Racing What Ifs: What if Aidan O’Brien had trained Frankel?

The Frankel most readily associated with Aidan O’Brien these days is Bobby, the American trainer whose record of 25 Grade/Group 1 winners in a year seems in play for O’Brien at the start of each flat season, writes Tony Keenan. His associations with the equine Frankel were limited to providing foils to his brilliance between 2010 and 2012 along with training some of his offspring but what if the greatest horse of the modern era were paired with the greatest trainer of the same period? Henry Cecil could hardly have done any better with Frankel, a horse that satisfied every judge from visuals to time to form; but Aidan O’Brien would certainly have done things differently.

Nor is it a pipedream to imagine Frankel could have finished up in Ballydoyle. There was a time in past decade when Juddmonte would send ten of their mares to Coolmore sires and each would get first choice of the foals on an alternating annual basis. In 2007 it was Coolmore that had first preference and they selected Await The Dawn whose best effort came when winning the 2011 Hardwicke and was rated 121 at this peak. The following year was the turn of Juddmonte and the rest is racing history. But what if it had been Coolmore’s time to choose in 2008? Let’s roll back to that time and do some counter-factuals on what might have unfolded…

Would Frankel have been beaten on debut?

Much has been made of Aidan O’Brien’s record with juvenile debutantes this year with even the pick of his two-year-olds getting turned over first time and many the subjects of nursing rides. They are being trained with long term in mind at the moment though that pattern was not quite so marked earlier in the decade. Consider the record of two-year-old colts on debut out of Ballydoyle over the last 10 years:


Year Winners Runners Strikerate
2017 2 23 8.7%
2016 5 64 7.8%
2015 6 44 13.6%
2014 6 47 12.8%
2013 16 44 36.4%
2012 10 57 17.5%
2011 11 49 22.5%
2010 5 52 9.6%
2009 10 53 18.9%
2008 11 53 20.8%


2010, the year Frankel made his debut, was a particularly poor year for O’Brien-trained debutants though the overall trend in that time is more towards strikerates north of 17% than those close to 10% we see today. The obvious point to make here is that none of this may have mattered; Frankel had so much latent ability that it would have shone through from the start, regardless of tender handling or lack of fitness.

But plenty of O’Brien’s stars have still been beaten first time on the track as two-year-olds. Going back to 2010, the likes of Zoffany, Power, Camelot, Kingsbarns, War Command, Air Force Blue and Caravaggio have all won their first outing. But there is an equally strong – perhaps even stronger – list of those that got beaten, which includes Leading Light, Magician, Australia, Gleneagles, Highland Reel, Order Of St George, Churchill and Gustav Klimt, allowing that some of those were not bred to be sharp early. Frankel wasn’t either by the way; his dam took four starts to win while only two of his five siblings won as juveniles.

Being unbeaten is something that matters in racing especially when you are engaged in the business of stallion-making. It adds an aura, whatever that may be, along with a few euros to the early fees before the stallion has proven itself with actual progeny. But that is not the only part of it and it is worth remembering that had Coolmore owned Frankel they would have used him extensively themselves which doesn’t bring in money as such.

Where the unbeaten record does matter however is in race planning and deciding where the horse might run next. Choosing to race on as a four-year-old is an important decision and the potential reward of an enhanced reputation must be weighed against the risk of losing the unbeaten record and the certain loss of a year in the breeding sheds. With this decision comes pressure which is something we’ll return to later.


Who would have ridden Frankel?

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Tom Queally rode Frankel on all 14 of his starts and that was important; he was not a straightforward horse by any means, keenness just one of his issues, and having the same rider on board likely proved a help to his development. Whether such an option would have been possible had he been trained by Aidan O’Brien is unclear. 2010 was a transitional period at Ballydoyle, Johnny Murtagh in his last season there and seemingly with one foot out of the door, Joseph O’Brien only starting his career in the saddle and Ryan Moore not really on the Coolmore horizon just yet. It is worth considering who rode Group 1 winners for O’Brien in the UK and Ireland in this period:


Year 2010 2011 2012
J. O’Brien 0 3 9
S. Heffernan 2 6 2
J. Murtagh 9 0 0
R. Moore 0 2 1
C. O’Donoghue 0 1 0
J. Spencer 0 1 0


Joseph O’Brien was seventeen at the start of Frankel’s juvenile season and by the start of his three-year-old campaign he was still claiming five pounds; he would not ride out his claim until September 26th of that year. He rode Group 1 winners in 2011, starting with Roderic O’Connor in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and later on Maybe in the Moyglare and Camelot in the Racing Post Trophy. Still, he was a claimer for the first two of those wins and no amount of family connections were going to get him on Frankel as a three-year-old.

Neither Colm O’Donoghue nor Jamie Spencer were going ride him either and nor I suspect was Ryan Moore. Moore simply didn’t have the same connection with Ballydoyle in 2010/11 as he does now nor was the Ryan Moore of that period the same rider as we see today. He had ridden 19 Group 1 winners up to the end of 2010 as he was beginning to come into his pomp with an Epsom Oaks/Derby double on Snow Fairy and Workforce but Michael Stoute was his chief supporter at that time.

