Big Races, Small Fields

The Betfair Chase on Saturday was a joy to behold. Five of England’s top staying chasers not only went to post, but had a chance turning into the final straight with Haydock specialist Bristol De Mai tanking to victory from Gold Cup hero Native River.

It was no doubt the highlight of the season so far in Britain and Ireland but for the biggest Grade One this side of Christmas, why were only five horse entered? Is there a dearth of quality among the top rank of there-milers?

I’d suggest not. Not a single novice from last season took their chance at Haydock while the likes of Definitly Red, the Charlie Hall winner, Double Shuffle and Tea For Two, among others, were all absent for reasons which don’t involve injury. Furthermore, there wasn’t a single challenging raider from Ireland.

The problem of small fields in big races exists in the Emerald Isle too, however and arguably to an even greater extent. The recent Morgiana Hurdle, which initially looked set to provide a stellar field, consisted of just four runners, won by Sharjah, a horse who should lack the quality for that level. Three of those four were trained by Willie Mullins and the fourth, Tombstone, had no realistic chance anyway.

Looking ahead to the weekend, both the Ladbrokes Trophy and Fighting Fifth at Newbury and Newcastle respectively, possess fields which could yet implode. The former is down to thirteen runners, the smallest field for the race this century and ludicrously low for such a massive handicap. The latter is reliant on Samcro’s participation which we’ve learnt to take with a pinch of salt. Whether he runs or not, the race looks stronger than average but another five-runner Grade One without him would be a disappointment once more.

Either race could yet shrink significantly further, trainers regularly expressing concerns about suitable ground. National Hunt horses traditionally prefer a bit of cut yet “good” ground is often seen as too quick nowadays. Surely the mere definition of “good” ground is that it is the soundest and most appropriate surface for horses to race on. Either this definition needs changing or the rules require an update with regards non-runners. “Good” ground should not be taken as an excuse for a horse’s absence.

However, particularly with the pressure of mega-rich owners desperate to see their horses win whenever they run, it is understandable that a trainer may want to be absolutely certain conditions are in their favour. Similarly, it is not simply an affliction that affects the top of the game.

A recent example of tiny fields at a run-of-the-mill meeting, and a deeply concerning one at that, occurred at Kempton earlier in the week when just nine runners lined up across the opening three races. For a track whose closure has been threatened, this can only ramp up the pace. Kempton is an historic racecourse but it seems that the sport it calls family is not too willing to save it.

The King George on Boxing Day will no doubt raise the alarm once more and the race is set up to be an intriguing affair whatever the size of the field. It would nevertheless be fabulous if we had a double-figure field. For that, we may need a couple of windmill-touting hopefuls but Double Shuffle was a 50/1 second last year and Tea For Two not much lower in the market in third. Shocks are possible even with the highest prizes at stake.

Nowadays, those highest prizes are under exclusive ownership of Cheltenham racecourse. As much as I love the Festival in March, and it is a truly wonderful time of year, perhaps it has become too mighty. There has rarely been any issue attracting horses to run at Prestbury Park (Footpad scared away the opposition in the Arkle this year and the Ryanair is a reserve race for horses unsure of their chances in the Champion Chase or Gold Cup so their smaller line-ups are understandable), nor will there be in a few months time. There is too much prestige to the point where the general rhetoric about race fitness, even as early as November, is that a horse’s ultimate aim is to be fully equipped for Cheltenham. Anything gained in the interim is a bonus.

Grade One status is not the same as Cheltenham status. Whoever wins the Fighting Fifth, whether that be Buveur D’Air, Samcro or Summerville Boy (or one of the other three, for as I’ve stated, shocks are possible) the celebrations will only be supplemented by claiming the Champion Hurdle. If anything, defeat in the latter would be made even more bitter with victory on Saturday. The higher you rise, the further you fall.

How the BHA could lessen the appeal of Cheltenham I do not know, although Brexit could well make the Irish opposition less prevalent in future years. Until then, we may have to accept smaller fields for the purpose of both quantity and quality come the Festival. It is an investment that pays rich dividends once a year but for most spectators it is worth it.

For now we are all left to question, as Ed Chamberlain just has through my headphones, “where are all the runners?”

Is the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle the greatest race ever run at the Cheltenham Festival?

