Ben Linfoot takes an in-depth look at the QIPCO 2000 Guineas and highlights five things to note ahead of the first Classic of the season.
On the back of the strangest Flat season in living memory, where some Derby trials were run after the Derby, it’s perhaps no surprise to see a 2000 Guineas favourite who doesn’t fit the usual mould.
Okay, the Coolmore, Aidan O’Brien, Ryan Moore bit is standard, granted. But the one win from six starts strike-rate is certainly out of the ordinary and plenty of punters will be queuing up to take Wembley on.
O’Brien’s last five 2000 Guineas winners – Camelot, Gleneagles, Churchill, Saxon Warrior and Magna Grecia – had fewer defeats between them when they lined up for the Guineas than Wembley endured in his juvenile campaign.
Digging deeper than the iffy win ratio suggests O’Brien has a Galileo colt of some potential on his hands, but he didn’t have the gears to win the National Stakes or the Dewhurst and, while he’ll appreciate the extra furlong, it could be that he needs even further than a mile.
After all, he is a full-brother to Johannes Vermeer, a horse who was second in a Melbourne Cup.
And while O’Brien has won the Dewhurst and the following year’s 2000 Guineas with the same horse twice thanks to Rock Of Gibraltar and Churchill, he’s yet to win the Newmarket Classic with a Dewhurst runner-up and he’s had 12 of those.
Of the not-so-deadly dozen eight of them ran in the Guineas and the best results were the fourth-placed finishes of Oratorio and Lancaster Bomber, with only one of the other six finishing in the first seven home.
Things could be different for Wembley, of course. Last year’s Dewhurst looked a good renewal and the horse that beat him, stablemate St Mark’s Basilica, won’t be in the way in the Guineas.
That means Wembley is the highest-rated horse in the race on 118, while there is obvious room for further progression given he’s a Galileo colt tackling another furlong.
But, on balance, if a horse that has been beaten five times is favourite for the Guineas then it’s probably a wide-open renewal - and at the very least it’s worth exploring other avenues to see if there’s a bet.
If not Ballydoyle there’s only one place to start: Ballydoyle.
O’Brien’s hand looks a strong one with or without Wembley even if the Dewhurst winner has stayed at home, with Battleground, perhaps surprisingly considering market fluctuations, making the final cut after all.
Here we have a horse with a profile like an O’Brien 2000 Guineas favourite – and he was just that until the negative market vibes only recently – as his only defeats at two were on debut and at the Breeders’ Cup, with two impressive victories wedged in between. One of those wins came in the Chesham Stakes, a contest O’Brien’s Guineas winner Churchill won as a juvenile.
Battleground looked a most unlikely participant when drifting out to prices nudging 30 on the Betfair Exchange on Wednesday, but he’s made it, he’s got a nice stands’ side draw in 15 and intriguingly Frankie Dettori takes the ride.
The 50-year-old jockey found himself riding for O’Brien more regularly in 2020 due to the circumstances surrounding rider restrictions and he almost won the 2000 Guineas for him with Wichita before ending the campaign with Dewhurst success on the same stable’s St Mark’s Basilica.
He rode five times in all for O’Brien last season, doubling his tally for the previous five years, following on from a long gap back to when he landed Classic success for the Ballydoyle maestro in the St Leger on board Scorpion in 2005.
Interestingly, though, from those handful of Ballydoyle rides in the period 2015 to 2019, he did ride Found, Battleground’s dam, when she was a gallant second to Almanzor in a rip-roaring 2016 Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown.
It would be very Frankie Dettori to go one better on her son in Classic company five years later.
As for Van Gogh, he’s got a more Wembley-type profile having been beaten five times as a two-year-old before ending his campaign with his best performance yet, in his case an impressive four-length victory in the Group One Criterium International at Saint-Cloud.
That was over a mile in heavy ground and he’s been extremely well-supported in the Cazoo Derby market in recent days, so much so he’s generally 7/1 second-favourite and as short as 6s for Epsom now.
His dam, Imagine, won an Irish Guineas and the Oaks at Epsom, so he could be versatile trip-wise, but on his juvenile showings I’m just leaning towards him bolstering his Derby claims with a staying-on for a place effort after being outpaced at a vital stage.
