Despite Slump, O’Brien Casts a Magical Spell Over the Breeders’ Cup Turf

Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien enjoys a wonderfully magical training career, generally free of moguls or other bumps. But as he sends Magical and Mogul out in search of his seventh Breeders’ Cup Turf title, O’Brien does so along an uncharacteristically bumpy road on this side of the Atlantic.

Magical-BC Turf
A seven-time Group 1 winner, and one of the best turf horses in the world, Magical is a worthy 5/2 favorite to put stellar trainer Aidan O’Brien atop the Breeders’ Cup Turf mountain. (Image: Simon Cooper/PA Wire)

Whatever Irish luck/wizardry O’Brien turned into 12 Breeders’ Cup titles, and an unprecedented six Breeders’ Cup Turf titles, is on hiatus. Despite typically arriving in America with an equine armada – he brought 10 horses to Keeneland for this year’s Breeders’ Cup — O’Brien is 0-for-his-last-two Breeders’ Cups. He is 0-for-35 since Mendelssohn captured the 2017 Juvenile Turf – the “1” in his 1-for-his-last-36.

And it’s not just the bright lights of the Breeders’ Cup that have temporarily blinded O’Brien’s brilliance. He is 5-for-113 in North America in the last four years. That’s a 4% win rate – not what you’d expect from one of the world’s great trainers.

Before we get to Magical and Mogul, and their chances of breaking O’Brien’s slump, let’s further parse O’Brien’s Breeders’ Cup record. O’Brien is 12-for-147 lifetime – an 8.1% win percentage. Winning every 12th race he enters also isn’t in O’Brien’s training playbook.

The Baffert Factor — With an Irish Twist

Nor is it something bettors like to see. Like O’Brien’s American super-trainer counterpart, Bob Baffert, bettors traditionally hammer his charges at the betting window. Call it a baked-in byproduct of brilliance. When you bet O’Brien in the Breeders’ Cup, the Turf is not a bad place to be. Of O’Brien’s 12 Breeders’ Cup victories, six came in the Turf and four in the Juvenile Turf. Fourteen of O’Brien’s 25 Turf entries hit the board.

O’Brien didn’t win this year’s Juvenile Turf. Mike Maker’s 30/1 Fire At Will did. But in Magical and Mogul, O’Brien has two of the Turf’s best bets.

The $4 million Turf is the Breeders’ Cup’s penultimate race. The 1:33 p.m. PT Turf plays integral roles in Saturday’s $1 million Breeders’ Cup Ultra Pick 6, the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Late Pick 5, and the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Late Pick 4.

This will be bolstered by a $260,779 Pick 6 carryover, courtesy of only two favorites – Golden Pal in the Juvenile Turf Sprint and Aunt Pearl in the Juvenile Fillies Turf – finding the winner’s circle Friday.

Breeders’ Cup Turf Previously a Favorite’s Graveyard

The 1 ½-mile Turf is the Breeders’ Cup’s longest race, and one captured over the past two years by two of their generation’s best horses, Bricks & Mortar and Enable. Both going off as favorites, they broke a string where only one favorite captured the Turf between 2004 and 2017.

As far as O’Brien and Magical are concerned, they remember Enable’s 2018 victory all too well. That epic race at Churchill Downs introduced Magical to North American race fans – even as she lost a stirring stretch drive to Enable. The now-5-year-old Magical missed last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita due to a fever, but returns for what is likely her final race.


Breeders’ Cup Turf

Morning Line (Jockey)

  1. Arklow, 5/1 (Florent Geroux)
  2. Magical, 5/2 (Ryan Moore)
  3. Tarnawa, 6/1 (TBD)
  4. Mehdaayih, 30/1 (Joel Rosario)
  5. Donjah, 30/1 (Clement Lecoeuvre)
  6. Lord North, 8/1 (Frankie Dettori)
  7. United, 8/1 (Flavien Prat)
  8. Red King, 20/1 (Umberto Rispoli)
  9. Channel Maker, 5/1 (Manny Franco)
  10. Mogul, 4/1 (Pierre-Charles Boudot)

The seven-time Group 1 winner, Magical, comes into Keeneland off a sub-par third in the British Champion Stakes last month. That came on sloppy ground at Ascot and didn’t bother O’Brien because he knows how resilient Magical is on the track. It shouldn’t bother him because six of the last 10 Turf winners lost their previous prep runs.

Magical holds the distinction of being the only horse to beat the recently retired Ghaiyyath this year. That came at the Irish Champion Stakes in September.

Could Mogul Spoil Magical’s Farewell Party?

If Magical’s 5/2 favorite odds don’t cast a spell over you, three others should, starting with her stablemate – 3-year-old Mogul (4/1). The $4.4 million purchase took his time finding his form, but he captured it winning the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris in September. Mogul drew his share of money for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, but was scratched in the contaminated feed episode in O’Brien’s barn.

Probably the most intriguing choice is Magical’s rival Irish filly Tarnawa (6/1). Putting aside Ireland’s dominance in this event, with 13 of the last 26 Turf winners coming from the Emerald Isle, Tarnawa is a filly in form. Dating to last August, this 4-year-old won five of her last six races – including three since August.

Two of those were Group 1s in France, which convinced the Aga Khan to send her to the Breeders’ Cup. That’s only the second horse he’s entered in the Breeders’ Cup since 2013.

Don’t Change the Channel on These Two American Entries

It’s never a good idea to bet against jockey Frankie Dettori, who is 5-for-17 with 11 finishes of fourth or better in this race. He’s aboard John Gosden’s standout Irish gelding, Lord North (8/1), who tackles 12 furlongs for the first time. Lord North does so on a Keeneland turf that should suit his running style better than the Ascot slop that doomed his and Magical’s Champion Stakes outing.

If you want to bet American, there’s Channel Maker (5/1) and United (8/1). Both bring incredible form to the gate, with Channel Maker looking for his third consecutive Grade 1 victory. The son of 2007 Turf winner English Channel finished 12th in last year’s Turf and 11th in the 2018 Turf.

As for United, the Richard Mandella-trained gelding finished second to Bricks & Mortar in last year’s Turf at 51/1. He too, enjoys a sterling 2020, winning four of his last five races – including the John Henry Turf Classic at Santa Anita in September.

The Pick: Tarnawa. Irish-bred, great form, Group 1 wins on the resume, and battle-tested at 1 ½ miles and on a variety of turf conditions. Throw in the 6/1 value as you ask yourself if the Aga Khan knows something here?

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