Matt Brocklebank looks ahead to the resumption of Flat racing with a preview of the British Classics at Newmarket and Epsom.
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If you’ve managed to resist the lure of Happy Valley, Randwick, Dieppe and Fonner Park until now then you are to be commended. Either way, it’s finally time to look ahead with excitement – and a hint of trepidation - as once all the lights are green we’re in for a full-throttle start to the 2020 Flat season.
The prize money looks like being slashed but the Classic programme is, still pending government approval, set to be salvaged from a devastating spring of no British turf racing, while most other principal events will just be run at a slightly later date than we’re used to. Not all is lost.
In the provisional plans as things stand, there are only a couple of significant venue amendments including the Coronation Cup, the 1m4f Group One for older horses usually at Epsom, to be staged at Newmarket on just the fifth day back after resumption.
Given all the uncertainty surrounding disrupted preparations and the potential pitfalls of non-participation, this is clearly no time to be investing heavily antepost. However, there’s no harm in thrashing out the Classic markets in a bid to identify horses who could realistically shorten in the betting over the next week or so as entries are re-made and intended targets begin to crystallise.
The Listed Oaks and Derby Trials at Lingfield, which incidentally both produced the respective big-race winners in 2019, are in the plans at their usual track on June 5 and Sandown’s Group 3 Classic Trial over 10 furlongs is pencilled in for Kempton on June 3. There are also the King Edward VII (1m4f) and Hampton Court Stakes (1m2f) at Royal Ascot which could this year serve as suitable prep races before Epsom.
There is no such luxury for a Guineas prep so most of the focus here will be on the first two British Classics, where the majority – but not all – of the form has been in the book for several months already.
Pinatubo was cut to odds-on across the virtual boards on Thursday following the news that John Gosden’s exciting Kingman colt, Palace Pier, would not be aimed at the first Classic with preference for a trip to Newcastle before a likely tilt at Royal Ascot’s St James’s Palace à la Without Parole.
Two from two over seven furlongs at Sandown last season, backing up his maiden win under a penalty in novice company, Palace Pier was as short as 10/1 joint-second favourite before effectively being ruled out.
That leaves Arizona – one of the many horses strictly needing to bridge a significant class gap with the thriving market leader based on their two-year-old exploits – well clear of Kinross, Kameko and Threat in the revised betting.
Threat was kept busy at two and might be among those especially disadvantaged by the delayed start. He, like Pinatubo it has to be said, didn’t have bundles of physical scope last year and one wonders if the Guineas being staged over a month later than originally scheduled will play into the hands of the more stoutly-bred colts.
Even under normal circumstances, Guineas winners within the past dozen years include Sea The Stars, Camelot, Saxon Warrior and Magna Grecia, who were all seen as strong middle-distance prospects heading into the winter before their class got them home on the Rowley Mile the following spring. The notion that the Guineas represents the final juvenile race of the previous year looks particularly flimsy this season.
Three of the aforementioned (the Aidan O’Brien-trained trio) won the Vertem Futurity Trophy at Doncaster, or Racing Post Trophy as it was, and that must give connections of Kameko serious hope.
He beat some proper Derby types in Innisfree and Mogul in the rescheduled race at Newcastle and while there’s a chance he was flattered to some degree by clearly absolutely relishing the Tapeta surface in the north east, it was a performance that had been brewing earlier in the campaign and unquestionably smacked of a top-class three-year-old in the making.
Kinross was a well-held fifth on just his second start at Newcastle and can certainly be given another chance to prove himself as good as Ralph Beckett believes him to be, but pitching straight into a Classic will be tough on the inexperienced Kingman colt.
Andrew Balding’s Kameko looks fairly priced at 14/1 but the most attractive each-way bet at present is the general 16/1 (20s with Betfair Sportsbook) about MILITARY MARCH.
His price has contracted markedly for the Investec Derby after some bullish updates from Saeed bin Suroor and he’s now single figures for Epsom (joint-favourite in places) after a strong wave of support, but it was interesting to hear his trainer confirm the 2000 Guineas to be the intended stepping stone.
He’s a bit of a beast of a colt by New Approach and seems almost certain to be seen to best effect over 10 furlongs at least, but going back over his debut win on the July Course last summer it’s hard not to be dead impressed by his surge of power and pace when winning on debut.
