The Ballydoyle boys surely must have thought their two-decade quest to capture America’s richest horse race was finally to be completed this past weekend.
The racing arm of Coolmore Stud, Europe’s top thoroughbred breeding operation, had known heartbreak of many kinds in its 12 tries to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic since Aidan O’Brien took over as the Master of Ballydoyle in 1996.
Giant’s Causeway was beaten by a neck in 2000. The colt George Washington suffered a fatal breakdown on a muddy, windswept day along the New Jersey shore in 2007. The following year produced another second-place check for O’Brien to take back to County Tipperary, Ireland.
This time felt different, though.
As the field of 11 horses galloped past California’s San Gabriel Mountains in the early stages of the $5 million Classic on Nov. 2, Ballydoyle’s colt Declaration of War couldn’t have looked any better. He had taken a strong hold of the bit and was gliding effortlessly behind the leaders.
And in so doing, he was answering the three biggest questions that hound European turf champions when they try American dirt for the first time: Can they get their footing on a foreign surface? Can they withstand the sting of the sand and clay that’s kicked in their face by the frontrunners? And can they keep up with the quicker pace set in American races?
As they rounded the turn and braced for the stretch run at Santa Anita Park, Declaration of War loomed menacingly. The rider, O’Brien’s son, Joseph, is going to switch him to the outside and storm to the lead, I said to myself. Ballydoyle, so dominant for so long across Europe and in Breeders’ Cup races on the turf, is finally going to get its Classic win.
Yet, in the end, two fateful developments conspired to deny the Ballydoyle boys again, leaving them a head short in a gut-wrenching, three-way scramble for the finish line.
The first was the move that 50-year-old Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens made around the turn on the winner Mucho Macho Man.
Stevens, better known to many Americans as the actor who played jockey George “Iceman” Woolf in the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit,” has amazingly emerged from retirement to ride as well as ever. Having studied his mount’s tendencies well, he knew he had to let the horse roll early and take the lead heading into the stretch to maximize his chances of winning.
O’Brien waited for Stevens to clear the tiring frontrunners before moving Declaration of War up to the right flank of Mucho Macho Man while the three-year-old Will Take Charge pursued them a couple lengths behind. The race was on.
Watching the European colt run with his left leg out in front as the horses swung off the turn, I waited for him to switch over to his right front leg down the straightaway. It’s a move that U.S. trainers constantly teach horses on the oval tracks of America -- run the turns on the left leg and the straightaways on the right. The technique spreads the physical exertion of racing throughout the body, and a timely lead change will often give a horse a boost of energy.
But as Declaration of War lunged at Mucho Macho Man, it became clear he lacked the polish to jump over onto his right lead. Stuck on the wrong leg and tiring, he ran courageously yet inconsistently down the lane, finishing a head behind Will Take Charge, who in turn was a nose behind Mucho Macho Man. A proper lead change probably would have propelled Declaration of War past both in the finale of his two-year racing career.
It was perhaps the cruelest of all of O’Brien’s Classic setbacks, harsher even than the neck defeat suffered by Giant’s Causeway over a decade ago.
So it’s back to County Tipperary, back to Ballydoyle yard and back to the search for that one big horse to conquer America’s richest race.
(David Papadopoulos, the team leader for Latin America markets coverage at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)