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Jamie Lynch: Where Gleneagles Dare?
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Jamie Lynch: Where Gleneagles Dare?

Think Derby, think Ballydoyle - that’s the usual way, but not this year. Jamie Lynch looks at what might have gone wrong, and what may yet be salvaged for Aidan O’Brien and the Derby.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To lose one may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness; to lose all three, therefore, must be downright irresponsible.

On the gameboard of words associated with Aidan O’Brien, irresponsible is a Pointless answer. And yet here we are, two weeks out from the Derby, the Holy Grail for Ballydoyle and a race they’ve won the last three years, and the cupboard is bare after not one, not two, but three hitherto false prophets: John F Kennedy, Ol’ Man River and Highland Reel.

It’s all too easy, and all too worn, to rib O’Brien over his periodic proclamations about his horses, but when he talks the talk they usually walk the walk. Ofsted would score Ballydoyle in the outstanding bracket, the most comprehensive school around, with an alumni honour roll that’s the envy of the racing world, and, as such, it’s odd when one of its undergraduates under-graduates, let alone three from the same class.

Mine is not to do it snide, mine is but to reason why. That the touted trio of John F Kennedy, Ol’ Man River and, to a lesser degree, Highland Reel have flunked their mock exams is a fact, and the interesting part is the critical questions out of it, of why, and what next?

The why part might be simple individual explanations.

Before his sister Tapestry’s three-year-old development last season, peaking at famously overturning Taghrooda in the Yorkshire Oaks, John F Kennedy’s family had a history of not training on, the dam herself, Rumpelstiltskin, flopping as favourite in the 1000 Guineas and never seen again on the track.

Ol’ Man River mightn’t have been quite so good a two-year-old as was made out, beating little, in retrospect, for both his wins, while it’s hard to believe that Highland Reel didn’t have a setback of sorts for his juvenile campaign to have ended in July.

That said, there’s a school of thought that the Ballydoyle school was more of thought than hard work when it came to last year’s nursery class, a slight softening towards sympathetic teaching which has, perhaps, had some bearing on this year’s record of underachievement.

The theoretical tender teaching manifested at either end of the first-year education. Though not unusual for a top-targeting Ballydoyle horse to be beaten on its debut, the frequency was higher in 2014, with John F Kennedy and Highland Reel falling short first time, as did Giovanni Canaletto, who has suddenly found himself at the front of the Epsom queue despite standing still this year.

Ballydoyle was notable not by its absence but by its representative second-rate students in the end-of-year academic awards in Britain, sending Smuggler’s Cove for the Dewhurst and Aloft and Jacobean for the Racing Post Trophy, each likewise beaten on their debut, incidentally.

Of O’Brien’s five Derby winners, Galileo had only one race at two and Ruler of The World none at all, while Australia laid the hoofprints that JFK followed, culminating with a Group 3 at Leopardstown, though learning a lot by overwhelming Free Eagle that day. But High Chaparral and Camelot both used the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy as a climatising catalyst to higher education, as did the injury-blighted Kingsbarns, St Leger winner Brian Boru, and the delayed-delivering St Nicholas Abbey.

Might have staying back late in the season for some extra tutelage in a toughening environment made a difference to one or any of John F Kennedy, Ol’ Man River or Highland Reel? Maybe not, but it’s food for thought during a period of famine as far as this year’s Derby goes for Ballydoyle.

By irresistible contrast, Gleneagles attended almost every class going last year, in Ireland and abroad, and the transformation from boy to man was most striking in the Guineas, where he was clinical from start to finish.

If he powers away at the Curragh on Sunday like he powered away at Newmarket, will the temptation be to let him fly in the Derby? The heel-dragging of his Ballydoyle classmates is reason number one why Gleneagles may yet turn up at Epsom. Here are another five:

It’s The Derby

Of all the races in all the world, the Derby at Epsom is the most pleasurable and treasurable to the power-holders at Ballydoyle; always has been, always will be. What else always will be is the record of four straight Derby wins, an achievement which O’Brien is on the precipice.

It’s not much of a Derby

Golden Horn holds the £75,000 golden ticket as things stand, but, aside from him, it looks a fairly thin Derby this year, largely as the Ballydoyle set-aside Epsom task-force hasn’t proved up to the task, forcing a rethink, possibly a rejig.

Gleneagles’ pedigree

He is, after all, by Galileo, who has passed on his Epsom-winning genes to New Approach, Ruler of The World and Australia. When Gleneagles’ sister, Marvellous, stormed clear in last year’s Irish Guineas, there wasn’t much talk of doubtful stamina for the Oaks, and there seemed to be some problem other than the trip at both Epsom (favourite) and the Curragh for the Irish version (second-favourite).

Gleneagles’ legacy

Coolmore can afford to give him a shot at the Derby because the risk-reward ratio is different for them than almost any other owner-breeder who had a similar horse on their hands. They already have one of the best stallion rosters in Europe, and the Gleneagles brand is to some extent safeguarded by virtue of his classic win at a mile, added to which Coolmore will have strict control over what mares he's bred with when the time comes.        

Lester said so

The man who rode more Derby winners than any other jockey in history is on record as saying Gleneagles could win it.

It may be more by destiny than design, but Gleneagles is the logical one for Ballydoyle in the Derby, time having run out for another to be found. Or maybe it is Found, if the rumours are to be believed.

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