The 2017 season has been a stellar season for Aidan O'Brien and his Ballydoyle team. How could it not be when in the course of the year he has surpassed the long-standing record of legendary US trainer Bobby Frankel's 25 Group 1 winners in a season? The O'Brien tally stands at 27 right now and he has five more dice to roll on Sunday. But don't ever expect to hear Aidan himself take any credit for the stable's success – the horses and the Ballydoyle team are always the ones it is down to.
Five horses in the Longines Hong Kong International Races represent O'Brien's biggest raiding party at the meeting, bettering the three runners he sent to Sha Tin in 2004. Was there any new significance perhaps in the size of this year's challenge?
“It is one of the great international race meetings of the year, so naturally we want to be there if we can,” O'Brien said from his Ballydoyle Stables earlier this week. “The Jockey Club organizes everything so well, and they can't do enough for you, they look after you so well. These are very hard races to win, but if you have the right horse you want to be part of it.”
The fierceness of the competition is not lost on O'Brien. His only previous success came in 2015 with Highland Reel in the G1 Hong Kong Vase (2400m), and his flag bearer, second in the same race last year, is back again for what will be his final start before he embarks on a well-deserved career at stud.
“Highland Reel has been an incredible horse for us. He has so many qualities. He enjoys what he does, he has shown himself to be a great traveller, he's clean-winded and a joy to have trained. He'll be hard to replace,” said O'Brien.
A 'great traveller' might be an understatement for the six times Group 1 winner, given that Highland Reel has been campaigned not only in England, Ireland and France, but in Australia, Dubai and the USA as well. In fact, his only win on Irish turf was a Gowran Park maiden back in his two-year-old days.
Looking ahead to Sunday's Hong Kong Vase, O'Brien said: “He's not done a great deal since his last run (when third) in the Breeders' Cup (Turf), but his lad Davy (Bergin) is very happy with him right now. It was probably not ideal that there were only two weeks between his run at Ascot on ground that didn't suit and the Breeders' Cup, but that's the way it fell, and he needed to run at Ascot.”
There could hardly be a better way for the stable's standard bearer to finish his career on the track than with another win in the Vase on Sunday.
While that would provide a fitting climax to Highland Reel's career as a racehorse, O'Brien is not short of other ammunition, being two-handed in both the Hong Kong Cup and the Hong Kong Mile.
In the Mile, Lancaster Bomber, the mount of Ryan Moore, and Roly Poly, under Seamie Heffernan, will both seek to add further G1 success to the Ballydoyle roster, although their draws in gates 11 and 14 respectively will make the task somewhat harder.
Both three year olds, Lancaster Bomber is a five-time runner up in G1 company in his career to date, including last timeout in the Breeders' Cup Mile, while Roly Poly has three of Ballydoyle's twenty-seven G1 successes to her name this year.
“We were very pleased with Lancaster Bomber's run in the Breeders' Cup. He's had a good season, he's still improving and he'll be a horse for next year,” said O'Brien. “Roly Poly's had a great year too, and she's come out of her last race well. She's small, but she's got a big heart, a lovely pedigree, and she's an enthusiastic racer, so we'll see how she goes.
O'Brien has Deauville and War Decree going into battle in the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup. The former was second-last in the G1 Woodbine Mile at Woodbine last time out while War Decree beat beat two home in the G1 Breeders' Cup Classic on Del Mar's dirt.
“In the 10-furlong race (Hong Kong Cup) we've Deauville and War Decree,” said O'Brien. “Deauville has been freshened up after his run in Canada, where the ground didn't suit. A good even pace here on turf that he'll like is what he needs, and that will hopefully get him into a nice rhythm. I think the 10 furlongs is his ideal trip.”
“War Decree found the dirt track at Del Mar all a little too much for him, but he came out of the race well, and the turf track here should be more to his liking.”
Quietly-spoken, considered, and logical as always, Aidan O'Brien shared his thoughts on his contenders. Five horses and all with chances of adding to this year's Group 1 tally. But, when all is said and done, it is hard to escape the feeling that, deep down, the Master of Ballydoyle, if he had to take just one, would settle for a second win for the stable stalwart Highland Reel in the Hong Kong Vase on Sunday.
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