THERE has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth since the failed bid by Camelot to create racing history at Doncaster last Saturday.
A sell-out crowd of 32,000 gathered on Town Moor, prepared to hail the first horse since NIJINSKY in 1970 to land the Triple Crown by adding victory in the St Leger over 1m6f to triumphs, earlier this season, in the Derby over 1m4f and the 2,000 Guineas over 1m.
The whole of racing was ready to laud Aidan O’Brien’s magnificent-looking colt as the latest on a recent conveyor-belt of superstars, hard on the heels of FRANKEL, KAUTO STAR and SEA THE STARS.
But it wasn’t to be. The 2/5 favourite was beaten into second by Godolphin upstart, ENCKE. And inevitably, whenever the masses have been let down, the masses demand to know why and search for a scapegoat.
It didn’t take them long to find one. Jockey Joseph O’Brien, 19-year-old son of the trainer who, said the snipers, gave Camelot too much to do.
O’Brien jnr is an easy target. The perception is that he only landed the plum job as number one pilot at Ballydoyle because of his father.
In fact, he is one of the most brilliant, young riders of his generation. A jockey who has already steered home TEN Group One winners.
Of course, as he learns and matures, O’Brien jnr is sure to have days when he makes mistakes. But St Leger Day, Saturday September 15 2012 was not one of them.
In fact, he gave Camelot the wisest of rides for a classy speed-horse stepping up to a trip sure to examine his stamina. Held up and covered up on the inner, creeping closer in the straight before the moment came to unleash the turn of foot the unbeaten colt had displayed to win at Epsom and Newmarket.
Sadly, O’Brien jnr was unhinged by two factors beyond his control. Firstly, Camelot was clearly unsuited by the steady early pace, which prevented him from settling into a natural rhythm near the back of the field. And secondly, when that time did arrive to quicken, approaching the furlong pole, the horse’s head came up (disturbingly) and he took much longer than anticipated to get himself organised.
Crucially, at exactly the same defining moment of the race, the winner WAS picking up and got first run on the favourite to surge clear by the two or three lengths that made all the difference.
To his credit, Camelot kept on strongly through the final furlong, really sticking his head out, and was eating into Encke’s lead with every stride, definitely staying the 1m6f trip.
It might be argued that had O’Brien jnr been able to extricate his charge from the rail earlier, he would have got there. But even when the gaps enabled him to pull out, he was barely half a length down on the winner. Camelot’s acceleration was missing, not his jockey’s tactical nous.
O’Brien snr blamed himself for not deploying a pacemaker, opining that, with a faster gallop, Camelot would have settled better and, therefore, quickened better.
But I’m surprised that little has been made of the curious tactics adopted by the connections of the pacemaker who did take his place in the field.
Ostensibly, DARTFORD’S appearance was to set a searching gallop to help John Gosden’s stamina-laden challengers, THOUGHT WORTHY and MICHELANGELO, and expose the potential stamina-limitations of Camelot.
As it happened, the steady gallop inconvenienced the Triple Crown seeker in a very different way but hardly aided the chances of the Gosden pair, neither of whom ever looked like winning.
It was one of those races that triggered much head-scratching and much debate. But from my perspective, Joseph O’Brien was the butt of some harsh criticism, while Aidan O’Brien should not be torturing himself too much.
In fact, O’Brien and his high-roller owners at Ballydoyle deserve huge credit for their bravery in attempting a feat most in racing had discarded as a relic of the past.
Camelot’s defeat has invoked mourning among many racing folk. But let’s look on the bright side. It means the Triple Crown’s folklore status remains intact. It underlines how difficult it is for any horse to master a variety of distances at the top level.
The mighty FRANKEL will not stray beyond his comfort zone of 1m and 1m2f. Camelot searched for the Holy Grail -- and any horse capable of winning a Guineas and a Derby and finishing second in the Leger deserves rich praise, not rueful censure.
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