“It could only happen to Michael!” Those words, spoken to me by Victor Chandler after Thunder Gulch, owned by Michael Tabor, had astounded everyone in racing when he won the 1995 Kentucky Derby, were repeated many times in the days after that unlikely success for a hitherto small-scale English owner, writes Tony Stafford.
Trained by Wayne D Lukas and ridden by Gary Stevens, Thunder Gulch narrowly missed out on what would have been a first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1977 when only third to stable-companion Timber Country in the Preakness before his Belmont Stakes success.
Thunder Gulch died two weeks ago at Ashford stud, Coolmore’s Kentucky base and his home throughout his own long stud career. Before his amazing Derby triumph, any thought that Tabor would ever be teaming up with John Magnier in the Coolmore ownership group would have seemed fanciful in the extreme. Yet that Run for the Roses was the catalyst that brought the pair, joined later by Derrick Smith, together and to their unchallenged position at the top of the thoroughbred world.
Ashford is also home to American Pharoah, the horse that finally ended the 38-year US Triple Crown drought three years ago. By the time he had completed that feat and long before his Breeders’ Cup Classic victory at the end of the 2015 campaign, he had been partially acquired by Coolmore. He shares with their outstanding European stallion Galileo the distinction of a “private” stud fee for the 2018 covering season.
One of the enduring oddities of the international racing calendar is that the first Saturday in May is the traditional date for both the Kentucky Derby and the 2,000 Guineas. In the days of Concorde it would have been theoretically possible to attend both – the five-hour time difference more than making up for the three and a half hour Mach2.5 Atlantic crossing – but you would have needed some heavy duty transfers.
But after Mendelssohn’s UAE Derby extravaganza on Saturday night at Meydan, there can be little doubt that Tabor, John Magnier and especially Smith, in whose colours the $3million colt runs, will be unlikely to forego Churchill Downs for the Rowley Mile, however compelling the prospects of unbeaten Saxon Warrior, or any one of half a dozen Ballydoyle colts that might pitch up for the Qipco-sponsored Classic.
The Coolmore story, and especially the last 20-odd years of it, is one of continuity. When Demi O’Byrne paid $200,000 on Tabor’s behalf for a yearling colt by Hennessy in Kentucky in September 2000, he was beginning a process that was to culminate in those astonishing events on Saturday night in Dubai.
Johannesburg won all six of his races as a juvenile in Europe, starting at Fairyhouse; going on to Royal Ascot for the Norfolk – the only time he started odds against – before winding up domestic and UK operations with an easy Dewhurst victory.
In hindsight, it seems crazy that he could have been allowed to start at odds of 36-5 for his juvenile swansong in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on the dirt at Belmont, but that was entirely because of the reputation – I would have been talking it up, for sure – of the Thoroughbred Corporation-owned Officer, trained by Bob Baffert and a 4-6 shot after easy wins in Californian and then the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont.
He flopped on his big day, however, and so on balance did Johannesburg the following May. After a soft-ground comeback defeat at home, he was only eighth of 20 behind War Emblem, Officer’s stable-companion also owned by Prince Ahmed Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation, in the Derby. That remains my only time to attend America’s greatest race and, as I was part of the TC’s entourage, it remains one of my best memories in racing.
Johannesburg was promptly retired and with his pedigree and Grade 1 dirt win, it was pretty obvious he would be based in the US. It didn’t take too long for Scat Daddy to arrive. Todd Pletcher was the buyer when he came up at the same Keeneland September sale, five years almost to the day that his daddy went through the Lexington ring; and for a similar sort of price, $250,000.
The new owner was Joe Scatuorchio and his colt was campaigned at a high level, winning the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont before finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Gulfstream, Florida, behind wide-margin winner Street Sense. Pletcher also had Circular Quay running in the Tabor colours and this Doreen Tabor homebred started favourite, having upset the odds-on Scat Daddy when they met earlier in the season.
Both colts turned out for the Derby the following May, Circular Quay again faring better, albeit only sixth behind Street Sense, who completed the Juvenile – Derby double with an emphatic win from Hard Spun and subsequent champion, Curlin.
Presumably with the Johannesburg element to encourage him, Tabor bought into Scat Daddy and the immediate success of such as Caravaggio and Lady Aurelia quickly promoted his status within the Ashford stallion hierarchy. He had been upgraded to a $100,000 fee before a fatal accident curtailed what subsequent events show might have been a career in the Galileo mould.
Until Saturday night, that comment may have seemed over-doing it a touch, as equally might the $3million paid by M V Magnier for Scat Daddy’s yearling colt out of Leslie’s Lady, back at Keeneland’s September sale, 10 years and two days after the sire’s acquisition and 15 years and four days on from granddad’s.
But then Leslie’s Lady had already produced Beholder, whose racetrack earnings after 18 wins from 26 career starts were a touch short of four million sterling. She won three Breeders’ Cup races, from age two to six, all at Santa Anita, and Mendelssohn has already emulated the first of those, winning the Juvenile Turf last November.
Aidan O’Brien wisely brought him out for an all-weather prep at Dundalk early last month when Threeandfourpence and Seahenge were also in the field before both joined him in Dubai. The margin over the former was a modest three-parts of a length at Dundalk, Mendelssohn conceding 5lb. It would probably not have mattered if he had been giving five stone on Saturday as once Ryan Moore got him to the front, there was nothing Gold Town, favourite after two home wins for Charlie Appleby and Godolphin, or anything else could do to prevent the Irish horse’s lap of honour.
It is still easy to picture Arazi’s spectacular Juvenile win around the outside of his field all those years ago, but equally his Kentucky Derby defeat. In Mendelssohn’s case, the ever-widening gap had stretched to more than 18 lengths by the line, and was achieved in a time more than two seconds better than ever previously recorded in the race’s history as a nine and a half furlong affair.
O’Brien senior already has umpteen Derby’s and untold Group 1’s in his locker while elder son Joseph is the Melbourne Cup’s youngest winning trainer. Just what will Donnacha, and sisters Sarah and Ana have in store for us in the coming years?
Now the Kentucky Derby beckons. Johannesburg begat Scat Daddy; Scat Daddy begat Mendelssohn. It’s Easter and there’s almost a biblical theme to it all. If any family was destined to achieve yet more history and become the first Irish-based trainer to win the race, Aidan O’Brien’s undoubtedly is. As is Johannesburg’s!