Ben Linfoot reflects on the 2017 Flat season and dishes out awards for top horse, top trainer, top ride, top performance, top sprinter and more.
Horse of the Year – ENABLE
To be honest, this wasn’t even close. No other horse got near a campaign that yielded five Group One victories, collected on a range of tracks and ground in a style that signified the arrival of another Juddmonte Farms-bred top-notcher.
A daughter of Nathaniel, Enable ended up at the training base of her sire, John Gosden’s, and, like her old man, she was lightly-raced as a juvenile, running and winning just the once, over a mile on Newcastle’s Tapeta surface at the end of November.
Her three-year-old career started almost five months after that on April 21, and it started inauspiciously. It was her first go on turf and she raced keenly, finishing third behind her better-fancied stablemate Shutter Speed and Raheen House.
Shutter Speed was cut to 8/1 for the Investec Oaks after that, but when Enable turned up at Chester on her next start and demolished them in the Cheshire Oaks things changed. Teddy Grimthorpe doubted Shutter Speed’s stamina in the aftermath of Enable’s win, knowing full well he’d just seen a stronger contender skip around the Roodee.
And so it were. A thunderstorm heralded the start of the Oaks and Enable was lightning quick on the track, seeing off Rhododendron by five lengths with a further six lengths back to the third. She was every bit as brilliant as the same stable’s Taghrooda was three years previously, so it was no wonder the King George was mentioned in the aftermath.
Ascot would have to wait, though, as Enable went to the Curragh first to land the Irish Oaks at odds of 2/5. It was never in doubt and the five-and-a-half length winning margin is only misleading because it doesn’t illustrate just how easily she won.
The King George came just two weeks after her Irish jig and it turned into a will-she-won't-she mini saga, but this was one gig she was destined for. Just like her sire did in 2011, she turned up and won the midsummer highlight, carrying her owner Khalid Abdullah’s famous silks across the King George winning line in first place for the first time in 31 years. The first time since Dancing Brave.
She spanked the Coral-Eclipse winner Ulysses by over four lengths and after that the rest of her season was set in stone. It would be the Yorkshire Oaks, it would be the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
The Knavesmire race turned into the procession it was meant to be, even if she did do things differently from the front end. She didn’t have to be as brilliant as she was in the King George, but it was job done ahead of her biggest test; that Chantilly Arc.
Ulysses, fresh from his Juddmonte International success, was there to take her on again and there were new challenges too, like the French Derby winner, Brametot, and Ballydoyle’s battalions that included quadruple Group One heroine Winter, emphatic Irish St Leger hero Order Of St George and Doncaster St Leger winner Capri.
They didn’t have a sniff, though, not after Frankie Dettori made use of her good low draw in two to manoeuvre her into a winning position in the first couple of furlongs. She raced with zest, put the race to bed with a burst of speed two furlongs out and galloped her way into Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe history.
The debate will rage on over which John Gosden-trained horse is the best, Enable or Cracksman, until the day they meet on the track, if indeed they do. Both stay in training at four, so at least there’s a chance, but there is no doubt that Enable’s three-year-old career as a whole was much the better. She simply lit up the Flat season and fully deserves the Horse of the Year mantle.
Performance of the Year – CRACKSMAN (Champion Stakes)
But that Champion Stakes. It was a marvellous performance from Cracksman. A coming-of-age, bloodless victory. They said he’ll be even better at four, but if he’s better than this he will be a monster.
The best yet of Frankel’s progeny, the fledgling stallion’s first Group One winner in Europe, at one stage in his three-year-old career it looked a case of what might have been.
Pulled out of the Dante, third in the Derby, then his best effort yet, a neck second to Capri in the Irish Derby. But, come August, the only victory he had to his name as a three-year-old was a short-head Derby trial verdict over Permian at Epsom in April.
That was rectified in an emphatic Great Voltigeur win at York’s Ebor meeting, while a slightly more workmanlike success in the Prix Niel in September fanned the flames for those that thought he might just turn up at Chantilly for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe after all.
John Gosden was always pretty adamant that wouldn’t be the case, though, and, whether you think this year’s Arc represented Cracksman’s best chance of winning the race or not, I think it’s undeniable, an understatement, that the Clarehaven handler did a pretty fine job of keeping both sets of connections happy, priming their horses to perfection for their big days.
Cracksman never struck me as a 10-furlong horse, and he was up against some very good horses at the distance on Champions Day. But he outclassed them. He outpowered them. As Frankie said, ‘he put a good field to bed in the manner of a champion,’ and that’s exactly what all the ratings bodies concluded in the aftermath.
Timeform rated him 136, 2lb superior to Enable. The BHA rated him 130, 2lb superior to Enable. And Racing Post Ratings allotted the performance 131, 2lb superior to Enable’s Arc. It was a stunning effort, one that the Champions Day concept was designed to produce.
Performance of the Year? Absolutely.
Race of the Year – CORAL-ECLIPSE Ulysses v Barney Roy
If you’re talking race of the year, I think you’re looking at a couple of things. The spectacle itself, and a tight battle for the line always helps on that score, and how the form works out. This year’s Coral-Eclipse excelled on both counts.
It wasn’t all satisfactory and it was a bit rough early on with Cliffs Of Moher badly hampered down the back, losing three lengths and his chance of winning. But things really developed in the famous straight with five or six of them seemingly having a chance within the final quarter mile.
At that moment it became apparent that Ulysses was travelling all over them and as they passed the one-furlong marker you’d every right to think he’d score by a couple of lengths.
Yet at the same time Barney Roy was just hitting his considerable stride and he proved a really tough nut to crack, the pair hitting the line almost as one in a barnstorming finish.
A nose separated them in the photo, Ulysses’ nose, the older horse edging out the three-year-old in the first battle of the generations of the campaign.