There have been some classic contests at Cheltenham down the years, some standing out in particular due to the appearance of multiple champion horses at once. The Champion Hurdles of the late 1970s, featuring Night Nurse and Monksfield, the two highest rated hurdlers ever, stand out, while in 1964, Arkle defeated Mill House in the Gold Cup, both of whom would subsequently rank as the leading duo in the history of staying chasers.

Champion Hurdles and Gold Cups are supposed to throw the best together, however. Sometimes, by sheer coincidence, the same generation of novices throw up an exceptional number who are capable of shock and awe.

The 2012 Arkle comes close as a contest of this nature. Not only was it won by the most glamorous 2-mile chaser ever in Sprinter Sacre but in behind, from second downwards, were Cue Card, one of the most popular and successful heroes of his generation, Menorah, who would win a Grade One the following month before adding four straight Oaksey Chases at Sandown to a long-lasting career, and Al Ferof, who had already won the Supreme and Henry VIII over obstacles before serially winning thereafter. Yet even this form pales in comparison to the 2016 Supreme Novices.

The winner needs no introduction. Altior is still unbeaten over obstacles, subsequently winning the Arkle in 2017 and the Champion Chase in 2018, jumping and bursting to life with an imperial excellence and elegance that has seen him go unmatched since this victory. For a record-breaking race you need a record-breaking winner for which Altior delivers the goods.

The runner-up, Min, chased him home in this year’s Champion Chase but up to that point, he’d only ever been beaten past the post by Altior (Simply Ned was only awarded victory against him in the stewards’ room post-race). He can also claim to be a Group One winner and has a chase rating of 167 which would usually see him clear of reasonable opposition.

Behind this duo, trailed in Buveur D’Air. Only good enough for third behind two novices he has won the last two Champion Hurdles in open company. He may not even have had to improve but has gone undefeated over hurdles since defeat two years ago. No more needs saying.

Further back, Tombstone is a former conqueror of Champion Hurdler Jezki at Grade Two level while Charbel won a handicap chase off 154 recently, suggesting he has a significant touch of class. Yet it is in seventh, eighth, ninth and 13th where more subsequent stars lay in wait.

The first of those, Supasundae, is now an Irish and Punchestown Champion hurdler at the highest level, defeating the “Machine” Faugheen in the first of those. He has also been a winner at the Cheltenham Festival having lifted the Coral Cup in 2017. Top class once more.

Just below him came Petit Mouchoir. Third in the 2017 Champion Hurdle he had previously won two Grade Ones in Ireland, beating the mighty Footpad in the latter of those. He has embarked on a career over fences but could continue to be hugely successful in either discipline.

In ninth was North Hill Harvey, a horse who beat the highly promising Sceau Royal over fences at Cheltenham as well as winning the Greatwood handicap hurdle and a Grade Two novice chase to boot. He tragically lost his life when running in the Grand Annual at this year’s festival, a crying shame as he had the potential to reach the top over the larger obstacles.

Last but not least, in 13th came Bellshill, who hadn’t the pace to cope with Altior and co but proved his stamina and ability when landing the small matter of the Punchestown Gold Cup back in April.

Looking back, it really was a stunning line-up for the curtain raiser. Even those who have gone on to achieve less have proven more than effective. All of Mister Miyagi, William H Bonney, Holly Bush Henry, Penglai Pavillion and Silver Concorde have won at least one race since, all of which were of a decent standard.

The final comparison must be made with this year’s event. In producing a late burst to collar Kalashnikov, Summerville Boy earned an RPR (Racing Post Rating) of 156. In finishing third to stablemate Altior, Buveur D’Air achieved an RPR of 157, the winner reaching a supposed mark of 166, almost unheard of for a novice. All 14 who contested 2016’s running achieved a better rating than those who finished 10th or below this year (19 runners).

Between them, the Supreme class of 2016 have won a staggering 56 races since Altior first stormed up the Cheltenham hill. It’s a phenomenal record that looks set to grow and grow during this season and beyond.

If there’s been a race at Cheltenham that betters it in quality, I’d love to see it.

Winx: Unbelievable, Untouchable and at last, an Undisputed Champion

Arsenal’s Invincibles are, rightly, considered to have achieved a status of immortality having gone the 2003/04 season undefeated. Winx, likewise, rose into another realm of greatness after her 29th successive victory in the Cox Plate, a race she was winning for the fourth straight year. But why has it taken so long for her to be accepted as a sporting goddess?

