Air Force Blue lining up in today's Darley July Cup was hardly in Aidan O'Brien's original 2016 script for the colt he described as the best two-year-old he's ever trained: that he lines up at all, however, will encourage hope Air Force Blue may still return to Group One winning form at Newmarket.
O’Brien enjoyed Group One success with Alice Springs in the Falmouth Stakes on Friday but the stark reality with Air Force Blue is that he has beaten just two horses home in two classics. Considering no two-year-old champion in recent times has carried a bigger reputation into the Guineas races, that has been a colossal let-down.
It has certainly been the biggest disappointment of a classic campaign for the world’s most powerful bloodstock team with only The Gurkha hitting the top-flight mark amongst Coolmore’s expensively assembled crop of three-year-old colts.
That is a low commercial Group One dividend for Coolmore to date, something which O’Brien attempts to put right in three countries this weekend.
Break new ground
On Saturday, both Long Island Sound (Colm O’Donoghue) and Deauville (Jamie Spencer) will bid for the $1.25 million (€1.13 million) Belmont Derby in New York with an “off-time” of 9.38pm. Over an hour later O’Donoghue rides Ballydoyle in the $1 million (€900,000) Belmont Oaks with Spencer on board Coolmore.
Then on Sunday, the supplemented Landofhopeandglory will attempt to break new ground for Ireland's champion trainer by landing the German Derby (4.10) in Hamburg.
Despite such a trans-Atlantic reach, however, American Grade Ones and continental mile-and-a-half events pale commercially with the pressure on Air Force Blue to redeem his reputation.
O’Brien’s insistence that the colt is almost too fast for his own good will sound very hollow indeed if there isn’t dramatic improvement. Encouragingly, he does have genuinely quick ground to race on for the first time this year. There’s also an encouraging race history on his side.
Two of O’Brien’s previous July Cup winners, Stravinsky in 1999 and Mozart two years later, were also three-year-olds dropping back to sprinting, although both boasted better form than Air Force Blue.
Even O’Brien’s other hope, Washington DC, has done better than the stable ‘number one’ to date in 2016, while the veteran Sole Power has a third go at the July Cup and represents the complete opposite to Air Force Blue in terms of proven sprint achievement.
The Henry Candy-trained pair, Twilight Son and Limato, also represent top-class form and appear to set the benchmark on this occasion.
In comparison, it could be argued this represents something of a last throw of the Group One dice for Air Force Blue’s reputation. There’s a lot riding on the colt finding some magic over Newmarket’s six furlongs.
O'Brien also throws the Leopardstown winner War Decree into Group Two juvenile action in the preceding Superlative Stakes, while on Sunday Ryan Moore travels to Hamburg for Landofhopeandglory, who takes on 18 opponents in the €650,000 Deutsche Derby.