Ten things that Aidan O’Brien learnt from the Kentucky Derby

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Sun 6 May 2018

The record-breaking trainer spoke to Racinguk.com at Newmarket on Sunday about Mendelssohn’s disappointing defeat in the Kentucky Derby the aggressiveness of American racing and the lessons he learnt in order to return.

Justify wins Kentucky Derby 2018 Justify approaches a soggy winning line at a rain-soaked Kentucky Derby (Racingfotos)

By Andy Stephens at Newmarket

Looking remarkably refreshed, despite having had only about five hours sleep, Aidan O’Brien spoke at length about Mendelssohn’s heavy defeat in the Kentucky Derby at Newmarket on Sunday.

The runaway UAE Derby winner was just 6-1 to become the first European-trained horse to win the Run For The Roses at Churchill Downs on Saturday night but he got agitated before the start, missed the kick and got badly hampered in the early stages.

Ryan Moore bustled him up into sixth place but eased him down once it became clear he was not going to be competitive. The combination eventually trailed home last, 73 lengths behind the Bob Baffert-trained winner Justify.

However, O’Brien was anything but downbeat at Headquarters and believes many valuable lessons have been learnt for another day.

And he also intends to show America that Mendelssohn is capable of much better - by preparing him for a return visit for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Here are the lessons O’Brien learnt, in his own words:

1 The savagery of American racing:

American dirt racing is very aggressive at the best of times but when the weather goes like that (there was three inches of rain in the immediate build-up) the aggression turns nearly into savagery.

Everyone knows if you miss a millimetre at the start it’s over. So everyone wants to hit the front, everyone wants to make the running. The pressure and the intensity steps up tenfold.

We had never really experienced it. We’d experienced dirt racing and we were prepared for that - but we weren’t prepared for the different level of intensity.

And because we weren’t prepared, the horse wasn’t prepared. So ultimately the horse and the jockey paid the price.

Going back next year we would know a little bit more what to prepare for and how to prepare for it - what to expect in those circumstances.

It’s (about) learning from the failures.

2 Playing rough:

He missed the start and (got taken out by a rival). It’s like all sport - it’s competitive.

When you go into the playing field there is no such things as friends with no favours or corners given.

If you don’t get to the ball first, the fella beside you gets it. If you have to stand on his foot on the way to the ball then that’s the way it is! It’s tough going.

Our thing is always do our very best in a 100 per cent straight way and then accept the result.

If anything else happens, then it is never on purpose, it is always accidental. If you start thinking different to that then there is no way forward.

Things happen in life, and in races, and you often say ‘why?’. You try and learn from it. That’s the way life is.

3 Gate speed crucial:

Mendelssohn 2 - Churchill Downs - Penelope Miller/ABR Mendelssohn did not train on the Churchill Downs surface until Thursday (Penelope Miller/ABR)

We have to be more aggressive from the gate - those horses on that road are taught that way from day one.

They have aggression from the gates and that becomes an impulse after a while - they don’t even think about it. That’s the only way they know how to do it.

Here (in Britain and Ireland) you get out and you relax. It’s a total different culture there.

For us, it was great to experience it and learn from it - if we are in that situation what you would do? It’s very hard to substitute experience.

We think we’ve learnt. You don’t know until you go again but there’s things we will do different next time and we will have this horse for the next few times to be paying with.

4 Kentucky blueprint a work in progress:

With all the races we don’t ever want to start off (aiming for) with any race, any year. It’s all about the horse - when he comes and what race he is going to be prepared for.

Whatever the race is, we kind of have a blueprint for what we would have done over the past ten or 20 years preparing for that race.

That blueprint can change from year to year until you get it to where you really want it, fine tuned.

We know from yesterday this one will need to be tweaked. If more horses come along we hope that maybe we will to do a better job than with this horse this year.

5 Not a case of once bitten, twice shy:

Justify - Churchill Downs - Penelope Miller/ABR Mendelssohn is likley to have to face the unbeaten Justify in the Classic in November (Penelope Miller/ABR)

I’d imagine Mendelssohn might have a break and his long-term thing will be the (Breeders’ Cup) Classic and that he might have two runs before - in America on dirt or wherever.

If they are in America we will space out his races because he will be travelling from here to race, coming back, let down and start again. It’s a long-term project but that is what we are thinking.

6 Temperament another key factor:

He was a little bit on edge and that’s another thing we can improve on.

We weren’t prepared for the level of atmosphere. There were around 170,000 people; all wet; all screaming. There was rain coming from everywhere and everyone was drowned.

Everyone had these plastic things on then - I cannot explain it to you. There were people and creatures everywhere and he was mind-blown by the whole thing.

He was upset. He’s only a baby horse and he was a bit slow to learn last year; a little bit whinny. He’s grown up along the way and it would have been a good experience for him.

7 The mastery of Ryan Moore:

Aidan O'Brien - Breeders' Cup - Racingfotos Aidan O'Brien is looking forward to returning to Churchill Downs (Racingfotos)

The good thing about yesterday is that Ryan accepted it at halfway and took him out of the race because all he wanted to do was get him home safe.

He was going to beat him up to get him ten lengths closer, which is great and that’s one of the massive things with Ryan.

It was over from the gate - he was wiped out. And then he went to the bend and got wiped out again. The minute he went around there Ryan knew it was over.

He’s confident and believes in his own feel - does the right thing always.

8 The chaos of Kentucky:

I’d been before but I have never experienced anything like yesterday. I was a bit shell-shocked.

It was mad. There were so many people, so many cultures, I saw a preacher at one stage.

It’s the crowd of two Cup finals all together. Go into the middle of it - feel it to believe it.

We won’t expect anything different. Ever again.

9 Watching Saxon Warrior win from afar:

We got an unbelievable kick from it. Donnacha rode him in all his work and it’s the first horse that Ana (O’Brien’s daughter) has been there preparing every day for a Classic with me. It was a massive thing for us.

I was happy because everyone (else) was here - Ana, Donnacha, Joseph, Annemarie. It was a lovely way for me to watch it from the outside - I wasn’t making any of the decisions; I was just watching what was going on, which was lovely.

We were probably always going to go to Kentucky. We’ve been coming to Newmarket a lot of years and knew all the stuff around it, whereas in America there were so many variables and so many things we didn’t understand.

The only way you will ever get used to it, or learn, is to be in the middle of it, so we needed to be there.

You always want to be where the biggest chance of it going wrong is. If you learn from it the next time, it will be progress going forwards.

We knew the odds were against us but then when the circumstances changed we went into a completely different hemisphere, odds wise.

10 And who rides Saxon Warrior in the Derby:

Ryan Moore is our No 1 jockey and always rides our No 1 horse in all the races.

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