That came over seven furlongs on decent ground and he confirmed the impression made by beating Charlie Appleby’s well-regarded Al Suhail over a mile on soft in Newmarket’s Autumn Stakes after the best part of three months off.
He’d really filled out when reappearing in mid-October and the impression from around town this term is that he’s grown into a fine specimen.
His sire was chinned in the Guineas first time out at three before going on to win the Derby and it’s not hard to see this brute being given a really positive, uncomplicated ride on seasonal debut, and proving a hard nut to crack when it matters.
He won’t be the quickest in the field, but he’s definitely a budding Group One horse I’ll be keeping on side this year - and that includes at a mile.
Having touched upon Arizona’s odds contracting, another from the Dewhurst who does deserve a good mention is the Clive Cox-trained Positive. He was only 8/1 third-in to beat Pinatubo (Arizona went off 14/1) and seemed to flounder at HQ on the worst ground he’d encountered all year.
His earlier form is more than respectable, beating Kameko a nose in the Solario Stakes at Sandown after finishing five lengths second behind Pinatubo in the Vintage at Goodwood on his second career start.
A fairly tall, angular son of Dutch Art, it will be fascinating to see how he has developed during the off-season and the 50/1 with Paddy Power and Betfair Sportsbook will look great value if Cox opts for the Classic route.
He’s from a family the trainer knows well (1m4f-winning dam is a half-sister to Cox-trained Group Three winner Zonderland) and he may end up taking the slightly more patient approach. So look out for Positive at Ascot, whether in the St James’s Palace or the Jersey Stakes, even if Newmarket isn’t on his agenda on the first weekend after resumption.
As is the case with the 2000 Guineas, overseas runners look likely to be permitted to take part in the fillies’ Classic and we could see a serious shift in the betting if Andre Fabre opts for Newmarket over Deauville for Tropbeau, who was as short as 7/4 for the French Guineas prior to Longchamp being locked down again.
She was a shade unfortunate in the run en route to finishing third behind Millisle and Raffle Prize in the Cheveley Park Stakes last year and has now proven herself over a mile with victory in the Prix de la Grotte at Longchamp earlier this month.
She has an awful lot in her favour should she travel and, currently 20/1 in places, would in all likelihood end up second favourite to Quadrilateral if doing so.
One thing they could arguably both do with in a ideal world is a drop of rain and there’s no sign of it in the current forecast for Newmarket which may lead to quite lively ground in a couple of weeks’ time.
That will seemingly suit Millisle, the chosen one from a host of top-class juvenile fillies at Jessica Harrington’s yard last term. She defied odds of 16/1 to win the Cheveley Park, having just missed out to Richard Hannon's Dark Lady (subsequently well-held seventh in the Cheveley Park) in the Group Three Dick Poole Stakes at Salisbury earlier in the month.
She’s a daughter of Starspangledbanner and is blessed with raw pace but evidently possesses enough of the stamina in her dam’s side of the pedigree to warrant a shot at a mile. Even so, on the face of it she looks more of a Commonwealth Cup type in stature and running style, and it wouldn’t come as any surprise if Tropbeau has her measure granted a rematch over a mile.
The most appealing option near the head of the betting is the O’Brien-trained LOVE. The Moyglare Stud Stakes winner - she had the beating of Daahyeh, So Wonderful, Under The Stars and Albigna among others at the Curragh - went up in my estimation after her third to Quadrilateral in the Fillies’ Mile, where the ease underfoot reportedly wasn’t to suit.
A daughter of Galileo out of a Pivotal mare, she’s always looked to have a great blend of speed and stamina destined to bring out the best in her at three, and the fact she managed to win at Group One level as a two-year-old bodes extremely well.
She appears an Oaks filly in the making but is a very fair price at 16/1 (Betfair Sportsbook) for the Guineas given her trainer’s recent record with daughters of Galileo in this race (won three of the last four including 2019 with Hermosa, who was also out of a Pivotal mare).
We only need to look at last year's race to be reminded of the fact that fillies can rapidly enter the Guineas picture from relatively lower beginnings, with Qabala - once-raced maiden winner at two - finishing a fine third having taken the Nell Gwyn on her comeback.
