If Churchill and Rhododendron both win this weekend, five things will happen; the rich will get richer; the poor platitudes will get poorer, by beseeching bookmakers claiming they’re bathing in warm baths of blood; Galileo’s total of British and Irish classics would be 26, just four behind his daddy and the daddy Sadler’s Wells; Aidan O’Brien will be idolised, maybe canonised; and the G.O.A.T. game – the Greatest Of All Time? – will be played on behalf of Ryan Moore.
Any assessment of any sport across the ages, to determine the doyen, is itself a sport, not a science, swimming in subjectivity against the gentle tide of statistics. Judgement of jockeys has added complexities in that it’s a solo pursuit but a two-way alliance, the skill nothing without the horsepower. Put it that way, and race-riding is reminiscent of Formula 1, in which the human element can only ever be control and contribution, an immeasurable concept but an art in its own right, one that has drawn decades of discussion as to who was the best driver.
Three-time F1 Champion Niki Lauda was categorical in his conclusion:
‘Over my years in Formula 1, four drivers have made an especially strong impression on me: Piquet, Hunt, Villeneuve and Prost. If asked whom I consider to the best driver in the world, I need go no further than the first of these: Nelson Piquet. He has everything that a world champion requires: stature, poise, an ability to concentrate on the essentials, intelligence, physical strength - and speed. He seldom makes a mistake, he is always fast, and he is always on form.'
Piquet won three titles in the ‘eighties, something of a golden age for F1, and sandwiched between the first two, in the tumultuous 1982 season, Keke Rosberg was the beneficiary, shining while others were out of the spotlight. Rosberg was good, with a championship to prove it, but Piquet was a great, perhaps even the greatest, according to some.
In his first ever Grand Prix, in Germany in 1978, Nelson Piquet started twenty-first on the grid and retired on lap 31. Fast forward thirty years, to his son’s F1 debut in Australia, Nelson Piquet Jr started twenty-first on the grid and retired on lap 31. But what was most significant about that race in Melbourne in 2008 was a first podium finish for Nico Rosberg, son of Keke, as it put him on the path to becoming 2016 World Champion.
Nelson Piquet had a brilliance that made him a phenomenon of the sport and set him apart from his contemporaries, including Keke Rosberg, who was still a top-level winner, but genes make relations not duplications, up to the sons to shape their inherent power, and the same battleground for the next generation saw a role reversal of Nico eclipsing Nelson Jr.
Frankel had a brilliance that made him a phenomenon of the sport and set him apart from his contemporaries, including Excelebration, who was still a top-level winner, but genes make relations not duplications, up to the sons to shape their inherent power, and the same battleground for the next generation could see a role reversal ofBarney Roy eclipsing Eminent.
Barney Roy announced his A-list arrival in the Greenham, the race six years earlier that was the first of five mismatched meetings between Frankel and Excelebration.
‘Excelebration is a horse who a lot of people remember because they saw so much of him. I mean, they were watching Frankel, but he featured quite a bit!’ That’s the sincere, straight-laced summary by David O’Loughlin, Director of Sales at Coolmore Stud, where Excelebration stands as a stallion.
‘He isn't such a big horse himself - he's 16hh - but he's all there. He's strong and good-looking, with a little bit of white about him, just like Barney Roy. His produce so far seem to be following his characteristics. It’s early days, but it’s so far so good, and hopefully they’ll be like him and develop with age. These horses who are smart just early on are not much good to anybody. The ones who get better as they go along - now they're much more interesting, aren't they?’
That’s easy to say, of course, when you’ve got a monumental get-better-as-they-go-along maker at the stud in Galileo, but that’s the whole point with Excelebration, who’s at Coolmore to compliment the king, not to replace him. Every move made with him, since brought under the Ballydoyle banner as a four-year-old, from the short-term plan of winning Group 1s – which he did, not once but twice, when mercifully taken out of the Frankel firing line – to the long-term strategy of his promotion and position as a stallion, has been done meaningfully, methodically and meticulously.
