In 1985 a son of Northern Dancer (Sadler's Wells) retired from Ballydoyle to Coolmore Stud as the winner of three Group One races including the Eclipse and the Irish Champion Stakes. His first crop contained the first two in the Dewhurst (Scenic and Prince Of Dance) and that result clearly helped to set him up for a lifetime of dominance at the head of Coolmore's roster. In 2006 a son of Northern Dancer's influential grandson Danehill (Oratorio) retired to Coolmore Stud as the winner of three Group One races including the Eclipse and Irish Champion Stakes. His first crop too included the first two in the Dewhurst (Beethoven and Fencing Master) but this achievement, surprisingly, has not proved to have been enough to secure his future at Coolmore: Oratorio was not brought back to Ireland from his Australian stint for this past covering season and he has now been handed what is likely to be a one-way ticket to South Africa. Still, Europe's and Australia's loss is likely to prove South Africa's gain, writes John Berry.
Simple comparisons between Sadler's Wells and Oratorio are, of course, far from the full story. For one, they are very different horses. The two most influential Northern Dancer-line stallions to have stood in Europe (Sadler's Wells and Danehill) were very different types in just about every respect; and Oratorio, a stocky bright bay horse who was a top-class two-year-old, is very typical of the Danehill branch. Furthermore (and, in the eyes of many, more crucially) Sadler's Wells came from a family noted for producing stallions, while Oratorio's lineage is less exalted.
Oratorio's family, though, is still respectable. By the time that Oratorio came along, his dam Mahrah (who had won over a mile as a three-year-old when trained by the late Alec Stewart for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum) had already bred Mowaadah (a Listed winner over a mile at Ascot) and the Listed-placed winner Fahim. Mahrah was a half-sister to the Irish Group Two winner Andros Bay and to the British Group Two place-getter Juniper, while Oratorio's second dam Montage was a half-sister to the US Grade Two winners Give Me Strength and Talakeno. Mahrah was particularly closely related to Talakeno, an excellent middle-distance turf performer who was four times Grade One-placed: each was by the 1968 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Vaguely Noble, a Hyperion-line horse who followed his outstanding racing career by becoming an outstanding sire, responsible for top racehorses such as Dahlia, Empery, Nobiliary, Estrapade, Exceller, Lemhi Gold, Jet Ski Lady, Mississipian and Ace Of Aces, and for the influential stallions Gay Mecene (who was initially a very good racehorse) and Noble Bijou (who wasn't).
As a very good-looking son of Danehill from this family, Oratorio would have been an expensive yearling had he appeared in a sale. He did not, though, need to do so to join Aidan O'Brien's stable: he was bred by Barronstown Stud and Orpendale, breeding entities with strong links to Coolmore. (Mahrah had been bought by Barronstown for 100,000 Irish guineas at Goffs in November 1999 when offered as part of a Shadwell deplenishment draft). Thus Oratorio joined the Ballydoyle team as a yearling in the autumn of 2003, under the ownership of Mrs John Magnier and Michael Tabor.
Once Aidan O'Brien's team of youngsters got into their stride on the Ballydoyle gallops in the spring of 2004, it soon became clear that Oratorio's strong, compact and sturdy physique was not deceptive: he was as precocious as he looked. He duly lined up as the odds-on favourite for a two-year-olds' maiden race at the Curragh that May - and he duly saluted the judge, beating the very useful Shamoan, who had already run twice and finished second both times, including when chasing home Oratorio's much-vaunted stablemate (and paternal half-brother) Russian Blue in Ireland's first two-year-old race of the season two months previously. As Russian Blue had then won the Marble Hill Stakes at the Curragh as the 1/5 favourite the day before Oratorio made his debut against Shamoan, it speaks volumes for the strength of Oratorio's homework that it was he, rather than Shamoan, who went off favourite.
When Royal Ascot loomed the next month, O'Brien elected to keep Russian Blue at home to keep him fresh for the Railway Stakes at the following week's Irish Derby meeting at the Curragh (in which he started the 1/2 favourite but could only finish second to the Jim Bolger-trained Democratic Deficit). Oratorio, though, was earmarked for Royal Ascot, being the stable's representative in the Coventry Stakes. Disappointingly, he could only finish seventh behind Iceman in that race (which was no disgrace when one considers that he was following in the foosteps of the same stable's Rock Of Gibraltar, who had been unplaced in the Coventry three years previously before going on to win several Group One races) but bounced back to form in the Group Three Anglesey Stakes at the Curragh the following month, beating his better-fancied stablemate Cougar Cat by a length with Indesatchel (winner of the following year's Greenham Stakes en route to a terrific second place, beaten only a head by Shamardal, in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains) back in third.
