What a week in prospect – Champions Day in South Africa, the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the Hong Kong Champions Mile at Sha Tin and the first two classics of the UK season in Newmarket. To borrow that famous line from Jack Nicholson that’s “As Good As It Gets”.
I’ll leave those better qualified than me to enlighten you on the fabulous menu for Turffontein on Saturday but having deserted Newmarket for Kentucky 25 years ago, I won’t be making the same mistake again this weekend.
In 1992 I was despatched across the Atlantic to report on Arazi in the race Americans all refer to as the ‘Run for the Roses’.
Arazi was one of the most impressive Breeders Cup winners I’ve seen, but as the odds-on favourite bombed out in eighth place behind Lil E Tee (yes, who’s he?), word filtered through that back home the legendary Lester Piggott, who had only recently resumed riding after a prison sentence for tax evasion, had clocked up a record 30th UK classic victory on Rodrigo Du Triano in the 2000 Guineas.
I was totally deflated and when an American pressman tapped me on the shoulder and said “have you ever thought that you were in the wrong country watching the wrong horserace?” I needed no second invitation to tell him where he could stick his Mint Julep. Aidan O’Brien is a master at getting a horse ready for the Guineas without a prep-run, so, while Al Wukair, Barney Roy and Eminent were all impressive when winning their trials, CHURCHILL, who rattled off five wins in a row last year, has always looked exceptional and remains my number for the first colts classic
The non-believers harp on about Coolmore’s Air Force Blue, who started odds-on for the race 12 months ago and beat only one home but he was by the American sire War Front, who has yet to produce a three-year-old Group 1 winner in Europe. Churchill is a son of Galileo, whose record as a classic-winning stallion is beyond question.
Churchill reminds me very much of Giants Causeway and Rock of Gibraltar in that he is not spectacular but does just what is required to win. He has oodles of class, has proven he can handle those tricky dips and ridges of the Rowley Mile when capturing the Grade 1 Dewhurst Stakes and the vibes from Ballydoyle have been encouraging.
Al Wukair beat a Grade 1 winner in National Defense in last month’s Prix Djebel at Maisons- Laffitte and Andre Fabre thinks the world of him, though he stops short of calling him the next Zafonic.
The French challenger looks the main threat to Churchill, who should be backed now as his odds will collapse on the day.
I expect a big run from Barney Roy, who will improve for the trip, having warmed to his task in the final 200m of the Greenham at Newbury.
But while Eminent has by all accounts also made great strides since winning the Craven, I suspect that was a below-average renewal of the Newmarket trial, and his price does not reflect his chance in my book.
The 1000 Guineas next Sunday looks more open and while O’Brien’s Rhododendron is a worthy favourite, having improved for stepping up to the 1600m for the G1 Fillies Mile at Newmarket, I can’t forget that Ryan Moore deserted her in the Moyglare, and she is certainly not the calibre of filly of stablemate Minding, who won the race last year and, incidentally, made an impressive winning return at Naas on Monday.
Like Rhododendron, second-favourite DABAN has valuable course experience, having swelled out betting banks when winning the Nell Gwyn Stakes there last month.
Daban took some big scalps in that trial, but the victory came as no surprise to John Gosden, who while acknowledging that she was jumping up from a maiden celebration on the all-weather, compared the filly favourable with Dabyah, who had finished third in a G1 at Chantilly on Arc day and rubber-stamped her own classic claims when booking her ticket for the French 1000 Guineas in the recent Newbury trial.
Fair Eva looked a potential classic winner at Ascot last July, but two subsequent defeats caused her halo to slip, though trainer Roger Charlton tells me she has been working out of her skin this spring and predicts a bold run from his star filly.
However, Daban won over my head as well as the pocket in her dress-rehearsal, settling once Frankie Dettori got a bit of cover after the first 400 metres and quickening up in fine style from the Dip. She’ll love the fast ground and with Gosden having started the season with all guns blazing she carries my hopes.
Following stables in form should be high on every punter’s list and nobody goes into Newmarket in better form than Gosden, who produced a live Derby prospect in Cracksman to win Epsom’s Blue Riband Trial – he could now go to York for the Dante Stakes – while Cunco, the first Frankel to win on the track last year, enhanced his reputation when taking the Sandown trial and now heads for the Chester Vase.
Gosden also has an embarrassment of riches with his middle-distance fillies – Shutter Speed and Coronet have already staked their claims for Oaks consideration – and Astronomy’s Choice and Precious Ramotswe both looked above-average when winning their maidens, so whichever lines up for Sunday’s Listed Pretty Polly Stakes at Newmarket should not be allowed to run unsupported.
Solving the puzzle of the Kentucky Derby is never easy but this year’s race looks a minefield of ifs and buts.
Always Dreaming, ante-post favourite since winning the Florida Derby, has the talent but has not settled to the hustle and bustle of Churchill Downs, so different to the tranquillity he is used to at Palm Springs, while Classic Empire, the top two-year-old colt in America last season, has not totally conquered his fiery temperament.
There are also questions about Irish War Cry, McCraken and Girvin, who has only recently recovered from a quarter-crack, so maybe this will be the year when Godolphin finally crack the Derby.
Saeed bin Suroor has fired seven darts at America’s most prestigious race, but he is adamant that THUNDER STORM is the best horse he has sent to Kentucky. The UAE Derby winner is proven on the surface and at odds of 16-1 he might be worth a few rand eachway.
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