It’s very hard to strike a line through Thunder Moon when you watch back his Vincent O’Brien National Stakes win, where a scintillating late burst of speed helped him see off Wembley, Master Of The Seas and Lucky Vega.
And if not Ballydoyle or the Ballydoyle B Team, how about the boy from Ballydoyle? Joseph O’Brien has achieved so much already that winning back-to-back British Classics would barely raise an eyebrow.
That’s partly why Thunder Moon is second best in the market and could even dispute favouritism, but such prominence demands close scrutiny and there’s one little niggle I have with this horse at the prices and that is that progeny of his sire, Zoffany, have struggled to train on.
Having been fully aboard the Albigna bandwagon last year I was prepared to accept that I’m simply a scarred punter still licking my wounds, but the data reveals some startling results:
Zoffany progeny in Group races at 2 – 12 wins/56 runners at 21.43%
Zoffany progeny in Group races at 3 – 3 wins /73 runners at 4.11%
That’s some compelling evidence that Zoffany progeny do struggle to train on and they are 0/22 in Group One races at three to boot.
Thunder Moon could buck the trend, of course he could, but when you’re talking 5/1 for a Guineas it more than weighs on your mind and I must admit it’s enough to put me off.
Most Guineas winners have had at least three career starts under their belt by the time they line up at Newmarket.
Combining both the 1000 and 2000 Guineas this century - nine winners had three previous runs, eight winners had four, eight had five, five had six, three had seven, one had eight, two had nine, two had 10 and one – Homecoming Queen in the 1000 Guineas – had 13.
That leaves three horses – Golan, who won the 2000 Guineas in 2001 on the back of just one maiden success, and Camelot and Ghanaati, who won their Guineas on the back of just two previous starts.
Camelot had at least won a Group One having landed the Vertem Futurity Trophy Stakes at Doncaster on his second and final appearance at two, but Ghanaati won her 1000 Guineas for Barry Hills after just two runs in maiden company at Kempton.
Ghanaati is the dam of Mutasaabeq, a colt trained by Barry’s son Charlie Hills, and if he is to win the Guineas on just his third start he’ll have to have inherited all of his family’s brilliance – as will the trainer.
So few horses win the Guineas after so few previous runs and plenty have had a go. Indeed, 43 have lined up in the 2000 Guineas alone this century on the back of two previous starts and only Camelot, a horse who almost became the first Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky in 1970, managed the win.
Mutasaabeq has looked very good and could be anything, but all of his potential looks factored into his odds at 6/1 and history is against him.
Having picked holes in the top three in the market; Wembley, Thunder Moon and Mutasaabeq, it’s only natural to look for one to back against them each-way.
I must admit, only the negative market vibes have put me off Battleground for some weeks and I’m warming to him again as the most likely winner now he’s made the final field.
The Godolphin pair of Master Of The Seas and One Ruler have to be considered, but the latter is a big horse that stayed on well over a mile on heavy ground at Doncaster and I do wonder if he’ll need a sterner test of stamina, while Master Of The Seas raced too keenly for my liking in the Craven, especially considering he sported the hood. He’ll have to settle a lot better if he’s to find the necessary improvement to win this.
Having procrastinated for 1500 words the one I like at the odds is LUCKY VEGA, a Group One-winning two-year-old who looks overpriced at 20/1.
He showed some wicked zip when winning the Phoenix Stakes and while that strength could be his weakness – he might well be a sprinter or seven-furlong horse – I’m more than happy to take that chance at the prices.
There are positives in his pedigree – his dam is a half-sister to a nine-furlong winner, while his sire Lope De Vega is already responsible for an Irish 2000 Guineas winner in Phoenix Of Spain.
And on form it’s hard to fathom his odds. His maiden success worked out superbly (Battleground was back in fifth for starters), he beat the Free Handicap winner Tactical comfortably in the Middle Park – where he handled this track well - and the absolute key formline is his National Stakes fifth at the Curragh.
Sent off the 2/1 favourite that day, he was denied a run a couple of times yet finished with more in the tank on the heels of Thunder Moon, Wembley and Master Of The Seas.
That was over seven furlongs, giving further hope he’ll stay the mile, so he’s the each-way play given his classy profile at inflated odds.
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