Graham Cunningham takes a look at various topics in his weekly column from the first Classics of the season to stewards inquiry coverage on the television.
Two spring days at Newmarket have captivated racing fans for generations and the 2021 Qipco Guineas weekend will be no exception. The first two Classics of the year have drawn a powerful Irish presence and GC addresses the key questions in this week’s Cunningham File.
Come for star winners like Frankel, Sea The Stars and Camelot and stay for world-class supporting players like Toronado, Kingman, Australia, Masar, Ribchester, Roaring Lion and Charm Spirit who did great things after coming up short on Guineas day.
Aidan O’Brien has won the race ten times in the last 23 years and may well add to his amazing record but this is one of the world’s great mile races and this year’s renewal contains the usual blend of proven G1 colts and potential improvers.
Here’s a tricky one. He was when Gleneagles and Churchill scored (he was in Kentucky to partner Mendelssohn in the Derby when Saxon Warrior won) but missed out on Ten Sovereigns behind Magna Grecia and nearly did so again in Kameko’s Guineas last year when riding unplaced Arizona rather than narrow runner-up Wichita.
Of course, being on the wrong one is simply an occupational hazard when you ride for a firm who go mob handed in top races and Ryan was left rueful again last year as Mogul, Japan and Circus Maximus came up short behind Serpentine, Magical and Order Of Australia in the Derby, Irish Champion and Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Not great thus far. Ryan rode St Mark’s Basilica rather than Wembley when the pair finished third and second in Thunder Moon’s National Stakes and Frankie Dettori capitalised when SMB reversed the form as the pair finished first and second in the Dewhurst.
The Covid restrictions that made it hard for Moore to feel what might be under various bonnets on the Ballydoyle gallops last year aren’t in play now. He’s back aboard Wembley this time – a safety first option given that he’s top rated with a BHA mark of 118 - but there can be no guarantee he is on the ace in the pack given that Aidan has two other strong contenders in Battleground and Van Gogh.
Wembley took four goes to break his maiden – at humble Roscommon – then made two big steps forward when placed in G1 company. He tends to finish strongly but getting well back running into the Dip at HQ can be problematic and it’s also worth noting that this will be much the fastest ground he’s encountered.
Van Gogh also produced his best in the mud, bolting up in a French G1 after chasing home One Ruler here, but the handsome Battleground handles a fast surface well and comes right into the conversation judged on an emphatic Goodwood G2 success and a strong second after a tough trip at the Breeders’ Cup. In summary, the market thinks Moore is on the star striker. But he will be well aware that Aidan’s backup players are dangerous.
What most would term unusual becomes perfectly normal if repeated often enough over time. And so we arrive at a place where Europe’s champion two-year-old defects from the Guineas at the 48-hour stage and the general reaction from the racing public is no more than a collective shrug of the shoulders and the sound of ante post slips being shredded.
We all know it’s folly to pray for an earlier warning system given Aidan’s fondness for last-minute calls but what can be done? The Sistine Chapel emits a puff of white smoke from its chimney when the Vatican elects a new Pope. In the light of this week’s late show, perhaps the good people who run St Mark’s Basilica in Venice could do likewise when the Coolmore lads finalise their Classic candidates?
Right at the heart of it if last year’s evidence is any guide. Joseph O’Brien’s colt only had three runs at two, bolting up on his debut then proving himself among the very best around, first by showing a potent turn of foot in winning the National Stakes at the Curragh and then by finishing third in the Dewhurst.
Thunder Moon couldn’t confirm Curragh form with St Mark’s Basilica and Wembley at Newmarket but he travelled like a high-class horse for a long way again despite being further away from the stand rail than ideal on soft ground. Saturday’s much faster surface could suit his stalk and pounce style well and this exciting Zoffany colt deserves to be very close to the top of any short list.
I suspect so. Buick must have deliberated long and hard before choosing Master Of The Seas over One Ruler and it’s easy to see why, with Timeform rating the former just 1lb ahead of the latter. Ante post gamble One Ruler thrived on soft ground last autumn but Saturday’s conditions will be slick and he may lack the turn of foot to beat the very best.
Master Of The Seas should be suited by fast conditions. He’s a feisty colt who can pull hard and that cost him on ground that was clearly softer than the official good when fourth in Thunder Moon’s National Stakes. Aggression held him back again on his Meydan return but he relaxed much better when beating stablemate La Barrosa in the Craven Stakes – needing just one crack to get nicely on top after a slightly messy trip.
Let’s just say it’s been a long time between drinks since Haafhd won both races in 2004. Fourteen of 15 Craven winners since then have contested the Guineas. Delegator fared best in chasing home a handy one in Sea The Stars, while Native Khan and Skardu ran third in the 2000 along with subsequent Derby hero Masar.
But that negative trend, while notable, shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat Master Of The Seas with. The hood he wore in the Craven helped him channel his energy much more evenly and if it works again he has the potential to be the best of the Brit bunch.
Grizzled timelord Simon Rowlands implored the Hills team to shake out the Shadwell piggy bank after Mutasaabeq’s runaway reappearance win at the Craven Meeeting and I seldom oppose my former Timeform colleague when his sectional Spidey senses tingle.
But I’ll make an exception here. Mutasaabeq blitzed three useful rivals on just his second start in that HQ minor event and his dam Ghanaati showed it’s possible to win a Guineas after two runs at a vastly lower level. But he’s 6-1 in a race featuring three G1 winners, three G2 winners and 118-rated Wembley. If Mutasaabeq trumps them all I’ll genuflect before King Rolo again. But connections have been concerned about lack of experience and this is clearly his moment of truth.
