Duke set for Classic crown

JOHNNY MURTAGH is confident Duke of Marmalade can help him realise both his and Aidan O’Brien’s dreams of a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory tonight.

Despite Breeders’ Cup successes for the Ballydoyle yard in the Turf, twice with High Chapparal in 2002 and 2003, and the Juvenile, courtesy of

Johannesburg in 2001, the closest O’Brien has come to landing the biggest world championship race of all was eight years ago when Giants Causeway was beaten a neck by Tiznow.

Murtagh is aiming to set the record straight this weekend and has decided Duke of Marmalade presents a better opportunity of doing so than Ballydoyle stablemate Henrythenavigator.

He has regularly partnered both, guiding four-year-old Duke of Marmalade to five Group 1 successes in 2008 and three-year-old Henrythenavigator to four in a row, including both the English and Irish 2000 Guineas.

Yet with both going up against American superhorse Curlin over a mile and a quarter at Santa Anita this weekend, Murtagh has opted to ride Duke of Marmalade in a race he has himself long yearned to win.

“I’ve been very lucky and won a lot of good races in Europe but to come to America and win the Classic, for a European jockey that would be special,” Murtagh said.

“It’s one of the races that if you could have it on your CV that would be the race. Down through the years I’ve always dreamt about winning the Classic so hopefully tis is the year.

“It was a tough decision,” Murtagh said of his choice. “The two horses are doing really well but probably the reason is the Duke has been over the trip before.

“He’s very tough and I think that’s what you need out here. Henry has so much speed, there’s just a doubt about whether he’ll get that extra two furlongs or not.

“I’m riding (Duke of Marmalade) because he’s guaranteed of getting the trip and it might come into a slog up the straight. If he hooks up with Curlin at the top of the stretch I think it will be a battle royal.”

O’Brien also sees the upside in Murtagh’s decision, which meant booking American jockey John

Velasquez to partner Henrythenavigator.

“We’re very happy that Johnny’s

going to ride Duke,” O’Brien said. “Duke is a tough, hardy horse, and so is Henry, but it might be easier for Johnny Velasquez to get to know Henry than Duke.

“Johnny’s won five group ones on him and every one of them big ones, so it would have been very hard to desert him. We’re delighted.”

D UKE of Marmalade will be coming off a disappointing seventh in the Arc but the decision to run at all at Longchamps was taken with the Classic in mind, O’Brien insisted.

“The Arc is such a prestigious race, worth so much money, it was a shame to have a horse like Duke to be giving it a miss.

“If the ground had come up slow it would have been an easy decision to miss it but the ground didn’t and we were kind of preparing him for a run on the Polytrack as a prep for the Classic rather than preparing him for the Arc as if the Arc was the end of the road.

His Arc run was a grand run but it was a kind of inbetween run.

“We’ll have to wait and see but he came out of it well and Johnny said he pulled up very well and the minute he came in after the race he said he was delighted with him.”

As for the trip, O’Brien appeared to endorse Murtagh’s decision further for defecting from miler Henrythenavigator.

Asked if he was confident he could get the extra distance, O’Brien managed to be frank yet optimistic.

“No, we’re not sure but fast ground and plenty of pace usually suits Henry and so there’s definitely a chance he can get it; but you can’t be sure by any means.”

Either way, Murtagh welcomed the decision by Coolmore’s John Magnier and Michael Tabor not to avoid American star Curlin in the Classic and go off as a short-priced favourite in other Breeders’ Cup races.

“It’s nice to come over here and race against the best horses in the world. Everybody’s got an opinion on this is the best horse in the world, that’s the best horse in the world and so they’re all going to meet up on Saturday and there’ll be no hiding place out there and I’m sure the best horse in the world will come out.”


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