Speaking to the assembled press, in his trademark ten-gallon hat, Aidan O Brien said: ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet from this guy. I know he’s got a fancy name like Mendelssohn but we just call him Larcom, you know, like Larcom & Mitchell, cos he’s heavy duty and does the same job but better, as he’ll harrow and roll the hell out of any track. Ain’t nobody to thank but the horse himself. When he puts that spurt on the dirt all the rest are gonna hurt.’
And how do we know that’s not really Aidan O’Brien? It’s because the invisible suffix after his name is (IRE) and not (USA). His manner, his speech and his characteristics form his identity, at least geographically, but his identity is only one part of who he is, irrelevant compared to what he does, giving a voice to the thoroughbreds who speak on his behalf, reverberating around the racing world, even reshaping the racing world, gradually homogenised and harmonised by O’Brien’s breaking down of borders.
Nationality is simply an accident of birth, more so than ever, for horses as much as humans, as the suffix still attached by constitution to racehorses merely indicates where a foal ‘hit the ground’. But a horse may now be bred in one country, born in another, raised in a third, trained in a fourth and retired to stud in a fifth. The days of the racehorse suffix is perhaps redundant, because of the updated processes of breeders, but also because of the thinking processes of trainers. And that perspective has never been sharper than this Saturday.
When Aidan O’Brien set a new record last year for Group 1 wins, it was truly a global gathering, not just for the five different jurisdictions that provided a slice of the unprecedented pie, but moreover for the suffixed-up, cosmopolitan crew that gave international impetus to a single Ballydoyle bandwagon. Of the 16 horses who accumulated the 28 top-level wins, nine of them were Irish through and through, but five had the USA suffix, and there was a badge of honour each for France and Japan.
Saxon Warrior (JPN). Much more a ‘Samurai’ than a ‘Saxon’. The reason why Coolmore immediately sent Galileo’s classic-winning daughters, Minding and Winter, to Deep Impact this year for the start of their broodmare careers is all down to the premium goods that came back from an exploratory mission by a trio of mares, producing a star-crossed princess in September and a potential king in Saxon Warrior.
Deep Impact won the Japanese version of the Triple Crown, and those two words – a remnant of racing nationalism – are being whispered about Saxon Warrior ahead of his return in the 2000 Guineas. Whether or not the Guineas comes too quickly for him, or finishes too quickly for him, being more in the mould of a stayer, Saxon Warrior could very well line up in an Arc de Triomphe one day, which would blur the blockade line that tradition and traditional thinking has put in place.
In history, the Arc has been to Japan what the Roadrunner was to Coyote, and though, were Saxon Warrior to win it, a suffix may not suffice, it could soften a border and it would foster a feeling that horses are more communal and less communist, all part of racing’s subconscious shift.
Take another bastion, the Melbourne Cup, which has forever been out of British reach, testing the limits of what it means to keep calm and carry on. But it’s out of reach of the British trainer, and not the British horse, per se, as last year’s winner Rekindling had an Irish passport but a ‘GB’ suffix.
Geography and genetics
Advancements in technology and transport have reduced the world’s dimensions, making for freer movement and greater expression, including for the horse population. Therefore, genetics matter more than geography, and racing is slowly coming around to that fact. The suffix is superfluous, at least for the purpose it was designed, but it still has its uses, in this transitional time, as a means of itemising the ingredients and categorising the characteristics.
All of which brings us to the one unbroken boundary in world racing, the uncharted territory for Europeans of the Kentucky Derby. Since Bold Arrangement finished runner-up over 30 years ago, no horse from this continent has come anywhere close in the Run for the Roses, but Europe is just the reference point, no longer the power point, as genetics matter more than geography, and Churchill Downs is still, gloriously, the last outpost where the suffix stakes are high, due to dealing in a specialist currency. And that’s why Aidan O’Brien has a real shot of winning this Kentucky Derby, because he’s not sending simply Mendelssohn, but Mendelssohn (USA).
The bloodline of Mendelssohn can be traced all the way back – via Scat Daddy and Storm Cat and Secretariat and Nasrullah and Americus Girl – to Lexington, the horse who prompted the Jersey Act of 1913.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, to protect against the increasing influx of American horses, the English Jockey Club began to raise condescending questions about the purity of the blood of US stock, stemming specifically from the great stallion Lexington, whose pedigree couldn’t be accounted for by the standards of the Jersey Act. The British market was therefore effectively closed to US-bred horses, and remained so for more than thirty years, not modified until 1949, by which time the breed, and the game, had grown stronger in America, their breeders having no inhibitions about importing top-class horses from Britain – or France and Australia and elsewhere - when they became available.
Saving the suffix was all the British authorities wanted to do back then, and it left them behind as the world, and the breed, moved onwards and upwards.
The Mendelssohn masterplan
Times have changed, and trainers are changing, the forward-thinkers among them – identifiable at the top of the world rankings - setting the international trend of expansiveness and experimentation. A microcosm of this can be found in the best piece of European two-year-old form of 2017, which came not at Newmarket, nor Ascot, nor Leopardstown, nor Chantilly, but at Del Mar, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, which featured the winners of this spring’s two biggest Guineas trials in Britain, Masar and James Garfield, as well as Sands of Mali, who’s already on the Group-race scoresheet for this year. And let’s not forget who beat them all that day at Del Mar.
The Mendelssohn masterplan, working backwards from the Kentucky Derby, which he was bought for, essentially, at the premium price of $3m at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sales, could be described as genetically perfect but geographically misplaced. To toughen his edges in time for May, a precondition in every sense, he’s done a lot of racing, far and wide, and, in contrast to the one-step approach to Churchill that O’Brien has taken with each of his previous five Kentucky Derby contenders, Mendelssohn has had his screws tightened twice this year, sharpened at Dundalk prior to that demolition job at Meydan.
Stepping onto the dirt at Churchill Downs will effectively be a homecoming for Mendelssohn, and the track to get him there has been laid with precision and planning at every stage, American in nature but European in execution.
A European-trained horse acting as the headline act for the Kentucky Derby, and a Guineas at Newmarket with a Japanese flavour through Saxon Warrior and a frequent flyer in Masar, who’s been to France and America and even had a test run on the dirt himself in Dubai in March, this really is a weekend where the racing world seems to make a little less sense, on the face of it, but all sorts of sense, in the fundamentals and future of it.
To talk of Mendelssohn as a European horse in the Kentucky Derby is to fall for the black-rimmed glasses and the sharp-lined suit that hid Clark Kent’s true identity. The suffix in racing is reducing in relevance, as geography deals in lines more than lineage, but the suffix on Mendelssohn is the genetic giveaway of the Superman inside.