It is difficult for any horse anywhere in the world to string together a run of successes at the top level. A glance at the form of some of the UK’s greats of recent years highlights that. Cracksman has so often looked imperious and yet even he has been beaten this year, behind Poet’s Word in the Prince of Wales’ Stakes. Enable is, to all intents and purpose, our Winx, an elegant but ruthless champion. Yet she has lost within the space of the last two seasons, far more recently than Australia’s equivalent.

So to end up with an unbeaten run stretching back over three-and-a-half years, encompassing 22 Group Ones, the last ten of which have been won in an unbroken sequence, is a feat unworthy of entertaining discussion. Yet, there has been one and one that continues to be hotly debated.

It is worth putting in context with the aforementioned Arsenal team’s achievements. They went 38 games unbeaten at the top level although their only genuine opposition that season were Manchester United, who they came within a width of a crossbar of losing to. Nevertheless, their feat is incredible and no experts deny this. However, in football, unlike in racing, going undefeated does not insist upon victory. To wit, Arsenal drew twelve of their thirty-eight games. Winx, of course, has relied purely upon passing the post in front. No ties, nothing comparable.

The most important thing about Winx’s run is that she has garnered a following that extends far beyond racing fans and experts. Enable is special but her charms do not yet include those of marketability that Winx possesses. Indeed, not since Frankel and Kauto Star passed into retirement in 2011-12, has there been a horse who has captured a significant part of the public’s imagination.

Whereas celebrations at Longchamp were for a champion, those at Moonee Valley yesterday were for an adopted daughter of the Australian nation. Their prodigy not only put on a show but proved a point to a number of her doubters, including a number of the English media. And if there’s anything Australians love more than anything else, its a sporting victory over the sceptical Poms.

The form, in my opinion, can no longer be crabbed either. True, in terms of ratings, European horses have been stronger than their Australian counterparts for the last few years and they have even started to dominate the Southern Hemisphere’s big prizes. But in beating Benbatl, a horse known to be a good traveller, with Group One victories in Germany, Dubai and in Caulfield’s Ladbrokes Stakes, she has defeated one of the UK’s globetrotting superstars.

Realistically, exporting Enable or Cracksman was never on the cards. That should not detract from the performances of the Gosden duo, nor the near excessive streak of Winx. They live at opposing poles and the excuse of travel would be all too easy a backboard for the trainer of whomever lost the battle.

I think Winx would win. In a match over 1m2f, I have seen nothing that would dissuade me from that opinion. It needn’t matter though. She is a great and whatever occurs from this day forward, she has nothing left to prove.

British Champions Day

John Gosden runs no fewer than four hotly fancied favourites on the final showpiece of the flat racing year. I preview all six races on the card with Gosden only responsible for two winners:

Long Distance Cup:

STRADIVARIUS has been close to unstoppable all season in trips beyond two miles. Crucially, however, he has a spot of class to go with his stamina and his mark of 120 does not do his ability justice. Flag Of Honour is rightfully considered a danger as he has improved markedly for stepping up in distance but the selection is a different animal to any he’s faced so far. Thomas Hobson’s victory in the Doncaster Cup should see him run on for minor honours.

  1. Stradivarius
  2. Flag Of Honour
  3. Thomas Hobson

Champions Sprint:

Victory in this last year ensures respect must be given to Librisa Breeze with the ground as soft as he’s received all season. Nevertehless, his form this season makes him too much of a gamble and based on his Sprint Cup success the sensible option is THE TIN MAN. He won this in 2016 and also put up a good account last year. Even if the ground were to remain soft, he won in good style on heavy at Haydock latest and he ticks more boxes than the rest. Harry Angel is probably the most talented but is 0/5 at Ascot and recent form is a big negative but Brando has regularly shown up well in Group One company for two seasons now and shouldn’t be far away. It is also worth keeping an eye on Limato who almost always avoids soft ground but remains in the race currently. If he goes at all well, a place is a possibility.

