Merchant Navy could sign off in July Cup as Aidan O'Brien fires shot across the bows

By Tom Peacock@tompeacock
Sat 23 Jun 2018

It was fun while it lasted with Merchant Navy, for Aidan O’Brien and Royal Ascot visitors alike.

An announcement that the Australian sprinter was being sent to Ballydoyle only came in mid-March and he made just one appearance in Ireland prior to his last-gasp victory in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes on Saturday.

With stallion duties awaiting, we might see him only one last time in next month’s Darley July Cup, for which he is 5-1 with Betfair.

Tantalisingly, that looked an increasing possibility as the dust settled on one of the most thrilling races of the 30 here this week.

Tom Magnier, Coolmore’s Principal Down Under, could explain further: “He’ll possibly run in the July Cup and then go into quarantine, we’ll see how he pulls out of it.

 Merchant Navy and City Light fight out the finish (FocusOnRacing)
Merchant Navy and City Light fight out the finish (FocusOnRacing)

“He’s very important, being by Fastnet Rock, and he’s got a who’s-who of mares waiting for him back down there.

“Aidan had the formula right in the past, and he’s done it again.”

It would be nice if the colt could stick around if he is always going to be involved in such excitement.

Firstly there was the drama of favourite Harry Angel getting very upset in the stalls and losing all chance when leaving them slowly.

Then there was a brief moment of worry when Bound For Nowhere leaned across Ryan Moore and 4-1 chance Merchant Navy, threatening to stop them in their tracks, and came to a crescendo when he crossed the line alongside French raider City Light, with the judge needing to take his time to split them by a short-head.

Redkirk Warrior, the other Antipodean visitor, had beaten Merchant Navy when giving weight away in the Newmarket Handicap in March, which had left even O’Brien wondering if his Southern Hemisphere three-year-old had a mountain to climb at level weights.

However, he had managed a nearly identical trick with Starspangledbanner in the same race eight years ago.

“Everyone was saying there was the 12lb pull in the weights and how were we going to beat him,” O’Brien said.

“It’s credit to his constitution and everyone was very happy with him. We were only told about training him for Ascot as he has stallion commitments, so we’ll see what happens.”

 Merchant Navy and groom David Hickey (FocusOnRacing)
Merchant Navy and groom David Hickey (FocusOnRacing)

Merchant Navy is already listed on the Coolmore website as standing for Aus $55,000 (around £31,000) for when the breeding season begins on September 1.

Various deals seemed to have been done to syndicate the horse not only to race but for his breeding future, and the winner’s enclosure was thronged by Irish and Australian faces.

One of them was Ciaran Maher, former trainer of Merchant Navy and who served a six-month suspension last year over an ownership scandal.

The long-haired Maher used to be a jump jockey and brought Ruby Walsh across to win the Australian Grand National three years ago.

He had no ill-feeling at all. “It’s great for the horse and it’s great for the owners, as they all did well out of it,” he said.

“He was an unbeaten two-year-old and won a Group One at three. I actually think he would do even better next year, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen and I’m sure he’ll do well at stud.

“I was talking to Joseph O’Brien about the 12lb difference with Redkirk Warrior and I told him that I thought Redkirk Warrior probably wasn’t at the age where he was going to improve again, but I thought Merchant Navy could. He said ‘interesting’.”

Maher might make some plans of his own to return, adding: “I hadn’t been here before and I had thought about bringing (2016 Caulfield Cup winner) Jameka across but she got very bad travel sickness. We’ll find another one, I’m sure.”

Frankie Dettori was disappointed with the performance of Redkirk Warrior, who dropped backwards very quickly to finish 10th of 12.

“Two from home he just went out like a light and I can’t tell you why,” he said.

Merchant Navy was probably immune from O’Brien's comments after he had been crowned the top trainer of the week, when he summed up his Royal Ascot 2018 which included wins with Magic Wand, Kew Gardens and Hunting Horn, but no more in the top bracket.

“It’s been a great week but some of them are maybe three weeks off,” he said ominously. “It’s not fitness, but they’re just missing that little edge, that bit of sharpness.

“We’ve been a bit behind all year - we haven’t been on the grass and I was afraid to change them off the all-weather and onto the grass. I’d say in three weeks, they’ll make the progress.”

Three weeks, incidentally, is the date of the July Cup. Let’s hope Merchant Navy can make it.

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