That leaves Heffernan and Murtagh. 2011 was the peak of Heffernan’s career arc in terms of Group 1 winners with So You Think a big ride to get along with Misty For Me. However, he was jocked off So You Think for Joseph O’Brien the following year which makes it hard to believe he would have held the mount on Frankel for three seasons. If there were a single jockey to ride Frankel throughout his time at Ballydoyle, it would likely have been Murtagh. He was proven at all the big tracks in all the big races and regardless of the issues that may have been going on at the time, both sides would surely have made it work. A horse like Frankel was too important to get wrong.


Where would Frankel have run?

In many ways, this is the most interesting part of the entire discussion and it might be best to start with some comparables, using the ten O’Brien-trained horses of recent times that most resemble Frankel. Even with them in mind however, this is far from straightforward as he could have gone a number of ways.

[Note: When I say signature races below, it does not necessarily mean the races the won but rather the races that defined them.]

Horse Careers Wins/Runs Peak OR Signature Races Four-year-old Season?
Rock Of Gibraltar 10/13 126 All the mile races No
Hawk Wing 5/12 137 Guineas, Derby, Lockinge Yes
George Washington 6/14 124 Phoenix, National, Guineas Yes (but…)
Dylan Thomas 10/20 127 King George, Irish Champion Stakes (x2), Arc Yes
Henrythenavigator 6/11 125 Both Guineas, Breeders’ Cup No
Rip Van Winkle 5/14 130 Sussex, QEII, Juddmonte Yes
Camelot 6/10 124 Triple Crown Yes
Australia 5/8 123 Guineas, Derby, Irish Champion Stakes No
Gleneagles 7/11 122 Both Guineas, St. James’s Palace No
Churchill 7/9 123 Both Guineas ?


As a two-year-old, Frankel had four runs: a maiden, a conditions race, the Royal Lodge and the Dewhurst. Had he been with O’Brien, things would have been broadly similar. He would have won his maiden (or not!) then gone for a lesser Group race before taking in the National Stakes and then the Dewhurst. There is a possibility he would have been given more time and fewer starts like a Camelot or Australia but this seems the likely campaign.

The start to his classic season would have been straightforward too as he would have gone straight to the 2,000 Guineas as is the case with almost every O’Brien colt that fits that profile. There would have been no prep run as Frankel had in the Greenham, a race Cecil credited with taking the freshness out of him ahead of Newmarket, and he could have been vulnerable there for missing that run. Regardless of that, then would have come the big decision: go for the Derby or stick to the mile. It is difficult to say which way he would have gone; Hawk Wing, Camelot and Australia went to Epsom and were generally successful while Rock Of Gibraltar, Henrythenavigator, Gleneagles and Churchill stayed at eight furlongs.

More difficult decisions would have followed as the options really would have opened up from the mid-summer. I strongly suspect the Irish Champion Stakes would have been on the cards as it is a race O’Brien has a deep association with; Frankel would have gone to Leopardstown regardless of whether he were going up or down in trip. The Arc seems much less likely – it is not a race where O’Brien runs many three-year-olds – nor would British Champions’ Day have been high on the list of potential targets. Henry Cecil had an affinity with that meeting, not least because it was central to the British calendar and was in its infancy, he and Frankel due much credit for launching the early runnings of that event.

Champions’ Day has been little more than an afterthought for O’Brien and Coolmore up to now. One meeting that is central to their plans however is the Breeders’ Cup and it is worth pointing out that seven of the ten comparable horses listed above ran at that meeting. It is vital for Coolmore to have winners there though where Frankel might have run is hard to call, the Mile, the Turf and even the Classic in the mix.

Let’s assume Frankel has got to the end of 2011 and his three-year-old season unbeaten and a call must be made on whether or not he remains in training. This is where the unbeaten record comes in; it is one thing to maintain such a record through the horse’s first two seasons when you have no real option but to race on, quite another to decide to continue at four when all manner of things could go wrong. Aidan O’Brien and the lads vacillate between risk-taking and risk-aversion at various times, as they should with no horse or situation entirely the same; but I strongly suspect they would have retired Frankel as a three-year-old as the risks were simply too high. The last two or three years may have seen more Ballydoyle horses stay in training but this was five years ago and their mollycoddling of something like Gleneagles suggests the unbeaten record may simply have been put away for posterity.


Frankel’s Ballydoyle Legacy: The Best Ever

Aidan O’Brien has had many horses which he has described as the best he has trained and we have even seen variations on the theme with him describing horses as the fastest, toughest and such like. There’s some recency bias in there along with sales talk but looking at the records of the pick of his recent stars one can see that it is actually quite difficult to say which was best. Many of them tend to cluster around peak official ratings in the high-120s and while Hawk Wing is the one with the best figure for his win in the Lockinge, others had more longevity and consistency.

Of course, training a horse officially rated 140 (Timeform rated him 147) that wins all his races renders all of this moot. The debate would be over and if only for that it would have been great for Frankel to have been trained at Ballydoyle!

Tony Keenan

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