Team tactics form no part of pre-race preparations at Ballydoyle, Aidan O’Brien insisted on Monday. “I promise you, never ever,” the trainer said when the subject was raised by the Guardian, concern having been expressed in public by the owners of the two horses currently at the head of the betting for Saturday’s Derby.
“I can guarantee you, every horse runs on their merits to do their very best and there would never be a plan to do this or do that to any other horse,” said O’Brien, who will be seeking a record-breaking eighth Derby success this weekend. He has seven of the 17 possible runners at his stable in County Tipperary, though none are shorter than 7-1 in the betting.
O’Brien has so many talented horses in his care that he usually has several runners in the best Flat races in Britain and Ireland, the most recent example being Saturday’s Irish Derby, in which he had six of the 14 who took part and ended up with the first four home. That means he is well placed to influence the way in which a race develops and his several runners are generally eyed with mistrust by rivals with a single runner.
Sheikh Fahad, whose Kameko is second-favourite for the Derby, spoke up through Twitter after the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, saying: “There’s no place for team tactics in racing, such a shame to watch the St James run like that.”
While he did not name O’Brien, the Irishman was the only trainer with more than one runner in that race. One of the jockeys he employed was asked by stewards to explain his riding and the instructions he had been given, but in the end they did not find any rules had been breached.
Sunday’s Racing Post brought another intervention, from Bjorn Nielsen, whose English King is the Derby favourite. “A lot of people with good horses are worried,” he said. “Team tactics threaten to devalue racing at the highest class. A pacemaker is one thing but sitting there and forming a peloton is quite another.”
While he also did not name O’Brien, he spoke approvingly of Ger Lyons’s comments after the Irish Guineas, in which Siskin had to be strong to establish racing room among Ballydoyle runners. “We knew through the history books what the Ballydoyle riders were going to try to do,” Lyons said, though he added: “All is fair in love and war. It’s a big boys’ sport and you just put on your big boy pants and get out there and do the job.”
O’Brien was careful not to use any names in his answers, saying at one point: “I don’t ever talk about anyone else’s horses or any other people. I would be always afraid that I would offend someone and that’s why I say very little most of the time.”
But he insisted rivals had nothing to fear on this score.
“Every single horse, I will always give the jockey what I think is the best instructions for that horse to win that race. Some horses want to be ridden forward, some horses like to be mid-div, some horses like to be dropped in.” He noted an apparent assumption on the part of his rivals that, when he fields several runners, one of them will set the pace.
“What happens a lot of the time, if one of our horses is not making the running, there’s no pace and the race becomes an absolute muddle, everyone is jockeying for positions. It can become very messy.”
While he did not wish to cite an example, O’Brien feels sour grapes can be a factor in some of the things said about his operation. “Sometimes what happens is a big jockey or a big trainer, high profile, they might start crying after the race, to relieve pressure off themselves, for their owners or for some mistake that they made. And it’s easy for them to point the finger at us.”
O’Brien expects to have at least six Derby runners. Armory may yet be diverted to France, he says, but that would still leave Vatican City, Mogul, Russian Emperor, Amhran Na Bhfiann, Mythical and Serpentine.
Asked which he expects will be the choice of his principal jockey, Ryan Moore, O’Brien said: “I haven’t spoken to him yet but looking at it, Vatican City, if he stays, he’s a very classy looking horse. Usually what happens with Ryan is, he gets the declarations [on Thursday], he sees the draws and then I tell him everything that I think and then he has to make a decision. And it’s not an easy one this year.
“Because Ryan is not here now, he’s in England all the time, he’s not going to know how much Mogul improved but I would be telling him. He’s going to think, obviously, that the horse in the Guineas [Vatican City] was a very good run, so he has to be very close in the pecking order. We would always leave him to leave that decision as late as he can because, really, nobody knows until they go out there and cover that distance on the day.”