Team Europe turned out to be Team Charlie Appleby at the Breeders’ Cup meeting at Del Mar over the weekend, as the man from Moulton Paddocks rounded off the best season of his career with all three of the European-trained winners over the 14 races.
Appleby has now had runners in 11 races in North America in 2021 and won seven of them, and returns from California with another £2.7m in prize money earnings despite seeing two fancied runners scratched in bizarrely similar circumstances after becoming upset in the stalls.
And all this in a week when Appleby’s predecessor at the yard, a certain Mahmood al-Zarooni, saddled his first runners for eight-and-a-half years at Meydan in Dubai. They finished eighth of nine and 12th of 13. Hands up: who’s seen Sliding Doors?
Zarooni, of course, was very much the architect of his own downfall, and Appleby’s considerable ability when it comes to training horses has been apparent ever since the former assistant stepped into Zarooni’s shoes in the summer of 2013. But even so, there is a sense that this season has particular significance, and not just because Appleby is certain to be Britain’s champion trainer for the first time.
For about 20 years now – ever since the extraordinary Galileo’s offspring started to emerge on to the track, in fact – the simple fact of the matter is that the Ballydoyle/Coolmore axis has been winning the game of international Flat racing. Godolphin has had occasional champions of its own, of course – Appleby landed a first Derby for the royal blue colours with Masar in 2018, but it has never really felt like a genuine clash of equals. The Coolmore crew have for the most part been at least one step ahead.
Aidan O’Brien, however, drew a blank at Del Mar, where unusually he had just one runner in one of the juvenile events, and just six in all. Despite winning two Classics, meanwhile, he is only fifth in the British trainers’ table and could conceivably be relegated to sixth by Mark Johnston before the season ends on 31 December.
O’Brien, inevitably, was Ireland’s champion trainer once more, for the 23rd season running and the 24th time in all. After four straight seasons when his prize money total was more than double that of the runner-up, however, this year’s margin – over his son, Joseph – was €2.4m to €1.5m, and two more trainers – Jessica Harrington and Ger Lyons – were hot on Joseph’s heels.
It might be a blip – O’Brien has had the occasional one before – but this was also, of course, the year when Coolmore lost Galileo. His final crops of yearlings will keep things ticking over for a few seasons yet, but unless St Mark’s Basilica – a grandson of Galileo on his dam’s side – has inherited a lot more than 25% of the great stallion’s winner-siring ability, Ballydoyle’s dominance in middle-distance races in particular will inevitably start to slip.
Whether O’Brien feels the need to ring any changes at Ballydoyle remains to be seen. Suggestions towards the end of last year that Colin Keane might replace Ryan Moore as his number one rider proved to be a long way wide of the mark, and Keane had only a handful of rides for Ballydoyle in 2021 while also retaining his title with a record-breaking total of winners.
And while Frankie Dettori rode second-strings to win O’Brien’s two British Classics this year – Mother Earth and Snowfall – Moore was back in the groove from midsummer, with eight Group One wins in Europe aboard St Mark’s Basilica, Mother Earth, Snowfall and most recently Luxembourg, Ballydoyle’s big hope for next year’s Classics, in the Vertem Trophy at Doncaster.
Appleby, though, had a top-notch juvenile of his own this year in Native Trail, while Modern Games, his Juvenile Turf winner, also looks highly progressive. Adayar and Hurricane Lane, his Derby and St Leger winners respectively, are expected to race on at four. The best season of Appleby’s career may well prove to be only the best season of his career so far.