European Race Report: Bug Proof

Published in the Aug. 17 issue of The Blood-Horse
By Richard Griffiths
Even when things go wrong, Aidan O'Brien still ends up winning, as the Phoenix Stakes (Ire-I) at the Curragh on Aug. 11 demonstrated only too well.

O'Brien is currently facing one of the biggest tests of his tender but outrageously successful career: how to deal with a virus that sweeps your yard. Sometimes, a bug can take the sheen off a stable not just for months but for years. The 3-year-olds at Ballydoyle have already been laid low by the virus, and now there are signs that the 2-year-olds have also been affected.

Hold That Tiger started as the 11-10 favorite for the Phoenix, yet finished last of nine and was reported to be in "respiratory distress." That has got to be a worry.

Typical of O'Brien, though, his hotpot is beaten and yet he still manages to run one-two in one of Ireland's most important juvenile contests, also getting his fifth consecutive win in the race.

So crammed is his stable with expensive talent that O'Brien often has little choice but to saddle multiple runners. He had four in the Phoenix and it was supposedly the outsider of that quartet, Spartacus, who won at 16-1.

Spartacus, another group I-winning son of Danehill, finished a half-length in front of the Storm Cat colt Marino Marini, and O'Brien said the result was not a complete surprise. "We have always thought very highly of him," he said. Plans for Spartacus now depend on whether he is affected by the virus. "You can never be sure (whether a horse is affected) until you've subjected them to the pressure of a race," O'Brien added.

Deauville's Ball
After a subdued first half of the season, Godolphin has recently spent much time reassuring its loyal band of followers that the best was yet to come.

Sakhee, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) winner and last year's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) runner-up, was expected to be at the forefront of the Godolphin comeback. You only had to look at the faces of the 5-year-old's connections after his defeat at Deauville Aug. 10 to realize just what a serious setback had been suffered.

The Prix Gontaut-Biron (Fr-III) over 10 furlongs at Deauville was widely thought to be a mere pipe-opener for Sakhee, who had not run since the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on March 23. Big targets beckoned, but that was before he fell short by a length to Wellbeing, a horse formerly trained by Henry Cecil but switched to Pascal Bary in France in the belief the softer conditions there would suit him.

Before the race, Wellbeing was not thought to be in the same league as Sakhee, who has not been the same since his two runs on dirt. Indeed, the talk is now of retirement, although Godolphin will give Sakhee two weeks to show his old sparkle.

With the glamorous French seaside meeting at Deauville underway, the first group I race, the Prix Maurice de Gheest on Aug. 11, went to the John Gosden-trained May Ball.

Ridden by Gerald Mosse, May Ball swooped late to beat the Japanese-trained Air Thule by three-quarters of a length, thus denying Japan another prestigious win in France. Unusually, both first and second are 5-year-old mares. "She is a wonderful advertisement for keeping a 5-year-old in training. I get a special kick out of training horses like her," said Gosden.

Air Thule will have another attempt at a group I race in the Stanley Leisure Sprint Cup at Haydock on Sept. 7. The mare has been based at Newmarket trainer Geoff Wragg's yard for her European campaign.

Bits and Pieces
David Flores was out of luck when captaining a Rest of the World Team against British jockeys in the Shergar Cup, an annual team riding event held at Ascot Aug. 10. Flores' team failed to win any of the six races, although he was twice runner-up... Rock of Gibraltar's attempt to win a seventh group I race in a row are on hold after trainer Aidan O'Brien decided the dual Guineas winner needed a mid-season break. The son of Danehill is one of the few non-2-year-olds at Ballydoyle who hasn't been coughing, meaning that the filly Quarter Moon is likely to be O'Brien's sole older runner at the big three-day York meeting starting Aug. 20.