01/08/2014 3:01PM

2013 Eclipse Awards: Magician

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                                                                photo by: Nikki Sherman

A wayward sparrow nearly derailed Magician’s 2013 campaign. It was June, and trainer Aidan O’Brien was pointing 3-year-old Magician to the St. James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. The colt, though, had knocked his hind leg in the stables at Ballydoyle, and one day, O’Brien decided to swim the colt in a spa rather than train him on the gallops. “He’d almost gone through his full swim when a sparrow flew in the door and between his ears, which caused him to jump out and bruise both his front legs,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien could joke about the incident, for Magician, racing for the first time in 4 1/2 months, flew home himself a surprise winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf. The victory, over favored The Fugue, Indy Point, and Point of Entry, came from out of nowhere and was strong enough to make Magician, with his one North American start, a finalist for 2013 male turf champion. O’Brien had won the BC Turf three times before 2013, but never with a dark horse like Magician. Not only was Magician returning from a long layoff, he never had started in a race as long as the Turf’s 1 1/2 miles, and while Magician had won the Group 3 Dee Stakes (over a modest bunch) this past spring, his only big-race win had come in the Group 1 Irish 2000 Guineas over about one mile in late May, and even that high-profile race lacked standouts.

O’Brien himself has been called a magician, and it took chutzpah to attempt a race as prominent as the Turf with a horse as little accomplished as Magician. But the horse’s owners – Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, and Susan Magnier – do not hesitate to make a gamble, and O’Brien surely looked at Magician’s win in the Dee as a marker of his potential for improvement at Santa Anita.

The Dee is contested at Chester, a tight-turning, left-handed track that more closely resembles an American track than most racecourses in Europe. Indeed, Magician came roaring off the tight final turn of the Turf under Ryan Moore full of momentum, clipping over the short-cut, fast-playing Santa Anita course like he had been born for the surface. The performance cast Magician’s 2013 campaign in a different light, making his last-of-nine showing in the St. James’s Palace – the post-sparrow-incident race – look like a major outlier.

By the Coolmore sire Galileo and out of the Mozart mare Absolutelyfabulous, Magician wound up winning 3 of his 4 races in 2013 – the last good enough to make him an Eclipse Award finalist.