With trials season ravaged this time around, plenty of trainers will resist the temptation of the Classic for fear of over-facing a lightly-raced filly and putting future plans in jeopardy, but others may feel they have very little to lose and Newmarket residents Charlie Appleby and John Gosden do have some interesting ammunition if willing to take the risk.
There have been nibbles of support for Gosden's expensively-purchased, Godolphin-owned, War Front filly Maria Rosa this week - she's still 40/1 with Coral but as short as 25/1 - and it's not like her trainer is averse to rolling the big dice when he sees fit.
The filly in question was beaten narrowly by Roger Varian's beautifully-bred daughter of Dubawi, Fooraat, when odds-on for her Newcastle debut over seven furlongs on October 25 but she hardly did anything wrong in defeat after looking all over the winner and ought to have learned a great deal from it.
Maria Rosa has a US pedigree to die for (half-sister to Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist) and made 1,750,000 dollars as a yearling. Big things can clearly be expected at some stage this year and there's a small chance she might just have her mettle tested at the highest level straight away.
The Appleby-trained SPRING OF LOVE is another exciting Godolphin filly entering her Classic campaign on the back of one run and I'll add her to the staking plan. The bare form of her Newmarket debut win leaves her with a lot to find at this kind of level, admittedly, but it's typically a strong maiden (won by Veracious in 2017).
The form is decent enough too, with favourite and eventual runner-up Waliyak bolting up at Wolverhampton later in the month (one of two subsequent winners from the race), while Appleby is on record stating she'd be aimed at a major trial this spring.
That obviously won't be happening but it's worth noting just how professional she was first time out under William Buick. She's basically bred to be a miler through-and-through and at 33/1 (General) is the sort of filly we can take a small punt on without being heart-broken if she doesn't appear in the final field.
Pinatubo was such a brilliant two-year-old, it's easy to overlook the fact his pedigree suggests he should stay middle distances at three.
He'll be freakishly special if that turns out to be the case but everything we saw from him on the track throughout a perfect juvenile campaign last year gives the strong impression a mile and a half will be out of range.
Charlie Appleby's ace started early (May 10), ran six times not beyond seven furlongs, and didn't appear to have significant scope for further physical development over the winter - all atypical of an Investec Derby profile.
He won't need to improve a jot, of course, to remain a top-class performer but will need to be at least as good over 12 furlongs to win at Epsom and that explains the fact he can still be backed at 8/1 despite dwarfing the rest of his potential rivals in terms of official ratings and class at this stage.
From a betting perspective he's a no-go zone presently - too short for the Guineas and too much of a doubt for the Derby - but it's obviously hoped he doesn't simply go down as a superstar juvenile.
As for Epsom, there are a few too many question marks to have a strong opinion and the prospect of no overseas runners would make for a very strange edition of the great race.
Innisfree and Mogul - who contested the Vertem Futurity and both ran well to boot - are highly likely to be part of the travelling party from Ireland if allowed, but without knowing what Aidan O'Brien had in mind for Chester's May meeting prior to racing's suspension, or Lingfield, Leopardstown and York for that matter, leaves punters effectively in the dark.
One colt from Ballydoyle who hasn't seen any headlines so far but could turn out to be a star is Nobel Prize, who is 50/1 across the board for the Derby.
A brother to Highland Reel, Idaho and Cape Of Good Hope, it's no surprise he's one O'Brien appeared happy to take his time with, but he looks capable of an awful lot better than he was showing on bad ground in back-end maidens at Leopardstown and Naas, breaking through at the third time of asking at the latter course the Sunday before Bonfire Night.
There were no fireworks from the strapping Galileo colt but he was always just doing enough and no doubt he'll continue to improve with time and distance.
Kameko and Military March are expected to go well in the Guineas, as mentioned, and could shorten further in the Derby betting with a prominent showing at Newmarket, but WALDKONIG might leapfrog them all if winning something like the rescheduled Classic Trial at Kempton.
John Gosden must be itching to get the half-brother to Arc hero Waldgeist onto the green stuff but presumably won't mind waiting for the big day at Epsom, or Royal Ascot now that's an option, given how impressive the Kingman colt was on debut when storming home over the extended mile at Wolverhampton in December.
