Having decided to go for the Classic, run over a mile and a quarter on the dirt, rather than the safer option of the Mile on turf, O’Brien will be sending George Washington into a $5 million showdown with Bernardini, Lava Man and Invasor, as well as Brian Meehan’s David Junior.
The first signs that the gamble could pay off were good yesterday, when the 2000 Guineas and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes winner, ridden by groom Pat Lillis, got his first look at a surface he has never raced on.
George Washington was the first of the Ballydoyle trainer’s Breeders’ Cup quartet to venture onto the track, led by O’Brien onto the dirt at 8am local time with Mile discard Ivan Denisovich for company.
After a good look round and a mile’s canter, he returned to the quarantine barn that has been his temporary home since arriving from Shannon on Wednesday night.
“It went fine,” O’Brien said. “Everything went as expected and Pat was very happy with him.”
Aside from issues of track surface and distance, George Washington has also had issues with temperament in the past. Yesterday morning, he was the model of good behaviour, displaying no hint of displeasure on an unfamiliar surface as Coolmore boss and co-owner John Magnier looked on.
Indeed, his relaxed demeanour certainly impressed the bookmakers. William Hill and Stan James both shortened the Irish contender a point to 7-1 alongside Lava Man, behind evens favourite Bernardini and 9/2 Invasor.
“I thought he behaved very well,” O’Brien said of George Washington, “he behaved great, didn’t he.”
“He’s been very good his last two runs. It was just a little mental immaturity that went on with him more than anything. He’s behaved great the last two times.”
Despite his reformed character, O’Brien said the three-year-old would have the necessary heart for a scrap down the home straight if it came to it tonight.
“If he’s anything like he would be in the wild, he’s concrete. I’ve been with this horse. If you reprimand him he doesn’t lie down.
“He’s a determined, hard, fighter. If he was a human being, he’d be anything but a softy, that’s not a word you could put anywhere in his description. He’s hard, aggressive. That’s the way he is.”
Ballydoyle’s other contenders, Ad Valorem and Aussie Rules in the Mile and Scorpion in the Turf, had their only session on the Churchill Downs grass track yesterday and O’Brien said: “All the horses seemed to be fine and all the lads that rode them, everyone seemed to be happy.”
Mick Kinane, who watched both sessions and will partner both George Washington and Scorpion, later walked the track with O’Brien and Magnier. Ad Valorem’s pilot Jamie Spencer was another interested spectator and of the four-year-old he said: “He was unbeaten as a two-year-old, won a Middle Park, won the Queen Anne this year and he’s a good horse.
“The track will provide the right pace for him, good to firm, the harder the better, and it’s drying for him.
“But Araafa is the horse to beat, he looks really well.”
Spencer will also partner Brian Meehan’s Classic contender David Junior, who has, he believes all the attributes to take on the American big guns.
“It’s his ability to travel when the pace is on. When other horses begin to struggle he can stay travelling for a long, long time.”