  1. The Tin Man
  2. Brando
  3. Librisa Breeze

Fillies and Mares:

Lah Ti Dar’s previous two starts have been incredibly impressive. Second in the St Leger when under pressure early, she battled on boldly to be beaten only by a good horse in Kew Gardens and she’d won by ten lengths in Listed company prior to that. However, the forgotten piece of form might be CORONET’s second to Sea Of Class in the Yorkshire Oaks. She was making strong late headway on William Haggas’ filly after a modestly run contest which, had the pace been stronger, might have allowed her to get nearer to the winner. Sea Of Class’ subsequent effort in the Arc shows that to be top form. Magical was tenth in the Arc but given that was her first try at 1m4f in such stellar company, she could go a lot better here.

  1. Coronet
  2. Lah Ti Dar
  3. Magical

Queen Elizabeth II:

After three successive Group One triumphs over 1m2f the only reason I can think of that Roaring Lion has been dropped in trip is because stablemate Cracksman must run in the Champion Stakes. The Gosden grey has been this season’s most impressive improver and a strongly run mile could suit but the ground and trip remain a worry. It may pay to side instead with ADDEYBB. He was only eighth on ground much too quick in the Lockinge but had romped home in the Lincoln and a Group Two at Ascot on his favoured soft ground before that. his Lincoln success came after a layoff so the gap between today and his last run in May should prove no issue. Lord Glitters is another to consider as he’s also sound enough on soft and has been knocking on the door all season while both Laurens and Century Dream look good each-way prospects.

  1. Addeybb
  2. Lord Glitters
  3. Roaring Lion

Champion Stakes:

Cracksman deserves to go out with a bang as he’s been a fine horse but though he won this with the freedom of Berkshire last year, he’s unlikely to dominate as he did that day. Similarly, on the form of his previous two starts, his status at odds-on must be questioned and one of CRYSTAL OCEAN and Capri can capitalise with a slight preference for the former. He was giving Enable eight pounds when brushed aside at Kempton but that’s never going to equate to bad form and his second to Poet’s Word at King George was one of the standout races of the season. He won’t by ideally suited by the drop back to 1m2f but the ground will help make this more of a staying challenge than it appears. Capri must also be considered as his Arc fifth is another quality piece of form and he has similar credentials to the selection. However, his Longchamp exploits came less than two weeks ago and that may tell. The rest should be watching on.

  1. Crystal Ocean
  2. Capri
  3. Cracksman

Balmoral Handicap:

It is fitting that the day ends with a competitive betting heat and this is where my second Gosden horse comes home in the shape of ARGENTELLO. His latest win came only four days ago but he was authoritative without seemingly having to engage top gear and a 6lb penalty can be dealt with as he looks a horse to improve sufficiently. Via Via was third in the Cambridgeshire, an excellent performance, and can go close again. Kynren and Sharja Bridge have promised a big run all season and Raising Sand has an excellent record at Ascot so many have solid claims.

  1. Argentello
  2. Via Via
  3. Kynren

National Hunt 2018/19: An ante-post look at the Cheltenham Festival

Until the introduction of Champions’ Day, the Cesarewitch was the conventional season-ender of the Summer’s flat racing festivities. For me therefore, it is a perfect opportunity to look ahead to the jumps. Predictions this fsr in the future are wrought with danger and so here I pick three horses for each of the Cheltenham Festival’s four championship races: the likely winner (injuries aside), the intriguing challenger and the dark horse.

Champion Hurdle:

Winner: Buveur D’Air

The only reason I can think of for his narrow margin of defeating Melon this year was that he’d not been forced to engage top gear prior to Prestbury Park. Having defended his title, however, and with novice chasing plans shelved until his crown comes under serious threat, Buveur D’Air is still the horse to beat. He is blessed with a turn of foot but I don’t remember seeing a slicker hurdler of timber. He gains lengths at each obstacle and if Nicky Henderson were to find some more demanding targets, if that is possible, of course, the seven-year-old looks set to dominate the market for Tuesday’s spectacle yet again.

Challenger: Samcro

Now.

We do not know yet whether Jesus on hooves is being aimed at a novice chasing campaign or a tilt at the Champion Hurdle. Michael O’Leary and Gordon Elliott are keeping their cards firmly pressed against their chests but I would suggest it is more than likely that Samcro will be given at least another season over hurdles. The Gold Cup is the long term aim but I was very taken by his Neptune win in March given he lost a shoe and didn’t really stay. He has so much raw ability and looked in control in the Champion Hurdle at Punchestown until coming down late in the day. His reputation still proceeds him in spite of some already commendable achievements but he looks a superstar and can serve it up to the favourite, if he isn’t that himself, in this discipline.

