As all American schoolkids are taught, General Washington famously caught his American Revolutionary War opponents unawares on Christmas Day 1776 by crossing of the Delaware River in the first move of a surprise attack against the Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey.
Ballydoyle handler O’Brien trusts the bold move of taking his star miler off the turf and onto the dirt at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, will prove just as rewarding and has thrown in the added challenge of an increase in distance, just for the thrill of it all.
Facing the likes of American stars Bernardini, Lava Man and Invasor in a race that relegates last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo to a 30-1 outsider is not many people’s idea of a laugh but O’Brien, wearing a blue bomber jacket embroidered with the words “Gorgeous George” on the back, can hardly contain himself.
“It’s exciting, isn’t it?” the Irish trainer said as he stood outside the quarantine barn on the backstretch at Churchill Downs where George Washington and his four travelling stablemates have been housed since completing their flight from Shannon to Louisville on Tuesday evening.
George Washington, Mile candidates Ad Valorem and Aussie Rules and Turf contender Scorpion were all walked around the quarantine yard yesterday morning and will get their first look at the Churchill Downs course this morning.
For George Washington it will be his first look at the dirt track that holds his destiny. At 7.45am local time he will ride out with stablemate and Mile discard Ivan Denisovich on the oval that has been drying since Wednesday’s downpour here that left that day’s going as officially “sloppy”.
“He’s going to canter round, maybe one or two off the rail, a happy canter,” was how O’Brien foresaw the workout.
How happy tomorrow’s race will prove is an entirely different question, and one to which O’Brien can only respond with more questions.
“I can’t tell you the gears this horse has but one worry is that he’s a horse that won a Group race over six furlongs by eight lengths,” O’Brien said, referring to August 2005’s Group One Phoenix Stakes’ romp at The Curragh.
“That was the furthest distance he ever won (by). So when you have a horse with that kind of blistering speed, how far can that speed be brought? Even though Mick (Kinane) and Keiren (Fallon) have always thought he would get a mile and a quarter, you have to see it. Look, it would be surprising if this fella doesn’t travel and maybe he won’t act on it, but we’ve never ever seen him not travel.
“And then what’s going to happen is, when he turns in (to the straight) is it going to be the dirt going to catch him or is it going to be stamina, because he has blistering speed. Like, how far can you pull an elastic band? We’ve never pulled it beyond a mile. Maybe we’ll be shocked but I’d be disappointed if he jumps and he doesn’t travel.
“This fella has some pace but first, will he travel, and if he does then how long will that pace last?”
Whatever happens, O’Brien is convinced that entering the 2000 Guineas and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes winner in tomorrow’s $2m Mile on the turf would have proven nothing.
Referring to George Washington’s owners, John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, O’Brien said: “It’s just great that the lads are going to let him do it. It’s exciting for everybody. It would have been okay for the lads to keep him for the Mile, where he would have been a short-priced favourite and you would imagine it would be a sail for him. But this is exciting, a total trip into the unknown.
“We know we’ve never had a horse with the ability like this but we know the task is there and the circumstances he has to overcome.”