Inside Racing Feature: The best of both worlds

With Barwon Heads and Flemington, trainer Danny O'Brien believes he has the ideal springboards for his assault on the spring carnival.

When the calendar ticks over into August inevitably racing's clock seems to be travelling 10 seconds to the furlong. It is under 100 days to the BIG one, the 150th Emirates Melbourne Cup, but with so many other spoils along the way the training treadmill already is cranked to the max.

For Danny O'Brien, like all his peers, it is the time of year he lives for. It is tough, challenging and uncompromising; it is like no other on the Australian – some say world – racing calendar. "Spring is three or four cogs above every other time of the year when it comes to winning races," O'Brien, 40, said.

"You have to have a very good horse and it has to be right at the top of its game and everything has got to go right. If you have not started by late August or Craiglee (now the Makybe Diva) Stakes (at Flemington on September 4), then it's all over. You need to have a lot of irons in the fire. We give them long preps mainly because you don't want to get behind."

O'Brien enters spring with his best-ever team of three-year-olds, headlined by Group 1 Arrowfield Blue Diamond Stakes winner Star Witness and Group 2 VRC Sires Produce winner Shamrocker, and emerging stayer Vigor and old stager Master O'Reilly.

Everyone is looking for an edge. For O'Brien it may be his new property at Connewarre, near Barwon Heads and only a couple of kilometres from 13th Beach. It is a 64-hectare farm with a 1600m horseshoe grass track, with a sand track on its inside and a chute at the 1000m mark. Stables for 50 horses will not be built until Christmas, but shuffling horses between Flemington and Barwon Heads is now a seamless operation. The country property has been operating for less than a year, but the results show what an asset it is.

"It certainly benefited the two-year-olds this season," O'Brien said. "They came through their early stages at Barwon Heads and, while we never really had any aims to run them, none of them went shinsore so they got to the races. Obviously, one of them won the Diamond and the other won the Sires'."

It was important for O'Brien that he got the track right before he worried about the bells and whistles. "Stables are stables, but if you don't have your track right, it doesn't really matter what the stables are like," he said.

The trainer fashioned a 20m wide grass track, along with an 8m wide sand track, and there's a 6m incline up the straight. "It's stiff enough without being ridiculously stiff. You can't make horses too dour. It's a nice gradual incline,'' he said.

O'Brien doesn't plan to reduce his operation at Flemington. He said the city stables and the farm gave him the best of both worlds – time is on his side at a private property, unlike at Flemington, or for that matter any other public track where time is always an enemy.

O'Brien said he could work 10-12 horses a morning at Barwon Heads and do it at a pace that is more beneficial to the horses. "The more variety you can offer a horse over their life span, the more you are going to get out of them and the longer you will have them,'' he said.

Barwon Heads with its wide, sweeping turn and gradual incline provides less stress on young legs. "We've always had problems with horses going shinsore because you are on a flat, tight turn (at Flemington), while down at Barwon Heads we didn't run into the shin soreness problems," he said.

"Obviously, winning Victoria's best two two-year-old races, we have high hopes for Star Witness and Shamrocker. We have as good a colt and filly as you would hope for going into the spring."

Star Witness comes off a 'Murphy's Law' trip to Sydney. O'Brien said the colt lost the plot in the mounting yard before the Group 2 Todman Stakes (1200m) at Rosehill on March 20, his Golden Slipper Stakes trial. The Starcraft two-year-old went off in the gates, hit his head on the stalls and came back with blood coming out of a nostril after finishing 12th of 13 to Masquerader.

O'Brien sent his colt, who has won three of four starts, to Barwon Heads for eight weeks in the paddock. He's now back at Flemington ready to launch his spring campaign later this month at Caulfield. The trainer has no doubt that Star Witness is an outstanding sprinter – he reeled off superb sectional splits in all his runs leading into and including the Blue Diamond – but he is not sure the colt will stretch out to 1600 metres or beyond.

"I know he's a good sprinter and I know he'll be good down the straight," O'Brien said.