Dark Horse: We Have A Dream

Five-year-olds don’t have a great record in the Champion Hurdle (Katchit was the last winner of that age in 2008). However, this Henderson juvenile was outstanding all season. Like Buveur D’Air, he hurdles so sharply and his opening two victories at Doncaster displayed immense promise. He followed that with two victories in unfavourable soft ground before hacking up in a Grade One at Aintree in April. He missed the Triumph Hurdle, which I’m sure he’d have won, and though caution must be taken after Defi Du Seuil’s disappointments of last season, We Have A Dream is a horse to follow in the coming months. A decent preparation could set him up for a big run next Spring.

Champion Chase:

Winner: Altior

It is impossible not to tip Altior for the Champion Chase. He is unbeaten over obstacles, never seriously being threatened in the process and is simply quicker than any other horse currently in training. His jumping is sound at worst, electric at best and though this division is comfortably the strongest, he would still take all the beating. He was unable to run until February last season and was still firmly on top come the festival and so who knows what a peak fitness Altior with a full season’s racing may do.

Challenger: Douvan

Two years ago, Douvan had the equine world at his mercy, seemingly unstoppable. Since then, he has broken down when 1/4 for the Queen Mother in 2017, fallen when leading in the same contest earlier this year and been run ragged by stablemate Un De Sceaux at Punchestown. Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins are still confident that Douvan’s full potential has not been realised and based on the pre-Altior days, he could still be a phenomenal champion. It may even help that he now has something to prove and he will be the stable’s no.1 when the time comes for battle. Altior vs Douvan is still the most mouthwatering clash imaginable and I pray both make it to Cheltenham in top condition.

Dark horse: Great Field

Like Altior, Great Field is unbeaten over fences though he is yet to set foot outside of Ireland. Indeed, he has only ever raced five times over the larger obstacles although he has improved with every start, culminating in an astonishing success over Doctor Phoenix in which he was over twenty lengths clear on the bridle racing into the straight. The winning margin was a length and a half after he was all but eased down before the final fence so his potential remains completely untapped. Injury hindered his previous campaign but there is no doubt that if he avoids harm at home, Great Field will be aimed at the highest level.

Stayers Hurdle:

Winner: Faugheen

I, along with many others, was calling for the Machine’s retirement after he finished down the field in the Champion Hurdle. Yet back he bounced, storming away with the Punchestown Stayers, retaining all the old force and style. It is easy to forget that Faugheen won the Neptune at the Festival as a novice and so the stamina was always there. Now he is ten, it is only being fully realised. The age is both a positive and a negative for he must remain enthusiastic to be competitive at the top but he was so far clear at Punchestown that the title is there for the taking, especially without a superstar in this field.

Challenger: Identity Thief

It appeared that Henry De Bromhead’s charge had lost interest in the sport after failing to shine over fences. Three below par runs preceded an encouraging runner-up spot in a Group Three prior to Cheltenham. Neverthless, nobody expected him to finish fourth in a Champion hurdle, nor follow that up with a flying success in the Liverpool Stayers from Wholestone. The extra distance brought out the old Identity Thief and then some and he can be forgiven his performance behind Faugheen at Punchestown given it came just twelve days after Aintree. He is now a dual Grade One winner and a campaign in the stayers division may continue to bring the best out of him. Long may it continue and I hope he serves it up to Faugheen in March.

Dark Horse: The World’s End

In 2017, The World’s End cruised into contention, looking all over the winner, in the Albert Bartlett novices, eventually won by this year’s Stayers Hurdle winner Penhill. He came down three out before gaining some compensation at Aintree. Thereafter, in his first full season in open company, he proved disappointing for Tom George, failing to place in five attempts and finishing only seventh behind Penhill in the aforementioned Stayers. However, he raced on ground unfavourably softer than good on each occasion last season and if a bit of luck arrived regards the ground, we may see a much improved specimen. There is no doubt the ability is there and prizes could soon follow.

