a harder race he wouldn’t have finished any closer. He’s come out of the race in one piece, which is all that matters, and we’ll still go to Lingfield with a lot of confidence.
“On reflection I don’t think Kempton really plays to his strengths, but he loves Lingfield as he proved when winning over 2m there in a true-run race. He’s a quick horse and seems to enjoy the sharper test at that track and at Wolverhampton.”
At this stage, Ryan says he struggles to split his finalists. “I don’t gallop them together at home and they will both enjoy Lingfield. Grey Britain is proven around there but I think the track will be tailor-made for Aircraft Carrier, too. Grey Britain is a 5lb better horse on official ratings and has plenty of class, but my other fellow still has his best days ahead of him.
“It’s an open race and I’m very happy to be going there with two good chances, but whatever happens we have the rest of the year to look forward to,” adds Ryan, who hasn’t ruled out a twin tilt at the All-Weather’s other big staying prize, the Northumberland Plate at Newcastle in high summer.
Ryan’s Good Friday team will be supplemented by speedy three-year-old Shining Armor, who hasn’t been at his best in two runs in Meydan but has enjoyed the climate in Dubai.
“He looks a million dollars,’ he adds. “The weather has really suited him and he’ll give a good account of himself in the 3YO Final. He proved what a quick horse he is when he finished second in a Fast-Track Qualifier at Wolverhampton in December, despite being wrong at the weights.
“My hand was forced into running him over 7f in Dubai but he just didn’t stay. Six furlongs around Lingfield will be a different proposition though, and I’m really excited to see how he gets on.”
Shining Armor starts his fantastic climb up the handicap, winning at Wolverhampton off 76
Merhoob may also take his chance on Good Friday in the Sprint Final for the older horses after posting a series of strong efforts in handicaps this winter, including on the Lingfield Polytrack.
“He’s a consistent horse who deserves to take his chance. Realistically he’ll have a lot to find at the weights if he’s lucky enough to get in and Kachy looks the one we all must beat, but anything can happen in a horse race.”
In the meantime, Ryan is also looking forward to running smart young colts Battle Of Waterloo and Hiroshima when the Flat season starts in April - and could even have runners at the Cheltenham Festival.
“Both horses are showing me signs that they could develop into Pattern horses this summer,” he tells me. “Battle Of Waterloo is by Big Bad Bob and has always looked more of a three-year-old. Hiroshima ran a promising race in a Newmarket maiden and Gerald Mosse liked him a lot. He’s a typical Nathaniel - tall and unfurnished - but he’s back in training and will probably have his first run of the year at the Craven Meeting.”
Ryan also enjoys going back to his roots and hasn’t ruled out a crack at the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival with Normal Norman, an impressive winner of a handicap hurdle at Musselburgh on New Year’s Day.
And the JCB Triumph Hurdle could be in the cards for Needs To Be Seen, another Musselburgh winner who wasn’t disgraced in the Festival Trial in November. The Boodles Juvenile Hurdle, formerly the Fred Winter, is another option.
“I enjoy having a few jumpers for some enthusiastic owners,” he adds. “Whatever happens it will be an interesting few weeks. We go with proper chances and we might just be lucky.”
If that old adage that suggests we make our own luck in life carries any credence, this talented horseman is due another taste of glory - and it might just be Good Friday’s Marathon that puts his name back up in lights.