"Everything out of his family that I've had anything to do with was – Leone Chiara barely got 1200 metres; Ferocity won the Ascot Vale, but did not get a step past 1200 metres. They were both by Lion Hunter, he's by Starcraft. I thought that the (Group 1 Caulfield) Guineas (1600m on October 9) would be the grand final for him, but if he showed early in the spring that the 'mile' wasn't right we could wait for the Coolmore (1200m) on Derby Day (October 30).

"The Guineas is very tempting. The last horse to win the Blue Diamond and (Caulfield) Guineas was Redoute's Choice. If he could do that, then it's a super story for him going forward as a stallion."

O'Brien is looking at the Oaks with Shamrocker. "She's a mile-plus filly, you've got to look at the Oaks. She is a big, long striding O'Reilly – the further the better with her," he said.

O'Brien doubts whether there is another Vigor, a spring star last year, lurking beneath the radar, but added: "You never know; there are a couple of lightly-raced four-year-olds."

It's not just as simple as wheeling out emerging stayers whose identity outside the stable is relatively unknown. "They have to have a high enough rating to get into even the preliminary races. If you haven't got a high enough rating to get into a race like the Naturalism (Stakes, Group 3, 2000m, at Caulfield on September 18) then really you have no hope," he said. I think you have to be a top-line three-year-old to really measure up as a four-year-old in the spring."

Rule of thumb suggests that unless you have a horse whose rating is in the 90s when spring cranks up, then it's mission impossible.

Already, injury has forced O'Brien to rule out Rockferry (fifth in the Group 1 Victoria Derby), who fell victim to a tendon injury in the autumn. Rockferry promised to be one of the most exciting stayers of the spring, but O'Brien understands that racing is more often filled with heartache than jubilation. "That's racing," he said. "His full brother, Xcellent, was the same. He did two tendons."

Another casualty is Spacecraft, the Group 2 AAMI Vase runner-up, who injured himself during the Sydney carnival.

However, there could be wildcards. Noetic, a Cape Cross filly who was third and fifth at her two starts in the autumn, shows promise. And there also hopes for a couple of unraced Zabeels, a son (by Galileo) out of triple Melbourne Cup winner Makybe Diva (who will be on a similar program to Rockferry's last year) and a Redoute's Choice-Glamour Puss colt.

Then there's Master O'Reilly, a marvel by anyone's estimation. The 2007 Caulfield Cup winner is saddling up for his fourth successive tilt at the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, having run in the top 10 in both Cups for the past three years. "He's pretty easy to program," O'Brien said. "He'll probably run in the Craiglee (Makybe Diva, 1600m), Turnbull (2000m), Caulfield Cup (2400m) then Melbourne Cup (3200m)," O'Brien said.

Asked if Master O'Reilly was descending racing's 'hill', O'Brien replied: "You'd think so. He's a rising eight-year-old, but he ran fourth in the Melbourne Cup last year and probably was one of the runs in the race. He came from a long way back and passed everything in the straight except the horses that filled the placings. If he turns up fit on Melbourne Cup day, you would expect he would run in the first 10."

Also high on O'Brien's charts is Vigor, who gained headlines for all the wrong reasons on the eve of the Melbourne Cup when he missed a spot in the field.

"We're very focused on the spring with Vigor after missing out last year. He had a really good break after the spring, a very light autumn – just the two runs –so he should come into the spring in the best shape of his life. There are probably only 10 or 12 live Cups chances. I would hope Vigor is one of them and Master O'Reilly is another of them.

"They've proven themselves – one has won a Caulfield Cup and the other has run third. Vigor is on the way up and if Master O'Reilly is anywhere near his best he's still very competitive. We're looking forward to it, but we know how hard it is.

"My team may look good, but the way Moods' (Peter Moody) year has been, his team probably looks twice as good. Then there's Bart and there's Kav ... it's a proper time of the year to win races."

Story by Adrian Dunn for Inside Racing, to view PDF of original story click here

Photo by Sean Garnsworthy of GSP