Gold Cup:

Winner: Might Bite

Presenting Percy looks a real danger after his stellar novice performances last term but Might Bite continues to ooze more class than his current counterparts. His second to Native River was arguably his most impressive run last season as the ground was too soft for him to swagger up the hill. He still won the King George despite the cut though and was still able to waltz away with the Aintree Bowl despite it coming just four weeks after Cheltenham. If the rain stays away, he will be the marker by which the best are measured. I suspect few have the ability to surpass him.

Challenger: Sizing John

I’m not deliberately avoiding Presenting Percy but he’s too obvious a challenger and the forgotten horse, without being a “dark horse,” is the 2017 Gold Cup hero. He was not himself when walking home a distance behind Road To Respect in the Christmas Chase last season and with injury ruling him out of the remainder, Sizing John has both a crown to reclaim and fitness to regain. He’d previously proved the toughest nut to crack, having been unbeaten over further than 2m4f before his Christmas aberration and 14/1 may look great value if he returns to peak form.

Dark Horse: Terrefort

Another Henderson inmate but this French import is the reverse of Might Bite in terms of ground insofar as he much prefers the heavens to open. He’d previously appeared an unlikely stayer when second to Shattered Love in the JLT at this year’s Festival but he subsequently won impressively at Aintree when defeating the admirable Ms Parfois. He stayed every yard that day and so the extra furlong plus the daunting hill of the Gold Cup would now seem less of an issue for the grey. Terrefort has disappeared even from below the radar of many with other novices stealing more spotlight but ignoring him is a risky business.

There we have it. I’m hugely excited for the days ahead, when National Hunt replaces the flat on our TV screens. Bring on Cheltenham and may all my predictions prove worthless as long as the races are as thrilling as ever.

The Prix de L’Arc Preview

Europe’s crowning contest returns to Longchamp for the first time since 2015 as the continent’s champion middle distance runners go head-to-head. For the second year in succession there is no Derby winner and yet the sparkle remains with John Gosden’s Enable out to prove she’s the best once again. Here are the proposed runners:

