Johannesburg in action
Johannesburg in action

Keeneland Phoenix Stakes: Aidan O'Brien's fab four


There have been some spectacular winners of the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes in recent years - and you won't be surprised to know most were trained by Aidan O'Brien.

Given he's won the race 16 times, it's little surprise to see Aidan O'Brien dominating the chart for best winning performances in the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes on Timeform ratings.

He has the top four but when you consider the likes of One Cool Cat (2003), Holy Roman Emperor (2006), Zoffany (2010) and Caravaggio (2016) don't make the list you have to doff your hat to Lucky Vega, the horse who prevents the Ballydoyle clean sweep.

His 116 figure in 2020 was the fifth best of recent times and visually it was equally as good as the clock said it was, a three-and-a-half lengths thumping of Aloha Star with The Lir Jet, Laws Of Indices and St Mark's Basilica following marked him out as a colt who was going to be a regular diner at racing's top table.

Lucky Vega ridden by Shane Foley wins the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes at Curragh Racecourse
Lucky Vega ridden by Shane Foley wins the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes at Curragh Racecourse

It didn't work out that - in fact he wasn't to win again - but that's not always the case with the Phoenix Stakes.

Let's stop messing about - the best winning performance came from George Washington (124) and he would only better it twice in his carer, hitting 129 when beating subsequent Derby winner Sir Percy in the 2000 Guineas and a mighty 132 for a QEII defeat of Araafa in the autumn of his three-year-old career.

In the Phoenix he lit up the Curragh, stretching a widening eight lengths clear of stablemate Amadeus Mozart with Coventry Stakes winner Red Clubs two-and-a-half lengths further away in third. It was one for the show reel.

Johannesburg- 2001 Phoenix Stakes

So was Johannesburg's victory at Leopardstown in 2001. Now here was a two-year-old. This was the first of four Group One victories for him that year and offered the first proof he was the best around.

Again it was wide margin - five lengths - and the turn of foot he produced under Mick Kinane was genuinely explosive. 123+ was the number and it represented a career-peak.

It was matched with his Prix Morny defeat of Zipping before he made it six from six with a three lengths defeat of the same colt in the Middle Park.

And there were still a new world to conquer. So onto Belmont Park in the fall and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. No turf option here - onto the dirt and in against the home gunslingers. They never had a chance, the same turn of foot that had seen off the best in Europe carrying him a length-and-a-quarter clear of his nearest pursuer.

A brilliant colt who didn't train on at three.

Mastercraftsman - Phoenix Stakes (Gr.1)

Mastercraftsman did. He hit 120 with another wide margin (just the four-and-a-half lenghts) Phoenix win. Art Connoisseur, even-money favourite after a brilliant Coventry win, led the chasing pack.

Guess what - he went on to win the National Stakes next time too before posting career-best performances the following year when landing the Irish 2000 Guineas and St James's Palace.

Air Force Blue was more in the Johannesburg mould - without quite the same engine. It did propel him to a 117 figure in winning the 2015 renewal and when he went on to improve in... guess... yes, the National Stakes (119) and Dewhurst (123) he looked set for a Classic campaign at three.

He had one but cut little ice in the 2000 Guineas either side of the Irish Sea and was another who shone brightest in his first season.

So Little Big Bear, Bradsell and Persian Force you have some acts to follow. But win well and there's every chance the champion two-year-old badge will be front and centre of your future stallion brochures.

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