His trainer didn’t think he relished the Dip in the Dewhurst but the Hannons have never seen a challenge they didn’t fancy and it’s good to see them accept this one on rather than head to France.
But, for all the chat about whether Chindit will handle the HQ undulations, the greater question is surely whether he’s good enough even if he does. It took him all his time to wear down Mehmento and The Lir Jet over seven in the Greenham. The step up to a mile needs to bring about improvement if he’s to prove better than place material.
Now here’s one that might polarise opinions. Speed on either rail has been potent at plenty of Newmarket fixtures in recent times but it’s hard to make a persuasive argument that the draw has played a pivotal role in the 2000 over the last decade or more.
Yes, things can get complicated if a big field breaks into two or three groups. Magna Grecia and King Of Change were helped by being given a strong lead by the freewheeling Shine So Bright when the trio charged alone up the stand side in 2019. Galileo Gold ended up there despite being drawn over on the far side in 1 when winning in 2016 but, overall, it pays to focus much more on the horse more than the stall number.
The stalls are in the centre and, with a field of 15, that means they will probably come as one group up the middle. Devilwala and Poetic Flare will show speed from stalls 1 and 4, while the freewheeling Naval Crown will be on the sharp end from 11 along with Mutabaaseq in 12.
One Ruler and Chindit look poised to settle in the next wave but numerous key form players will be played late here. Wembley and Van Gogh look set to be ridden patiently from central draws in 8 and 9, while Frankie will float inside to get cover from stall 15 on Battleground and Thunder Moon, Master Of The Seas and possibly suspect stayer Lucky Vega can also be expected to settle off the pace.
Thunder Moon on top with Battleground and possibly Master Of The Seas in there pitching when it matters. We only saw Thunder Moon three times in 2020 but he impressed every time and his ability to quicken means it’s reasonable to expect that his best is yet to come even allowing that he’s already rated 117.
Battleground has a tremendous pedigree and is built to progress again over this stiff straight mile, while Leopardstown trial winner Poetic Flare looks the sort of hard-running customer that Jim Bolger specialises in and he appeals as a longshot who could outrun his odds.
It’s simply a case of whether you are with or against Santa Barbara. Aidan has played the old “we’ve never had one like him/her” card several times over the years but he’ll be justified in doing so again if this choicely-bred Camelot filly lands a major gamble. Here’s why….
The 1000 and the 2000 have been won by the master of Ballydoyle six and ten times respectively. Aidan’s six 1000 winners lined up at Newmarket having had between four (Winter) and 13 runs (the hardy Homecoming Queen) and all had won or gone very close in Pattern company. O’Brien’s ten 2000 winners went to Newmarket with between two (Footstepsinthesand and Camelot) and seven runs (Rock Of Gibraltar) apiece. All had won at least one Group race and eight were already G1 winners.
That fact that she’s in so deep so early could mean she’s a very special one. But it definitely means that, as a once-raced maiden winner, she lines up with a significantly different profile than any of the 17 horses who have secured Guineas glory for O’Brien in the last 23 years.
As is the way of these things, Aidan’s rapturous quotes about Santa Barbara’s gallops prowess have been tempered with pragmatism nearer the day, with Thursday producing a concession that running into the Dip on fast ground against good fillies will force her to learn on the job.
Who knows? For all the seductive chatter, that commanding Curragh maiden win over a mile last September is all the public form we have to go on with Santa Barbara. The fact that Sunday’s race will be run in a time around eight seconds faster hasn’t been mentioned much. Nor has the fact that she carried her head at an unusually high angle while asserting.
Sadly, the withdrawal of Pretty Gorgeous has kyboshed my plans to oppose the hot favourite strongly. That late twist to the plot has removed the biggest obstacle in Santa Barbara’s path. All the same, 6-4 looks very tight. And Statement and Fev Rover both have something to recommend them for those who prefer to dabble at double figure prices.
Plenty – and in a way that brings the value of having a clear grasp of BHA interference rules into sharp focus. RTV’s Steve Mellish took a complex situation and made it readily understandable swiftly and accurately in the wake of last Saturday’s dramatic bet365 Gold Cup finish, framing the precise questions the Sandown panel would ask and concluding that Enrilo was very likely to be demoted from first to third for barging the luckless Kitty’s Light just as that horse was about to go past.
Mick Fitz did a solid job asking similarly pertinent questions on ITV before being docked a point by Ed Chamberlin for suggesting that stewards “have to be sure” to reverse placings, but Matt “Chappers” Chapman and the normally reliable Jason Weaver of Sky Sports Racing never came close to highlighting the core points when trying to untangle a tight Monday finish at Windsor which resulted in Classical Wave being demoted having passed the post a short head in front of Maiden Castle.
For the record, and say it loud for those at the back, those key questions are:
1. Where did the incident take place?
2. How were the horses involved going at the time?
3. How serious was the interference?
4. If the sufferer had an uninterrupted run, might it on the balance of probabilities have finished in front of the interferer?
5. How easily did the interferer beat the sufferer?
Chapman showed a startling ignorance of what the crucial balance of probabilities clause means in a word salad review of the Sandown inquiry on Sunday’s SSR Racing Debate. For the record, Matt, it’s 51-49 - not “somewhere between 92 or 93 per cent plus” -and someone at the BHA needs to print out the above list in block capitals and courier it to “Chappers” on a laminated card as a matter of urgency.
Granted, it can be tough to get things exactly right on telly in the heat of the moment when you are working from a small screen with limited replay options. But it’s less tough once you’ve had time to revisit the rule. And it’s a whole lot easier – and way more helpful to viewers - if you start by using the same questions being asked in the room where it happens.
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