‘It's amazing to have Galileo here,’ says O’Loughlin, ‘but most breeders are in the middle-to-lower end of the market, where we’ve pitched Excelebration, and from the minute he came in here he's been a very popular horse. We have a lot of Sadler's Wells blood here and it might not be as precocious as some of the sire lines. So a miler like him, a son of Exceed And Excel, from the Danehill line, offers something attractive and different. He's out of an Indian Ridge mare, too, and, commercially, that speed makes him especially interesting for breeders.’
And then comes the line, the bottom line, the epiphanic line, the Line of Duty line like a plot revelation: ‘And, of course, it's no accident that his best progeny so far is out of a Galileo mare.’
If Barney Roy is the prince, Excelebration’s princess last year, his highest-rated daughter, was the Group 3-placed Pellucid (subsequently sold to race in the US), likewise out of a Galileo mare.
‘That’s precisely the reason we were so interested in him.’
He’s at Coolmore to compliment the king, not to replace him.
Excelebration’s brand of rocket fuel, the blood with traces of Danehill DNA in it, makes him a perfect fit for all those Galileo mares. It’s a mix that has produced perfection: Danehill was the sire of Kind, whose mating with Galileo resulted in the highest-ever Timeform rating, all 147 lbs of it.
Frankel would go on to achieve bigger wins by wider margins with higher ratings, but the Guineas was his showstopper, the day the game changed, for him and for the sport. In the five editions of the Guineas since Frankel’s, somewhat surprisingly, Galileo has been represented directly by just four horses, though they include Australia, who was third on his way to the Derby, and 2015 winner Gleneagles. This year there’s only one. But what a one it is.
Churchill bulldozed his way through 2016, his legend spreading, along with his swagger. But the intimidator may now be the intimidated, like the bully returning for a new school year to find that some inconspicuous boys in his class are suddenly manly and mustachioed. Maturity - physical and mental - is nature’s neutraliser.
Three recent earthquakes, increasing in seismicity, have completely changed the landscape. First came Al Wukairin France, followed by two in three days in Britain, Eminent the biggest but Barney Roy the loudest, as well as the fastest. The cumulative effect of all three tremors is that Churchill finds himself on shaky ground, compared to his sure-footed stance in the autumn. The Guineas is often referred to as the final two-year-old race of the season, denoting that juvenile form is the be all and end all. But three is the magic number this time, with three different thuds by three different thugs making it very much three-year-old test.
Churchill will need to run better, and moreover faster, than he ever has to withstand the trendy triumvirate. There are just ten in the Guineas, though a smaller field racing as one is preferable to a split deck with a full set, but the narrower the parameters the more it gets tactical, and, in that scenario, the premium property is speed, which Barney Roy scores highest on, according to our timefigures.
The beauty of the Guineas is in the blend; of two-year-old roots and three-year-old growth, of proven power and prospective potential, of speed and stamina.
The essence of breeding is the blend. The essence of Excelebration is the blend.
‘His is a very interesting pedigree,’ says David O’Loughlin. ‘It's a very old Irish family when you dig into it. Juddmonte have some of it, too. It's a mixture, in many ways a perfect pedigree: old school and new wave, a bit of speed and a bit of stamina. If you just go all speed it doesn't seem to work. Some people may not realise it but all these really good sprint stallions – the likes of Oasis Dream and Invincible Spirit - there's a lot of stamina in their pedigrees.
‘If you don't have a bit of stamina, it burns out quick enough.’
Everything can be in place, combining nature and nurture, and yet something, somewhere doesn’t work out. Nelson Piquet Jr didn’t have the stamina, and his career burnt out quick enough. Nico Rosberg had the staying power, and the speed, to become a champion, after which he Tweeted a video of his early training under the guidance of Keke, with the message ‘Danke Papa’. If Barney Roy wins the Guineas, he’ll have Excelebration to thank.