  1. Defoe: Early season promise has failed to continue and he has come up short in all three previous Group Ones including when a supposed warm order the last twice. His second to Best Solution is not bad form and this is an open each-way betting contest but this is the strongest field he’s ever face by some margin and he looks up against it especially from stall 18. 2/5
  2. Salouen: Even though everything went right at Epsom, his second to Cracksman in the Coronation Cup is still good form and he’s made the frame in all bar one of his five starts this season. He hasn’t won for nearly two years but he enjoys the big occasion and with a favourable enough draw, its not beyond reason to suggest he could place again. Lively each-way at 66. 3/5
  3. Capri: Last year’s Irish Derby and St Leger form has worked out wonderfully and he was likely turned out again too quickly when second last in this twelve months ago. he’ll be fitter than his latest start but even an improvement back to his best leaves him something to overturn with Waldgeist. Jockey bookings have him as Ballydoyle’s number two and there’s no doubts about his staying power. Still unlikely to be good enough.
  4. Way To Paris: Gerald Mosse is an inspired booking after a great season and though Antonio Maricalis’ horse has been within three lengths of Waldgeist every time they’ve met this season, there has been little to suggest he can overturn that form regardless of conditions. Not unworthy of lining up but unlikely to break the top half. 2/5
  5. Waldgeist: Fulfilled previous promise this season with four straight wins. Hadn’t beaten a lot before victory in the Prix Foy last time out in which he beat a number of rivals today going away but the draw hasn’t been overly kind. He is on a roll but stamina will be truly tested in what will surely be a strongly run contest. Others preferred at better prices. 3/5
  6. Cloth Of Stars: Not at his best this season and would like soft to appear in the ground description at least partially. That said he’s been on the periphery of a big run and is highly consistent. The Fabre team may well have been preparing him for this race after his excellent second in this last season and his stamina will probably be seen to full effect. Would be no surprise whatsoever to see him bounce back to his best and outrun his odds here. 4/5
  7. Talismanic: Another Fabre/Godolphin inmate with a performance in him. Won the Breeders Cup Turf last season and has two wins this season but there is a chance that America is the aim once again. His preparation for this won’t have been taken lightly but form with Waldgeist looks less likely to be overturned than by stablemate Cloth Of Stars. Not discounted but no surprise if this wasn’t taken overly seriously. 3/5
  8. Tiberian: Beat Talismanic twice last season and William Buick riding is a plus but little else to get excited about. Has never shown in Group One company and his form this season is a long way below what’s required. 1/5
  9. Clincher: Japan will send a conqueror to win this race one day but Yutaka Take’s mount will not be the one. Entitled to improve for his first run in Europe when last of six in the Prix Foy but he’d have to have sprouted wings in the meantime to land this. Plum draw enables him some respect but may need the others to fall. 1/5
  10. Enable: Looking to become the second filly this decade to go back-to-back in this race and only the eighth to ever win it twice. Prep run was outstanding after so long off and though this will be her first experience of turf in over a year and her Longchamp debut to boot, she still looks to be a class apart. Kinder draw than her three nearest challengers in the market and difficult to see her being beaten. 5/5
  11. Neufbosc: Disappointed in the Prix Niel last time which is why he can be found at 50/1. Not beaten far by Kew Gardens in the Grand Prix de Paris but that form is dubious for a Group One and Aidan O’Brien’s inmate looks to have improved beyond that. Could give a good account but one of the least likely winners. 2/5
  12. Patascoy: Understandably a popular each-way call, his second to Study Of Man in the French Derby, form which could well be overturned due to the draw, alongside lines in his pedigree, suggests that this trip should be little to worry about. Only beaten by a rejuvenated Knight To Behold on his most recent run, he looks a reasonable enough price to be chanced especially with Olivier Peslier onboard. May want it a touch softer but in the mix. 3/5
  13. Kew Gardens: Capri combed in this when coming off the back of St Leger success last season but Kew gardens has had an extra week’s recuperation and was arguably rewarded with a kinder race than expected when victorious at Doncaster. Already a Group One winner over this trip in France, he may prove the biggest danger as though the draw has done him few favours, he’ll be dropped out the back. Has a stablemate to ensure a strong pace and ground conditions ideal. Highly respected. 4/5
  14. Study Of Man: May as well start from the Louvre such is the horror of drawing stall 19 of 19 in the Arc and though he is a French Derby hero, his two runs since have dulled the previous sparkle. The trip is questionable for Pascal Bary’s colt too and very difficult to see him involved barring a huge career best. 2/5
  15. Louis D’Or: Monstrous run when third in the French Derby but that’s as good as it gets. Never won on turf, one win in thirteen starts. Surprise if he’s not in the bottom three. 1/5
  16. Hunting Horn: Taking his best form into account, he seems the most likely to cause the upset. Ran away with the Hampton Court at Royal Ascot and nosed off by Brundtland in the Prix Niel, in which Neufbosc was behind. He battled tenaciously that day so doubts about the trip should be eased and he’s not disgraced himself in any of his globetrotting appearances. Still has a fair bit to find but if his name is in the mix under two furlongs out, it would be no surprise. 3/5
  17. Nelson: If he weren’t a pacemaker, he may well prove classy enough to place mid-division. Seventh despite front-running duties and late trouble in the St Leger but almost certainly here to set it up for Kew Gardens. 1/5
  18. Magical: By Galileo, so a chance this trip could yet suit but this couldn’t be any tougher for her first venture beyond 1m1f. Has had the class to be involved over a mile on most of her starts this season even though she strikes me as a mile-and-a-quarter filly so she could be a surprise package but it would require trust beyond which I’m willing to grant her. 2/5
  19. Sea Of Class: Proved she was out of the top drawer when storming clear in the Yorkshire Oaks, won last year by Enable before heading to Longchamp, but this is a further step up. The draw has been unkind and her first experience of a big field still gives her a lot to prove. Her famous sire won this nine years ago and it is in her blood but she may be better placed tin twelve months time. 3/5

Its not a betting race if you’re looking for a winner as ENABLE is not value at odds-on. Nevertheless, she’s still the winner in my eyes. Cloth Of Stars and Kew Gardens look like the most dangerous opposition while at big prices, Patascoy and Hunting Horn could also go very well.

  1. Enable
  2. Cloth Of Stars
  3. Kew Gardens

2018: The year the best horses didn’t win the Classics

Sometimes the best don’t get their just desserts. Greg Norman never won the Masters, Crisp the Grand National, England the 2018 World Cup. A current case in point is the 2018 Classic generation on the flat racing scene.