The race has failed to throw up a single winner since (nine have tried) but Waldkonig was a world apart and was ultimately eased down to win by nine lengths. He was green when asked to quicken and it took a second for his giant legs to find top gear, but he screamed top-notcher when unleashing his run in the straight.
Gosden allowed the horse loads of time at two and that was no doubt the plan again this year but a revised July 4 Derby might just work perfectly for him if the prep is possible and, while the fancy winter prices of 25/1 are long gone, getting involved at 14s (General) still looks to have enough mileage.
It could be levelled that Kingman has yet to really emerge as a sire of 12-furlong performers at any level, but the truth is not many have tried. From a tiny sample size of 12, one of the former star miler's progeny has been successful over the Derby trip but not too much can be read into that, especially given a healthy 28% strike-rate from a slightly larger sample (5/18) over precisely 11 furlongs.
There aren't many more exciting, once-raced colts in the country than Waldkonig and he's worth backing, but it's a close run thing for second in that particular heat. Sir Michael Stoute's Leicester winner Highest Ground and the Richard Hughes-trained Brentford Hope are both in the mix, and the former's debut effort was particularly noteworthy.
He looked to have a mountain to climb at halfway following a sluggish start but was flying late on to win going away. The son of Frankel is a half-brother to seven winners at distances up to 1m7f and no doubt Stoute has been mildly satisfied by being able to bring him along quietly in the background through the spring.
The remaining 33/1 with William Hill and Betway seems unlikely to hang around long with something like the Hampton Court at Royal Ascot a realistic target before a Classic bid.
If LOVE lives up to expectations and progresses past Quadrilateral at Newmarket then O'Brien's filly is clearly the standout value in the market for Epsom too.
She's a half to classy sprinter Lucky Kristale but her full-sisters Flattering and Peach Tree won at 1m4f and 1m6f respectively, while it's hard to believe a daughter of Galileo who won a Group One over seven furlongs as a juvenile won't stay a mile and a half at three granted a decent racing surface.
She's 20/1 for the Oaks with Sky Bet and Unibet and should arguably be half the price on form alone.
Love's stablemate Passion has been quite popular in the betting this month and appears to be on target for the Irish 1,000 Guineas if that goes ahead as planned. She's a full-sister to St Leger winner Capri and possibly found the Doncaster ground a bit lively when sent over for the May Hill Stakes last September.
Peaceful was another filly seemingly quite high on the O'Brien pecking order heading into the spring. She's by Galileo too and out of a Stravinsky mare, while she progressed with every start last year, signing off with a fast-finishing neck second to Born With Pride in a Listed race at Newmarket.
William Haggas' horse was making her debut there and upset the odds in victory but there was no fluke about it, for all she was able to dictate her own pace and Peaceful just got bogged down in the tacky conditions heading into the dip when needing to make up ground.
They are both highly promising middle-distance fillies but at a wild price it might be worth chancing Gosden's FRANKLY DARLING (66/1, General).
She's got a fantastic pedigree for a middle-distance three-year-old and made just the one racecourse appearance last term when second over a mile at Yarmouth. She led two furlongs from the finish and was only just hitting top gear when passed close home by Roger Varian's Cabaletta.
That very same novice event in 2019 was split into two divisions, won by the Gosden-trained Mehdaayih and Anthony Oppenheimer-owned Frankellina, who both went on to contest the Oaks as three-year-olds.
Frankly Darling - also owned by Oppenheimer - is a daughter of Frankel and closely related to First In Line who progressed into a 108-rated filly for the same connections as a four-year-old last term, having been unraced previously.
Her half-sister, the William Haggas-trained Our Obsession, won a maiden as a juvenile before being unbeaten (2/2) at three including a Listed race at York over a mile and a half, so it's clearly a late-maturing family that just gets better with age.
With that in mind, the 'slow' start to the season could definitely be in her favour and now the Ribblesdale is ahead of the Oaks in terms of programming, it's suddenly a very attractive double-header for Gosden and her team at which to aim.
A lot will have to go her way for Frankly Darling to emerge as a serious Oaks contender between now and July 5, but if ever there was a year for a 'hail Mary pass' in this market, then 2020 was it.
Posted at 0910 BST on 23/05/20
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