Sunday, 10 April 2011

The deeper resonance of a confusing recital

Ryan Moore's bizarre ride on Recital in today's Group 3 Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown may have been just a rare tactical error on the jockey's part.

But my interpretation of events strikes at a deeper truth - one which could undermine the success of trainer Aidan O'Brien this season and perhaps beyond.

There is no doubt that O'Brien is the intuitive horseman par excellence. But a trainer must excel in many roles and few can inhabit each with the same proficiency.

As a strategist, O'Brien arguably has fallen short on some occasions. This has been particularly apparent in his forays abroad, where an adjustment is required to cope with the demands of the local racing environment.

Both the Breeders' Cup and Melbourne Cup have witnessed some odd scenes involving Ballydoyle pacemaking, for instance. 
In the 2008 Turf at Santa Anita, pacemaker Red Rock Canyon and the hot favourite Soldier Of Fortune appeared to run as a team up front. But, after a mile in a staggering 1:33.86 - which would win many Grade 1 races over a mile - the latter's jockey Johnny Murtagh unwisely kicked on. The result was inevitable: Soldier Of Fortune tired badly in the straight and could finish only fourth to Conduit.

Worse was to come later the same year at Flemington. Alessandro Volta, Septimus and Honolulu were sent out with the obvious intention of galloping the best Australasian stayers into the ground. They raced 1-2-3 down the back straight, but to reach this formation required supramaximal effort and being forced to continue at an unsustainable pace; that they could finish only 18th, 21st and 20th respectively after such bravado was interpreted as naivety by the locals - and with good reason.

Of course, O'Brien's magnificent record could not have been achieved without these instances proving relatively rare. Yet the impression persists that the plans he dispenses are at best complicated and at worst convoluted. Either way, the chaos of battle often renders them impotent and his riders patently confused.

When Mick Kinane, Kieren Fallon and Johnny Murtagh held the position of stable jockey to O'Brien, their experience and judgment would generally prove the overriding factor when adjustments had to be made on the hoof. But, for all his outstanding ability in the saddle, Murtagh himself sometimes appeared less than the jockey we know towards the end of his tenure at Ballydoyle.

The canon of Moore's riding strongly suggests that the stilted performance he gave on Recital was the product of his ambitions being constrained. To my mind, his defining characteristic as a rider in an anticipatory sense of how a race is developing; informed by this, he is frequently the first to react. Yet there he was in the Ballysax sat at the back of the field like an insentient observer - until the precise point at which his mount straightened for home.

Now, it should be clear even to a racing novice that the Ballysax Stakes was not the ultimate ambition of Recital's career. And that his free-going tendencies do need to be curbed by as much repetitive restraint as required to get the message across. All this being true, why give Moore the task of educating him when the likes of Seamie Heffernan, Colm O'Donoghue and the trainer's son Joseph must know of his quirks so much better?

Moore's nascent association with O'Brien is understandable insomuch as he is a great rider. But he won't be able to provide continuity in the saddle for the Ballydoyle inmates, given his first responsibility to Sir Michael Stoute.

O'Brien will be able to make alternative arrangements readily, of course, but a top stable like Ballydoyle simply has to benefit from the continuity of a number one rider. The relationship between trainer and jockey is no less fundamental to a racing operation that the one between coach and captain to a cricket team.

It is the trainer of a racehorse who most influences the success of its career. But the jockey is the executor of those actions which the trainer cannot carry out - the way it uses the source of power which has been built and shaped by routine exercise and racing foundation.

O'Brien's ingrained desire to field pacemakers - justifiable only to a point - in Group 1 races is meant to ensure that his best runners have every chance. But it also guarantees that his riders will face a more complex tactical challenge than would be the case in isolation.

The familiar huddle between O'Brien and his riders which precedes most top races may just be for the sake of convenience. But it also suggests to any dispassionate observer that the actions of the jockeys during the race are not independent; that the strategic ambition is contingent on a concerted approach.

This is not to suggest that it betokens a breach of the rules, though it is questionable whether it can exist within the spirit of them. But when you see multiple O'Brien runners in close-knit formation - such as in that 2008 Melbourne Cup, for instance - it is difficult not to draw the inference that what happened was not presaged in the huddle.

It is beyond the scope on a non-horseman to understand the effect on horse psychology or schooling of this discontinuity in riding arrangements. Other operations have made it work - including one based at the same premises as O'Brien. And the trainer himself seemed to cope well during the period before Murtagh's tenure and after Fallon's waywardness took its effect on his Ballydoyle career.

But that situation was forced on the trainer for reasons of expediency. Whereas he has surely exercised some control over the persisting one.

Either way, O'Brien's obsessive desire for complex strategy - part of a fastidious approach to training overall - surely demands that the coach-captain dynamic be in place at Ballydoyle.