At the time the form looked suspect, but it couldn’t have worked out much better. Ulysses went on to win the Juddmonte International, the third home Desert Encounter got his just reward in a Group 3 at Newbury, fifth home Eminent won a Group 2 at Deauville on his next start and the sixth home, Decorated Knight, landed the Irish Champion Stakes.
And, for pure excitement, you couldn’t really beat that epic finish.
Training Performance of the Year – CLIVE COX (Harry Angel)
Clive Cox is a master at training sprinters, he's shown that over the years with the likes of Lethal Force and Reckless Abandon, and he showcased his talents with a speedster again this season thanks to his campaigning of Harry Angel.
You only have to watch Harry Angel’s seasonal reappearance at Ascot to see how keen he was and that trait never left him all season, but he was still able to land two victories at the top level.
Plenty of credit has to go to his rider, Adam Kirby, as well, but Cox’s preparation of this son of Dark Angel allowed him to be at his very best both in the Darley July Cup at Newmarket and the 32Red Sprint Cup at Haydock a couple of months later.
Getting him to relax early on was absolutely key to his July Cup success, while resisting the temptation to run in the Nunthorpe looked crucial to him bouncing to a career-best performance in the heavy ground at Haydock in September.
He couldn’t quite keep his top form going into Champions Day, but Cox had already worked his magic to conjure two Group Ones out of his pride and joy and the good thing is he stays in training at four so he can do it all over again.
Fastest Thing On Four Legs of the Year – BATTAASH
It was a tremendous year for the sprinters.
Over six furlongs we had the aforementioned Harry Angel and Caravaggio flying the flag for the three-year-olds, while older horses like The Tin Man, Brando and Librisa Breeze had their days in the sun as well.
Yet it was over five furlongs we were really treated to the spectacular. Lady Aurelia’s King’s Stand. Marsha’s Nunthorpe. And then there was Bataash.
He was well beaten by the two fillies at York when he didn’t run his race, largely ruining his chance in the preliminaries when he was reluctant to load, but at Goodwood and Chantilly he was simply breathtaking.
At Goodwood in the King George Stakes he thrashed Profitable, Marsha and dual winner of the race Take Cover, while in the Prix de l’Abbaye he put up an unbelievable performance off the front end to win by four lengths.
Keeping a lid on him looks the key to his success and, when they do, he looks unstoppable. It’ll be fun charting his progress again in 2018.
Jockey of the Year – SILVESTRE DE SOUSA
It's been said plenty of times throughout the Flat season, but it's worth asking the question again. Why doesn’t Silvestre de Sousa get more big-race rides?
Sometimes overlooked on the big days, you often wonder where the Brazilian is when the top-class action is going on only to look at the away meetings and see he’s racked up another treble.
This season he cantered to his second jockeys’ championship, having it sewn up well before he collected his trophy on Champions Day (where he only had one ride) and he’s got over 200 winners on the board in the calendar year now.
His biggest win came on Withhold in the Cesarewitch (Gamble of the Year), so at least Tony Bloom had the sense to book him for that no-nonsense steering job, but his best day of the season came at Sandown on June 16.
He was a neck away from winning on all six of his rides at the Esher track, having to make do with a 968/1 five-timer, before he hot-footed it to Goodwood’s evening meeting to ride his sixth winner of the day.
The horse in question? I’vegotthepower. He has indeed.
Trainer of the Year – AIDAN O’BRIEN
There could only be one winner in this category.
It was always a matter of when, not if, Aidan O’Brien would break Bobby Frankel’s world record for number of top-level wins in a calendar year, and he’s done it in style in 2017.
The record was 25, it’s now 27, and there’s time for more yet.
Getting four Group Ones out of Roly Poly and two out of U S Navy Flag are good examples of his incredible talent, even if it’s his relentless pursuit of Classics that hit the headlines.
And there were plenty of headlines in that respect this year. Churchill, x2. Winter, x2. Wings Of Eagles. Capri x2. Only Enable’s two Oaks wins denied O’Brien a remarkable Classic clean sweep.
He’s the trainer of this year, last year, next year, of every year. He’s the greatest of all time.
Meeting of the Year – YORK’S EBOR FESTIVAL
Hands up, I’m a biased northerner.
But where else could you have seen Enable, Cracksman, Marsha v Lady Aurelia and the richest handicap in Europe this season?
Nowhere but the Knavesmire. And after Goodwood’s unfortunate rain-affected five days, it’s York that just edges out Royal Ascot by about half-a-length.
Ride of the Year – ANDREA ATZENI (Decorated Knight in the Irish Champion Stakes)
This is always a good debate and plenty spring to mind. James Doyle’s super sub appearance on Big Orange in the Ascot Gold Cup was a great ride from the front end, while Padraig Beggy’s remarkable run through the Derby field on Wings Of Eagles was incredible on many levels.
However, the one that sticks in my mind is Andrea Atzeni’s last-to-first effort on Decorated Knight in the Irish Champion Stakes.
A jockey riding right at the top of his game, Atzeni was ice-cool aboard the Roger Charlton-trained horse, settling him way off the pace at the back of the field before motoring up the centre of the track, timing his challenge to perfection to deny Poet’s Word by half-a-length.
Charlton said: “Andrea is very good. He is very confident and he rides a lot of good horses, which helps. I thought he gave the horse a wonderful ride."
Jamie Spencer, who you could easily argue deserved ride of the year for his efforts on the likes of Banksea and Con Te Partiro, tweeted his own praise for Atzeni following the Irish Champion, saying: “Atzeni, probably the most naturally gifted rider born to ride a horse, lovely to watch.”
Observing the Sardinian jockey at Leopardstown, it’s hard to disagree with that.