Dermot Weld a real threat to O’Brien’s title ambitions

Could the unthinkable actually happen?

Dermot Weld a real threat to O’Brien’s title ambitions

At the start of the flat season if you put forward the notion that someone else besides Aidan O’Brien might end the campaign as champion trainer then the lads in white coats might have been summoned.

But the admittedly early skirmishes have given every indication that a changing of the guard could be a real possibility and there is little doubt that O’Brien faces a tough battle if he is to retain his title.

John Magnier’s decision to ask O’Brien to lodge at Ballydoyle was one of the shrewdest of the man’s quite extraordinary career.

Together, with considerable help from others, of course, they have taken flat racing in this country, and globally, to a new level.

As a result O’Brien, who has, arguably, his best years ahead of him, has been crowned, by my reckoning, champion flat trainer in Ireland on 17 occasions.

He won first in 1997, the following year Dermot Weld was successful, and then O’Brien took over completely and been champion for the last 16 years.

I doubt any bookmaker even bothered to price up this year’s championship, with O’Brien regarded as a proverbial certainty.

But the early weeks of the season have revealed a different picture and there is no doubt that Dermot Weld has emerged as a real threat.

Weld was last champion in 1998 and has taken the title in all on eight occasions. But even he must have felt that, no matter how hard he tried, was never again going to be able to finish in front of the Ballydoyle-Coolmore empire.

He does, however, undoubtedly have a serious chance and, you suspect, it is very much a case of now or never!

O’Brien, by his own admission, is very short on older horses this season, an area in which Weld is particularly strong.

Basically, Weld has a lot of the angles covered when it comes to the older horses. We cannot, for instance, wait for the reappearance of the four-year-old, Free Eagle. He might have been the horse to give Weld a first Epsom Derby win, but met with a setback and didn’t run last season until landing a Group 3 at Leopardstown in September by seven lengths.

He was brilliant that day, but even better in defeat on his only other outing when third to Noble Mission and Al Kazeem in the Champion Stakes at Ascot in October.

It’s not that there is anything especially remarkable about the bare form, no it is the fact that Free Eagle stuck so well to his task in the straight, on a heavy surface he would have hated.

Weld has probably the best stayer in training in his care in Forgotten Rules and the progressive Fascinating Rock and smart filly Brooch are other older horses he can call on.

Then at the Curragh last Saturday, he unveiled a potential top-notch sprinter in the shape of Mustajeeb, who proved surprisingly quick in winning the six furlongs Group 2 Greenlands Stakes.

It was at least mildly surprising, considering Mustajeeb ended last season over a mile in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita and previously displayed plenty of stamina to land the seven furlongs Jersey Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Weld is also reasonably strong in the three-year-old department, although much will depend on how good his Epsom Derby candidate Zawraq proves to be.

We know that O’Brien does not have a lot going for him with the older horses, but the real problem is the continued failure of his three-year-old colts, with the obvious exception of the admirable Gleneagles.

I mean right now is it is hard to envisage Ballydoyle landing next Saturday’s Epsom Derby and some weeks back that would have been totally unforeseen.

The likes of Hans Holbein and Kilimanjaro are tough colts, but would be regarded as no more than journeymen most years at Ballydoyle.

And another hope disappeared at the Curragh last Sunday when Giovanni Canaletto displayed a somewhat high head carriage when failing to reel in Curvy in the Gallinule Stakes.

At the moment Weld leads O’Brien by around €200,000, but that could obviously be wiped out in little more than a flash.

It goes without saying that it is far too early to be writing off Ballydoyle, but realistically Weld is never going to have a better chance of a ninth championship.

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You really have to admire Jim Bolger and the way the man has more than stood the test of time.

That was a superb training performance to win Sunday’s Irish 1000 Guineas at the Curragh with Pleascash.

All the evidence was that a mile might have been on the short side for the daughter of Teofilo, but Bolger got his tactics spot on with two others in the race to help the pace of the race along. She is seriously exciting and when you get a filly with such a good attitude then the sky is the limit.

On Saturday at the Curragh, Bolger’s Round Two shaped as a proper juvenile. He just seems to be very good and the only question we will have to answer come the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot is just how much are we prepared to risk on him.

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