Oratorio then continued to stamp himself as a top-class and very consistent juvenile. Russian Blue was the shorter price when he and Oratorio contested Europe's first juvenile Group One race of the year, the Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh, but Oratorio fared better when the pair chased home the champion filly Damson. Oratorio then followed this very good effort with two excellent victories, in the Group Two Futurity Stakes at the Curragh (in which he beat Democratic Deficit by two lengths) and the Group One Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp (in which he was chased home by Early March, Layman, Montgomery's Arch and Democratic Deficit). He then completed a busy and very productive first term by finishing second to Shamardal in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket on his seventh run of the year.
Surprisingly, neither of the Dewhurst principals proved to be their stable's selected for the following year's 2,000 Guineas. Shamardal had won the Dewhurst from Mark Johnston's stable, but had then joined Godolphin shortly afterwards. That team, though, had Dubawi in its care; and Dubawi seemed to be top of Sheikh Mohammed's pecking order. Dubawi, therefore, was Godolphin's 2,000 Guineas runner (with Shamardal being sent instead to France of the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, which he won). Unlike Shamardal, Oratorio did at least run in the 2,000 Guineas, but he was only Aidan O'Brien's second string for the race, ridden by Johnny Murtagh courtesy of stable jockey Kieren Fallon having opted for the unbeaten Group Three winner Footstepsinthesand. With Dubawi, who had gone off favourite, only able to finish fifth, O'Brien won the race, Footstepsinthesand coming home in front with Oratorio a decent, if unspectacular, fourth of the 19 runners.
Following this adequate first-up effort, Oratorio showed his toughness by working his way back to his top form, his continued progress interrupted only by a poor run in the Derby, in which he seemed to find the 12-furlong distance too far. He finished second to Dubawi in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and third to Shamardal and Ad Valorem in Royal Ascot's St. James's Palace Stakes (run that year at York as a result of Ascot's ongoing re-building programme) before returning to the winner's enclosure in the best possible way, outgunning the Derby winner Motivator by half a length in a magnificent battle for Europe's premier 10-furlong weight-for-age race, the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown.
Surprisingly, following his Eclipse victory, Oratorio was sent off as long as 7/1 for the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown in September 2005, but these generous odds were explained by the strength of the opposition: Motivator was re-opposing him, while the other top-liners on show included Alexander Goldrun, Azamour and Grey Swallow. Oratorio, though, came out best, again beating Motivator by half a length.
Oratorio's final two starts were slightly disappointing, but he certainly wasn't the first top-class horse whose form tailed off in the autumn. He started favourite for the Champion Stakes at Newmarket in October, but could only finish fourth of the 15 runners, beaten just over three lengths behind the shock winner David Junior. A more flattering depiction of that run would be to say that he finished two and a half lengths behind the great French-trained mare Pride (whose victory in the same race the following year was one of her four Group One successes in 2006) and ahead of Alkaased (winner of the Japan Cup on his next outing), Rakti and Alexander Goldrun. Oratorio's swansong, though, was not good, even if it was forgiveable: he was among the tail-enders behind Saint Liam in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont two weeks later, but a tilt against the world's best proven dirt horses on their favoured surface was always likely to be a speculative, rather than a rewarding, venture.
It is, therefore, hard to fault Oratorio's racing record. He kept himself very busy by modern standards, racing 15 times in his two seasons of action. Furthermore, he won three Group One races, posted some excellent efforts in defeat - and retired sound to boot. He was clearly an appetizing stud prospect - hence his initial stud fee at Coolmore in February 2006 of 30,000 euros. As he then made such a very good start to his stud career by siring the quinella in the Dewhurst Stakes in 2009, it is hard to work out what has gone wrong.
