From To-Agori-Mou to Ribchester for Sussex Stakes stager O'Brien
Martin Stevens speaks to the man behind the crack miler
Thirty-six years ago 2,000 Guineas hero To-Agori-Mou, a horse a young Mike O'Brien prepped and led through the ring as a yearling, came off second best in his grudge match against Kings Lake in the Sussex Stakes.
Six years ago Rio De La Plata, whose talent he had helped nurture when his boss Con Marnane pinhooked him as a yearling to resell at two, finished third as Frankel broke the will of Canford Cliffs with a brilliant burst of acceleration at Goodwood.
Then last year Ribchester, a horse he jointly bred, flew home to finish a close third to The Gurkha in the race.
Now, on Wednesday, O'Brien has an outstanding chance of finally being associated with the winner of the Sussex Stakes, the race that has provided many of the major milestones in his career in racing.
The head man at Marnane's winner factory of Bansha House Stables bred hot favourite Ribchester – winner of the Lockinge and Queen Anne Stakes each by clear water this season – with Andrew Thompson. He will be at Goodwood to cheer home the four-year-old son of Iffraaj he sold as a foal at Goffs for €78,000.
Remembering the first Sussex Stakes in which he had a personal involvement, O'Brien says: “I was at Rathduff Stud, which was just up the road from where Con is based now, and took To-Agori-Mou through the ring at Newmarket, where he was bought by James Delahooke and Guy Harwood for 20,000gns.
“He was a really nice horse – well made with good proportion, although his dam was a hurdles winner so it was a bit unexpected how well he turned out.
“A few years earlier I'd also prepped Young Generation at Rathduff. He was also bought by Guy Harwood and won the Lockinge like Ribchester, so there were a few co-incidences there.”
In 1998 O'Brien joined Bansha House Stables – “I've only ever had two jobs in my life” – and it was experience gained at Marnane's operation that led to him breeding Ribchester.
“I'd been pinhooking some foals of my own but they became too dear and I realised I was at the wrong end of business, so I thought I'd get into owning mares and selling the foals that way,” he says.
“Then when I came to Con's it was all about dealing with two-year-olds and as a commercial breeder that's what you want to produce: juvenile winners. So it was helpful to be able to see what sort of horses certain stallions were capable of throwing.”
It was a deep appreciation of pedigrees and knowledge of sires that led to the mating that produced Ribchester.
His dam Mujarah was bought by O'Brien and Thompson for just 18,000gns from the Shadwell draft at the Tattersalls December Mares Sale in 2011.
“She was by Marju out of a Darshaan mare, and I loved that cross,” O'Brien says. “It was a very nice Shadwell pedigree going back as well.”
Mujarah was sent to Iffraaj two seasons after the son of Zafonic had set a record tally of 38 individual two-year-old winners for a freshman sire – and directly after his first three-year-olds and second crop of juveniles had not, perhaps, quite lived up to the excitement generated by his first year with runners, with his fee lowered to €10,000 from €15,000.
“We happened to have a number of nice Iffraaj two-year-olds here at Bansha to prep, so I was a fan of the sire,” remembers O'Brien. “It wasn't long after he'd broken the first-season sire record and yet people were telling me I should use a more proven sire that year. What's more proven than 38 juvenile winners, I thought to myself.”
More important than Mujarah and Iffraaj's individual merits, though, was their compatibility as parents.
“Iffraaj perfectly matched the mare in conformation,” O'Brien explains. “He is a scopey sort of horse, while she is very compact. Some people don't match the sire and mare properly, and that's where they go wrong.”
O'Brien and Thompson have been rewarded for their astuteness not only by watching Ribchester win five of his 12 starts for Richard Fahey, but also in monetary terms: besides the profits banked by the colt's sale as a foal, they have also sold Mujarah privately to Godolphin, who have a Raven's Pass yearling filly and Dubawi colt foal out of the mare.
But the craic is more enjoyable than the cash to O'Brien and his fellow Bansha residents who have been in fine form this season. When Ribchester won the Queen Anne Stakes he was one of three Royal Ascot scorers for the small Tipperary village along with Different League, owned by Marnane, and Rajasinghe, bred by Marnane's neighbour Jim Mulcahy and son Geoff.
“Bansha is the talk of the local area. It's great, we've been in the papers, we had a presentation at Tipperary racecourse – they're calling us the Three Amigos,” O'Brien laughs.
He is also one of the few people who will be able to remember a raucous party recently held by Marnane at his stables to honour the royal treble. “It was a late night all right. I had to be at work early the next morning to do the feeding and there were still around 20 cars in the yard by then," he says.
Decades after To-Agori-Mou flew the flag for this fertile corner of horse country, the locals are still celebrating their status as the epicentre of Group 1 success across Europe.