Colin Keane rode a double on the card at the Curragh on Sunday to move four winners clear of Shane Foley in the race for the Irish Flat jockeys’ championship, including a 21st Group race victory in 2020 on Helvic Dream. The more significant of his two victories, however, could yet prove to be that of Khartoum in the opening maiden: Keane’s first winner for Aidan O’Brien, on only his second start for Ireland’s most powerful stable.
Keane was Ireland’s champion jockey in 2017 and finished the season as runner-up behind Donnacha O’Brien, the trainer’s son, in both 2018 and 2019. His only previous ride for Ballydoyle before Sunday, though, was on an unplaced 25-1 chance at Naas last November.
Khartoum, who has an entry in the Group One Vertem Futurity at Doncaster, set off as 2-1 favourite on Sunday and made short work of his field, winning by two-and-a-quarter lengths. Keane was unplaced, however, on O’Brien’s Preamble, the 9-4 favourite for the Group Three Anglesey Stakes, and beat only three home on the stable’s Shoshone Warrior in the Irish Cesarewitch.
Seamie Heffernan, who has been the Ballydoyle No 2 since the mid-90s days when Christy Roche was the senior rider, was suspended on Sunday, but O’Brien would still have had several alternatives for his main hopes on the Curragh card.
Keane’s first winner for the trainer, meanwhile, also arrived just 24 hours after Ryan Moore, O’Brien’s official No 1 since the spring of 2015, found himself on the “wrong” Ballydoyle horse in a Group One for the second time in a month, as Frankie Dettori steered St Mark’s Basilica to victory in the Dewhurst Stakes, with Moore aboard the runner-up, Wembley.
Champions Day at Ascot next Saturday and the Breeders’ Cup meeting in Kentucky, where he is due to ride dual Classic winner Love, will offer leading chances for Moore to get back into the Group One-winning groove for Ballydoyle over the next few weeks.
He has also registered four Group Ones for O’Brien so far this year, a fair return in a season in which travel restrictions and quarantine rules have effectively ruled out travel to Ireland and France out of bounds for much of a truncated campaign. And taken as a whole, his six seasons as Ballydoyle’s No 1 have included many of the best years of O’Brien’s career, including 2017, when the stable set a new world record of 28 Group One or Grade One winners.
But as veteran Ballydoyle-watchers will know, six seasons is already a record tenure in a role from which previous incumbents, much like Spinal Tap’s drummers, have often made abrupt and unexpected departures.
Mick Kinane was the previous record-holder, with five years in the Ballydoyle hot seat until the sudden announcement that he would ride as a freelance in the 2004 season. Jamie Spencer’s single, difficult season as No 1 followed, before Kieren Fallon took over from 2005 to December 2007, when the collapse of his Old Bailey trial on race-fixing charges was closely followed by an 18-month ban for testing positive for cocaine.
Johnny Murtagh’s three campaigns, from 2008 to 2010, also ended abruptly as Joseph O’Brien, the trainer’s oldest son, started to take an increasing number of rides for the stable. Over the next five seasons, before increasing weight forced him into retirement, O’Brien rode more than two dozen Group One winners for his father, although Moore had also forged an association with the stable by this point and was confirmed as first-choice jockey in the spring of 2015.
Moore has ridden nearly 120 Group One or Grade One winners in his career, including 75 for Aidan O’Brien and two this season for Donnacha O’Brien, and could well ride several more before the turn of the year.
But there is a slowly-growing sense of change around the entire Coolmore operation, not least as Joseph and Donnacha O’Brien continue to build successful training careers of their own with almost indecent haste. And that can only add to the excitement and fascination over the next few weeks as, from Ascot to Hong Kong via Kentucky and Australia, the 2020 Flat season draws to a close.