Road To The Classics
Lydia Hislop sets out on the Road to the Classics as the Flat season steps up several gears.
By Lydia Hislop
Last Updated: 15/04/14 10:31pm
If you hadn't already changed gear, last Saturday's Flat racing increased the revs on what you're missing.
The turf Flat season is now in its third week and, although it inexplicably stalled for several days after its fun opening weekend at Doncaster, Newbury successfully applied the jump leads.
It's quite possible that we've already seen a Classic winner in action this year and this column is designed to weigh the performances of Kingman and the like on their progress towards their putative Classic assignments.
We'll also learn more this week at Newmarket, an update on which will follow this time next week.
The theatre of the absurd has indeed been at play in the betting for the first Classic, although my interpretation of its influence might be rather different to that of John Gosden.
Stage left, we have the word-of-mouth plunge on Australia in the opening weeks of this year, the latest horse to be labeled "the best we've ever had" by Aidan O'Brien. Stage right we have Kingman, whose sectional performance on his June debut last month instantly marked him out as a class act.
Back then, Kingman's Newmarket win provoked both quotes for the 2014 Guineas and Gosden to pronounce that the horse had only won a maiden and beaten a "second-string filly".
There might well have been an element of the Frankel factor in the excitement that win generated for some, given he runs in the same ownership silks of Prince Khalid Abdullah and made his debut at the same racecourse. However, more hardheaded analysis was also at work: people had done the math. Math that - in what appears to be breaking news even for Kingman's trainer - takes account of track, turf and meteorological variance.
Although Kingman went on to win the Solario last year, he did so in a race not designed to show him at his best - a steadily run, three-rival affair. He then had a bone chip surgically removed from a joint in October, a problem that emerged during his abortive preparation for the Jean-Luc Lagadere.
As James Willoughby remarked during Racing UK's coverage of Saturday's Aon Greenham, in which Kingman beat Night Of Thunder by a devastating four-and-a-half lengths, the winner seemed to move more fluently than at Sandown last August. He was rightly promoted to 2000 Guineas favourite as a result.
Connections have spoken warily of fast ground, so that could be an issue come Saturday 3 May at Newmarket, exacerbated by the tricky downhill Dip. The ground was certainly faster at Sandown than at Newbury but, equally, it could be that his joint was troubling him then.
The extra furlong should be no problem, however, although there is plenty of speed in his pedigree. It took rider James Doyle until the mile-and-a-half start at Newbury to pull him up after the Greenham - an old-fashioned indicator of a horse having plenty left after a race but a sound one nonetheless.
It's hard to imagine any of Kingman's vanquished turning the tables in the Guineas, even though Night Of Thunder proved himself to be a cut above the rest at this trip by pulling away to finish a clear second. Golden Town showed he can veer left as well as right and, although it is early days and he was facing an inadequate trip, Berkshire appears to have regressed.
At Newbury the previous day, Muwaary won a seven-furlong handicap in a good time, despite perhaps racing away from the favoured part of the straight (in common with the runner-up). He might well get a mile and holds an entry in both the Guineas and Irish Guineas, but Gosden sees him more as a candidate for the Britannia Handicap at Royal Ascot. I guess Kingman helps in such calibrations.
Meanwhile, Australia - who, as a son of Ouija Board and half-brother to Voodoo Prince and Aegaeus, is bred to be in full effect at the Derby trip of 12 furlongs rather than over a mile in the Guineas - galloped at the Curragh without impressing all observers. He also drew a baffling - and unfavourable - comparison with Istabraq from his trainer. Good thing we race these horses and not just talk about them.
In the Dubai Duty Free Fred Darling, in which the whole field was led perhaps perversely to the stands' side, J Wonder overcame traffic to win by a head from Al Thakhira.
The winner hadn't been seen since, according to her trainer Brian Meehan, finding the ground too fast in the Lowther last August. That is something to bear in mind for Newmarket, again particularly in the Dip. However, she should stay a mile and is bred to improve with age - indeed, her full-sister Chachamaidee didn't hit her absolute stride until she was four.
The way J Wonder responded so readily to pressure suggests she will maintain her superiority over Al Thakhira and particularly over an extra furlong. That said, the form of the race is nothing terrifying and the winner is going to have to find further improvement whereas, for example, Kingman's form is good enough to win most 2000 Guineas now.