Every winner of the five Classics has deserved their victory on the day. All have been in control passing the winning post but, if every race was run again, conditions the same but with an absence of injuries, there could so easily be five different winners.

Yet, this year started with seemingly the best horse winning decisively, setting up realistic aspirations of the first Triple Crown in nearly fifty years. Saxon Warrior powered to victory, putting the 2000 Guineas to bed in a matter of strides. The world was at his feet.

Saxon Warrior was today retired without winning another race having remained unbeaten with his bombastic victory at Newmarket. His form figures were incredibly consistent thereafter, reading 43232 but they’re not the numbers of a champion.

There were two horses in behind Saxon Warrior at Newmarket that, in hindsight, were likelier winners. Masar, in third, won the Derby but was perhaps caught on the wrong side of the track as was Roaring Lion in fifth. John Gosden’s grey is the more deserving of alternate history’s 2000 Guineas after taking the Eclipse, Juddmonte International and Irish Champion Stakes, as well as third in the Derby. In all of those races, he finished ahead of Saxon Warrior.

The 1000 Guineas was even more extraordinary and with the weakest winner of the five. Billesdon Brook was the rank outsider at 66/1 with no form prior, or afterwards, suggesting she could possibly win. Sean Levey rode the race of his life and the spoils went the way of Richard Hannon’s team.

In behind, both Magical and Happily have proven very useful milers and Alpha Centauri was absent. She did at least gain compensation in Ireland but Laurens is certainly the most unfortunate loser of this particular piece. She was the runner-up who, had she seen the winner coming, would surely have toughed it out for victory. Since then, she’s won the French Guineas and a memorable Matron Stakes in which she downed the supposedly unbeatable Alpha Centauri.

Laurens was absent from Epsom, although she would eventually try to her hand at middle distance, but the Oaks this year must go down as one of the weakest in living memory. Forever Together was the correct winner on the day but both Sea Of Class and Lah Ti Dar would surely have been victorious if Epsom restaged the fillies’ contest. Aidan O’Brien’s horse is likeable and could yet give a good account at Longchamp in the Arc but would only have placed if the aforementioned duo had been fit enough to run.

The Derby is perhaps the most difficult to argue a case for an absentee or vanquished loser. Masar proved he had the ability to defeat a staying plodder in Dee Ex Bee and the stamina to outlast Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior. Once more, it is the flying grey who gets the verdict as in my opinion, the O’Brien pacesetters ensured a strong gallop from the outset to play for Saxon Warrior’s supposed stamina. It never showed. As such, Roaring Lion was always set to struggle but in a kinder contest (to be a little polemic, this race is an example of where, I believe, trainers should be handed a maximum quota of runners as the O’Brien brigade can be far too dominant at times) his sheer class may have won the day and a second Classic. Masar, cruelly, is denied by a rapidly diminishing short head.

Roaring Lion has become a star but alternative history would have handed him two Classic belts to add to his own triple crown of lower-middle distance contests. Another star may have been born in Lah Ti Dar in the St Leger as well.

She was outmuscled and outmanoeuvred by Kew Gardens who had the brutal knowhow required to knuckle one’s way to the front at Doncaster. Lah Ti Dar was too slow to respond to Frankie Dettori’s urgings but finished well and stayed the trip effectively. Had she seen just a few more racecourses, or indeed rivals, she may have plundered the prize but there will likely be more to come as a four-year-old as she’ll hopefully stay in training.

So, to recap, these are 2018’s counterfactual Classic heroes and heroines, marking a treble for John Gosden:

2000 Guineas: Roaring Lion

1000 Guineas: Laurens

Oaks: Sea Of Class

Derby: Roaring Lion

St Leger: Lah Ti Dar

This is an absurd practice, of course (Aidan O’Brien couldn’t possibly go a year without a Classic) but it puts sport in perspective. The best cannot always win on sheer ability. Sometimes an underdog outperforms (Billesdon Brook), a spell on the sidelines creates opportunity for another (Forever Together), or conditions fall for another at the perfect time (Saxon Warrior, Masar, Kew Gardens). It is not always the case in racing but without these surprises, it would be soulless and predictable. Better for our pockets and maybe our blood pressure but not our hearts and minds.

Thank you to 2018’s Classic generation. You’ve proved a timely lesson for racing fanatics countrywide.