Aidan O’Brien is not messing around anymore. He’s sending out his very best stayers to try to finally win the Melbourne Cup.
The Irish training genius has two runners in Tuesday’s big race — an English Derby winner and a young stayer so highly rated, he is Cup co-favourite with his stablemate.
“Your racing is very competitive down there and we are trying hard to win races,’’ O’Brien tells The Daily Telegraph from his training complex at Ballydoyle.
“Obviously, we are trying to bring the best horses we can bring at the time. We know you need very good horses to try to win down there.’’
And they don’t come much better than Anthony Van Dyck, winner of the 2019 Derby at Epsom Downs.
He’s the first winner of the world’s oldest and most prestigious classic to race in Australia, let alone in a Melbourne Cup.
Tiger Moth ran second in the Irish Derby then thrashed older rivals in the Group 3 Kilternan Stakes at Leopardstown.
Both stayers are untried at 3200m but O’Brien believes they will run the trip.
“I suppose ‘Anthony’ has never run further than the mile-and-a-half,’’ O’Brien says.
“But we always thought he would stay further, he is a very classy horse.
“Obviously, Tiger Moth is the same, a mile-and-a-half is as far as he’s run as well.
“He ran a very good race in the Irish Derby (second to Santiago) and we were very happy with his last run as well.”
The Melbourne Cup was first run in 1861 and it wasn’t until 1993 when northern hemisphere-trained stayers were aimed at the Flemington two-miler. Irish trainer Dermot Weld prepared Vintage Crop to win the race that year.
O’Brien had his first Cup runner with his great stayer Yeats in 2006. He ran seventh behind Delta Blues.
In the years since, O’Brien has gone close to winning the Melbourne Cup, most notably in 2017 when Johannes Vermeer was narrowly beaten into second. Rekindling, trained by O’Brien’s son Joseph, won the race.
So, O’Brien is getting a better handle on what is required to win the Melbourne Cup but he was blindsided when informed how race history is stacked against Tiger Moth and Anthony Van Dyck.
Tiger Moth has only had four starts and no Cup winner in nearly 140 years has had so few starts.
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You need to go back to 1883 to find a Cup winner with less experience.
Martini-Henry holds the record, winning the Victoria Derby on debut then backing up on the Tuesday to win the Melbourne Cup.
“I didn’t realise that,’’ O’Brien says.
“If you say that, it has to be a concern. It has been a trend and trends are often very hard to reverse.
“He ran two races before the Irish Derby and then he ran in the mile-and-a-half race at Leopardstown. We tried to make that race as fast and as strong and as competitive as we could to try to teach him as much as we could and to expose him as much we could.
“We knew he wasn’t going to have many opportunities to run before the Cup. We have done our best to teach him.’’
Anthony Van Dyck is the number one saddlecloth bearer in the Melbourne Cup with topweight of 58.5kg and, if he wins on Tuesday, he will break the race record for the most weight carried successfully by a northern hemisphere-trained stayer.
The highest weight carried by a ‘northerner’ to win a Melbourne Cup is the 56.5kg shouldered by German stayer Protectionist in 2014.
In fact, no horse has carried 58.5kg or more to win the Cup since Think Big in 1975.
“That is another thing that I didn’t know,’’ O’Brien says.
“All the great horses that have run in the Melbourne Cup and could not carry that weight and win. It shows what a competitive race this is, really.
“This is a handicap and trends are not easy to break, some people live by trends.
“All we can do is try and, hopefully, the lads will get him to the Cup as well as they can have him.
“The lads are very happy with the horse since the Caulfield Cup. We know we have a high-class, quality horse.’’
O’Brien speaks at least twice daily with his stable staff who travelled from Ireland to take care of his Cup contenders this spring.
Europe is dealing with a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic — Ireland is in lockdown for six weeks — which has added to the logistical challenges O’Brien has had to deal with preparing Anthony Van Dyck and Tiger Moth.
“Obviously, it is very difficult,’’ he says.
“We are very grateful for the lads who went down there two weeks before the horses arrived. The lads had to stay in hotel rooms for two weeks. That’s serious commitment from our people.
“We are lucky to have such special people working for us, really. If it wasn’t for them we would not have runners in the Melbourne Cup.
“When you see what has happened in Europe with the numbers going back up again, our numbers in Ireland are still fairly high, we realise how important it is to still be racing.
“With everyone in lockdown, and you can’t go anywhere, it is a big thing to be able to watch the races and read about it.
“Even though there is no one on track and you think there is no atmosphere, it doesn’t come across that way and it’s a massive thing for people’s mental health to be able to watch the races.’’
O’Brien has had to watch from afar as Anthony Van Dyck went under narrowly in the Caulfield Cup then Armory was beaten by Sir Dragonet in the Cox Plate.
Those narrow losses, as disappointing as they were, at least tell the trainer that his Melbourne spring carnival team is thriving at the Werribee quarantine and stabling facility and he has two very good chances to win the Melbourne Cup.
Ironically, it could be a stayer he previously trained, Sir Dragonet, who could deny O’Brien that elusive Cup win. Or perhaps, it will again be O’Brien’s son Joseph, with either Master Of Reality or Twilight Payment.
“When we had Sir Dragonet, we always thought he loved the flat track,’’ O’Brien says.
“We thought a mile-and-a-quarter and a mile-and-a-half was his trip. He liked the fast pace to run it. That’s the horse we always thought he was. He’s very classy.
“Ciaron (Maher) and his team have done a great job with the horse and we were delighted for them when he won the Cox Plate. It was unbelievable and it is going to be great to be watching him run.
“When Joseph won it, we were over the moon. We would be delighted for him to win it again.
“We have been trying to win it for a long time and we haven’t, we have got close a few times but that’s all.
“We will keep trying and doing our best but sometimes it is not meant to be. You have to accept that and move on and try harder the next time.’’
O’Brien has given himself perhaps his best opportunity yet to win the Melbourne Cup. Certainly the bookies think so as they have Anthony Van Dyck and Tiger Moth sharing favouritism at $8 with their former stablemate Sir Dragonet.
“We think these are two quality horses that have gone down there, but that doesn’t give you any right to win it or anything to say it will happen,’’ the trainer says.
“But you try to do your best.
“We love to be able to compete and we love to be able to have horses that can have a chance of being able to win it and could win it.
“Whoever wins on Tuesday, we will be delighted for them because we realise how tough it is for an owner, trainer, jockey, breeder, agent, anyone, to win this race.
“If it does happen (for us), they deserve all the credit for doing it because it is a very difficult thing to make it happen.’’
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Originally published as Aidan means business in pursuit of elusive Cup