At the start of the month, Xcellence won the Prix Imprudence and lowered the colours of both Cheveley Park heroine, Vorda, and Oh So Sharp winner, Miss France. Xcellence is not entered at Newmarket and Vorda shaped like the sprinter her trainer has long suspected she is, although she reportedly has not grown much.
Miss France was too keen, suffered trouble in running and was given uncommitted ride for her seasonal debut. Given her trainer is Andre Fabre and it is the modus operandi in France to treat trials explicitly as trials, you wouldn't write her off completely.
She is likely to improve returned to a mile and was far superior to the actual margin of a head when beating Lightning Thunder at Newmarket last September. She looked classy on that day.
Other fillies to have appeared already this season include Ihtimal, who has won both the UAE 1000 Guineas and Oaks already, beating little of note. Her previous Fillies' Mile third suggested she had something to find at the top table.
Chalk another one up for da sectional kidz after Western Hymn won Newbury's 10-furlong conditions event in fine style last Friday. He had been identified on his sole start at Kempton in December as the proud owner of a super-fast three-furlong closing sectional.
See Simon Rowlands' column on the subject here.
Despite arguably racing on the less favoured part of the straight last Friday - rider William Buick seemingly intent on tracking chief market rival, Scotland, above all other considerations - Western Hymn demonstrated a searing turn of foot quickly to settle matters.
He heads now for sterner tests, trainer Gosden mentioning Sandown's Classic Trial rather than the Dante, for which the colt holds an entry. Yet his stamina beyond ten furlongs is not assured. Elements of his pedigree might give you hope, but there's plenty of speed there and also on show when he runs.
It's too early to be thinking seriously about the St Leger but I'll admit it crossed my mind twice in the space of two days last week. Namely, when watching third-placed Double Bluff in the same race and when Eagle Top did well to win a maiden on his racecourse debut the following day. Nothing like planning ahead...
Having made a ripple in the classic ante-post markets over the winter, lightly raced Lat Hawill stayed on at the one pace for fourth in the Greenham. He'll need to show a lot more again to be figuring in a Derby.
On paper, it appeared to be a markedly uncompetitive maiden that Arod dominated, head in chest, at Windsor yesterday. He showed himself in need of that experience and his stamina is shaky on his dam's side for the Derby, even were he to prove to be good enough for such ambitions.
In other news, impressive UAE Derby winner Toast Of New York was notable among a clutch of horses to be added to the Derby at the second-entry stage after connections changed their mind about attacking America's Triple Crown. He could head straight to Epsom, where he would need to prove his stamina and, perhaps more so, his ability on turf.
Unfortunately, it also emerged that the Dermot Weld-trained Free Eagle misses both the Derby and Irish Derby after suffering a setback.
I've put Bracelet in this category, rather than under the 1000 Guineas (for which she also has an entry), rather in defiance of Joseph O'Brien, who according to his father harbours doubts about this filly staying 12 furlongs.
She did well to win the Leopardstown 1000 Guineas Trial, coming with a steady run from the rear to pass more advantageously positioned horses over seven furlongs. The mile of the Guineas will certainly suit better and we'll hopefully learn more about her there.
She's by Montjeu out of a half-sister to Galileo and Sea The Stars, so it would seem at first glance that she would relish 12 furlongs. However, her dam is by Green Desert and didn't quite see out the Oaks trip herself, so maybe there is something to underpin O'Brien Jnr's reported caution.
If she does stay, she will be a major player - as her position as current favourite indicates.
Dazzling, stable companion to Bracelet, is another Oaks entrant to have broken cover already this season, winning a Navan Listed event in good style. She could be seen next in the Musidora at York next month, although her stamina for the Oaks trip on her dam's side is questionable.
Back in Britain, Inchila, won a Newbury 10-furlong fillies' maiden in good style, improving for the extra distance as her pedigree and juvenile form suggested she would. A further two furlongs should hold no fears for her.
Bright Approach won the other division of the same race in a faster overall time and on her racecourse debut. As a half-sister to Nichols Canyon and by Derby winner New Approach, there should be more to come over further. She is not yet entered in the Oaks, however, and heads to the Cheshire Oaks.