Oratorio's fall from favour can be charted through the diminution of his stud fee. In his first four seasons, his fee dropped in stages from 30,000 to 17,500 euros (in the spring of 2009, when his first crop were unraced two-year-olds). That is understandable (if illogical) bearing in mind that, out of sight being out of mind, stallions' fees often drop through their first four years at stud. What is harder to fathom is that it dropped again for 2010 (to 15,000 euros). The spring of 2011 saw it subject to a further reduction (to 9,000 euros) while this year the situation was even more grave: Coolmore did not think it worth bringing him back from Australia (where he will be standing during the forthcoming season at Coolmore in New South Wales for $11,000) to Ireland. And now, as we know, from 2013 onwards he will stand in neither Ireland nor Australia, having been sold to Avonturr Stud in South Africa - which farm is entitled to pat itself on the back for having secured an excellent sire at, presumably, an affordable price.
That Oratorio is an excellent sire is beyond dispute. Although Sadler's Wells, whose racing career and overall profile bore so many similarities to those of Oratorio, was favoured with top-class mares from the outset, Oratorio was not. By and large, his better winners lack the depth of pedigree which was notable in Sadler's Wells' best horses throughout his career. Under the circumstances, Oratorio’s results have been very good. Over and above his Dewhurst quinella, Oratorio also had the Royal Ascot winner Big Audio among his first two-year-olds, while the same batch also contained Lolly For Dolly. She did not run as a two-year-old but she was in action early in the spring the following year when she won her first two starts including, remarkably, a Group Three race at the Curragh on only her second outing. She ultimately won four Group races, headed by a defeat of the rising star Chachamaidee (a daughter of Oratorio's former stablemate and rival Footstepsinthesand) in last year's Group Two Windsor Forest Stakes over a mile at Royal Ascot.
Oratorio's second crop also contained some very good two-year-olds. The pick was King Torus, winner of two Group Two races (the Superlative Stakes at Newmarket's July Meeting and the Vintage Stakes at Glorious Goodwood) in his first season, when the supporting cast was led by the Italian Listed winner Mantissa. It didn't help Oratorio's cause in 2010 that neither Beethoven nor Fencing Master was able to graduate to Classic honours, although the former did land the Group Three Beresford Stakes at the Curragh as well as finishing third in a relatively uncompetitive renewal of the Irish Champion Stakes. It was a similar story with King Torus, who didn't rise to the highest class at three, but did land a Listed race as a three-year-old in 2011.
This year has seen a further improvement in Oratorio's fortunes. At the age of 10 and with his oldest offspring aged five, Oratorio has enjoyed a real annus mirabilis in 2012. Star of the show has been his progressive four-year-old daughter Temida. Having cost 13,500 gns as a yearling at Tattersalls' October Sale in 2009, the German-trained Temida was placed in last year's German 1,000 Guineas before winning a Group Three race in Italy. This year she has progressed further, most recently landing a Group One weight-for-age victory over 2400m in Munich on August 12. Her French-trained contemporary Moonwalk In Paris is the winner this year of the Group Three Prix Edmond Blanc over 1600m at Saint-Cloud. Oratorio's three-year-olds are headed by Cherry Collect, winner of the Premio Regina Elena and the Oaks d'Italia (Italy's versions of the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks). The same age group also contains the Nell Gwyn Stakes victrix Esentepe in England, the Aga Khan's multiple stakes winner Takar in Ireland, and Group Three winner Faciascura and dual Listed winner Silent Killer in Italy. Of Oratorio’s first crop runners still in action, the star has been Eton Forever, a winner over seven furlongs at Royal Ascot in June.
Oratorio's Australian-bred stock have been going at least as well. His first Australian crop included Torio's Quest and Mourinho, winners in 2010/'11 of the Queensland Guineas and Tasmanian Derby respectively. It also contained Banchee, a Group One-winning two-year-old in New Zealand in 2010 when his victims in the Sires' Produce Stakes at Ellerslie included the top-class Jimmy Choux. The recently-ended campaign, though, saw Oratorio represented by an even better horse: the super-tough Manawanui, winner of four Group races as a three-year-old, including the Group One Golden Rose, and narrow runner-up in the Caulfield Guineas. Two of Oratorio's Australian-bred sons (Soweto Slew and Ottimo) have won Group races in South Africa - and now that Oratorio is going to be calling South Africa home, we can expect him to come up with numerous more stakes winners in that country.
It is hard to see why Oratorio has failed to fire the imagination of breeders in the northern hemisphere. Still, this isn't the first time that the vagaries of fashion have had us scratching our heads. And, if it means that Europe and Australia have lost one of their many good stallions, the reverse side of the coin is that the sires' ranks in South Africa have been strengthened. Every cloud has a silver lining for someone!