O'Brien returns despite tragedy

ARCADIA — It wasn't meant to be a show of strength, but the impact of the moment could not be ignored.

Moving together like a military procession, the entire eight-horse contingent from trainer Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle stable marched out of the quarantine barn and onto the track Wednesday morning, walking and jogging in unison the entire way around the Santa Anita Park oval.

A year after enduring one of the worst moments of his career on the Breeders' Cup stage, O'Brien has returned to the World Championships.

And while he still carries a bit of a heavy heart, he also has quite possibly his strongest lineup ever.

If Curlin's triumph in the 2007 Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park was the most celebrated moment of last year's event, the sight of O'Brien comforting his children in the wake of the fatal breakdown of George Washington during the race was the most tragic.

Top horsemen are nothing if not resilient, however, and Coolmore Stud's private trainer has regrouped in spectacular fashion.

O'Brien enters this Breeders' Cup with a contingent that includes four Group I winners and is set to take aim at the Classic — and Curlin — again with Duke of Marmalade and Henrythenavigator.

"That was just a bad day," the soft-spoken O'Brien said of George Washington's death. "Everything went wrong and it was just a disaster but those things happen. It was one of those days we just want to forget.

"This is a new day and a great track. We don't look back, we look forward really and obviously this a beautiful place, beautiful track, great weather."

While O'Brien speaks highly of every horse in his care, "Henry" and "Duke" are the stars of the stable, combining to notch nine of the 21 Group I wins O'Brien has earned this season.

The 4-year-old Duke of Marmalade has been the consistent workhorse of the group, rattling off five straight Group I triumphs to start the year before finishing seventh behind the unbeaten filly Zarkava in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Oct. 8.

Unlike his stablemate, who has never been beyond a mile, Duke of Marmalade is proven at the distance, having won the Juddmonte International Stakes and Prince of Wales's Stakes over the same 11/4 miles the Classic will be run.

"Duke of Marmalade is a tough horse, he'll see this mile and a quarter out well and Curlin would have to worry about him," said John Gosden, who conditions Classic contender Raven's Pass. "In that sense he sets the benchmark for Europe."

Though many thought Henrythenavigator would be a natural fit for the Mile, O'Brien said the four-time Group I-winning son of Kingmambo can use his natural agility to get the extra distance.

"He's one of those horses that likes to get up on his toes when he gallops ... and when horses are like that they're very nimble and very quick," said O'Brien, whose best Classic effort came when he saddled Giant's Causeway to a second-place run in 2000. "We think that he will skip over the ground here. Obviously when you go past a mile, he's never been there before, so we have to take a lot of trust and hope."

In addition to his star duo, O'Brien will send out Group I winners Halfway To Heaven in the Filly and Mare Turf; Solider of Fortune in the Turf; Heart Shaped in the Juvenile Fillies Turf; U S Ranger in the Mile; Westphalia in the Juvenile Turf; and pacesetter Red Rock Canyon in the Turf.

While he has never been shy about testing his horses in the Classic, few would have blamed O'Brien and his Coolmore owners if they balked at taking another swing so soon after the tragedy of 2007.

But of O'Brien's three Breeders' Cup wins, none have come in the event's richest race. And given the formidable hand he holds this year, O'Brien said the decision to go to the Classic was a no-brainer from the start.

"I think we knew if Duke and Henry were still standing at this stage we were always going to have a shot at the Classic really," O'Brien said. "The Classic is a great race and ... like any of those big races you go in and do your best and you don't ever expect to win any of them.

"Sometimes you come across an extra special horse and it can happen."