BC Internationals: Classic contender Churchill

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

October 26th, 2017

It would be fitting for Aidan O’Brien to score an elusive Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) in 2017, a year defined by his quest to surpass Bobby Frankel’s single-season Group 1 record. But his prospects at Del Mar are particularly challenging, as he takes on a stellar cast featuring defending champion Arrogate among Bob Baffert’s murderers’ row, and a red-hot Gun Runner, with a pair of three-year-old colts at different stages of their careers.

While War Decree is primarily about the future, Churchill is the established class on the verge of a Coolmore stud career in 2018. He’s already got his stallion ads lined up, so to speak, as Europe’s champion two-year-old of 2016 and a dual Guineas winner this campaign. If his reputation isn’t quite as lofty as it once was, thanks to a subsequent losing streak, he can take pride in his past accomplishments.

For that very reason, the Coolmore brain trust may not (probably won’t?) enter Churchill in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) on his proven surface, turf. It’s the better spot for him to revisit the winner’s circle, but from a purely commercial perspective, it doesn’t add to his appeal. Win or lose, we already know he’s a top-class turf miler. But if he can demonstrate dirt ability at this level, his portfolio suddenly expands.

Churchill is therefore vaguely reminiscent of O’Brien’s most recent Classic runner, Gleneagles (2015). He too was a top juvenile, and dual Guineas winner, who ended his career in anticlimactic fashion tailed-off behind American Pharoah at Keeneland.

But the more apt parallel may be with another dual Guineas winner for O’Brien, Henrythenavigator (2008), who likewise became beatable as the season wore on but kept up the good fight to the end. Henrythenavigator concluded his career with an admirable second in the Classic – the rub being that it came over Santa Anita’s old synthetic, and it’s questionable if he could have replicated the feat on dirt.

The surface is indeed the biggest concern for Churchill. Otherwise, he’s got the class, and he’s stayed the trip well enough. But there’s not much of a compelling pedigree angle for dirt. He’s by all-world turf sire Galileo, sixth in his Classic attempt in 2001. And his Group 3-winning dam, Meow, is by Storm Cat but out of the brilliant turf sprinter Airwave, from a thoroughly Anglo-Irish family. Churchill’s action, to my eye anyway, reflects that turfy pedigree.

Third on debut at the Curragh, Churchill broke his maiden as one of the proverbial “bankers” at the 2016 Royal Ascot meeting. His victory in the Chesham at odds of 8-11 marked the beginning of a seven-race winning spree. After the Tyros (G3), Futurity (G2), and Vincent O’Brien National (G1), Churchill captured the Dewhurst (G1) to clinch the position of Europe’s best juvenile.

The Dewhurst, with Lancaster Bomber giving him a lovely set-up as the pacemaker, was a foreshadowing of the 2000 Guineas (G1) back at Newmarket May 6. Picking up right where he left off last fall, Churchill rolled off a steady pace to beat the troubled Barney Roy (watch how the blue-cap Godolphin runner stumbled badly into the “Dip”) and France’s Al Wukair.

Neither of those rivals tried the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1), where Churchill swept past Thunder Snow to complete the classic double. Always described as preferring better ground, he had won over softish going as juvenile, and he handled the yielding course well enough here.

Churchill was all the rage to extend his streak in the St James’s Palace (G1) at Royal Ascot, emulating O’Brien’s past dual Guineas winners Rock of Gibraltar, Henrythenavigator and Gleneagles. The shock wasn’t so much that he was overturned – after all, Barney Roy had plenty of backers expecting him to gain revenge – but that Churchill was a lifeless fourth. The fact that he couldn’t pass Lancaster Bomber and Thunder Snow underscores just how far below form he ran.

O’Brien wondered out loud if the heat might have gotten to him, but if there’s been a conclusive explanation, I haven’t seen it. His non-effort remains one of those head-scratchers, perhaps just a case of feeling the effects of his slog at the Curragh?

Although Churchill hasn’t won in three ensuing starts, two have been honorable defeats and a third was troubled, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say he’s lost the plot altogether. Scratched from an anticipated clash with Ribchester on account of atrocious ground in Glorious Goodwood’s Sussex (G1), he was upped in trip to about 10 1/2 furlongs in the August 23 Juddmonte International (G1). While the York course was rain-affected too, Churchill gamely outdueled a too-keen Barney Roy. The problem was that neither could contain the explosive older horse, Ulysses (whose Breeders’ Cup Turf [G1] profile is forthcoming).

In the absence of Ulysses, the September 9 Irish Champion (G1) shaped up as an opportunity for Churchill to get back in business. Unfortunately, after stalking on the inside, he got mired in traffic late, and you can see Ryan Moore take him in hand when there was no way through. He wouldn’t have beaten the top two, Turf/Mile contender Decorated Knight and Poet’s Word (who just finished best-of-the-rest behind Cracksman in the Champion [G1] at Ascot), both sweeping down the better outside part of the course. Yet judging by how Churchill was trying to stay on, a clear trip could well have seen him take third or fourth instead of seventh.

Reverting to a mile for the October 21 Queen Elizabeth II (G1) on Champions Day, Churchill was a more characteristic third on soft ground. He never shirked the fight despite being hemmed on the rail while eventual second Ribchester (to be profiled for the Mile) labored over toward his path. Neither could sluice through the wet as effectively as upset winner Persuasive.

This performance enables the rosier comparison of Churchill to Henrythenavigator (who was second to archrival Raven’s Pass at Ascot) than Gleneagles (who was sixth). Gleneagles hadn’t run since the St James’s Palace, having skipped the Juddmonte and Irish Champion, in another divergence from Churchill.

For whatever it’s worth, none of O’Brien’s dual Guineas winners have added a Breeders’ Cup trophy.  Rock of Gibraltar came agonizingly close in the 2002 Mile, with a brutal-beat second. O’Brien has yet to win the Mile, and the Del Mar conditions would suit Churchill. The stream of quotes from Ballydoyle, however, indicate that the allure of the Classic may prove too powerful.

Churchill photo courtesy of Champions Series via Twitter