The opening Classics of the Flat season are steeped in more than 200 years of history.
But it’s hard to remember two more fascinating, quality-laden renewals than the QIPCO 2,000 Guineas and QIPCO 1,000 Guineas in prospect at Newmarket this weekend.
Of course, this time of year is always dripping with anticipation and excitement. When we hope and pray that the juvenile stars of the previous campaign mature and progress into genuine top-class colts and fillies at 1m and beyond.
But the strength in depth of this year’s Guineas cast-list is staggering -- even allowing for the sad winter death of flying filly Chriselliam, the brilliant dual Group One winner of the Fillies’ Mile and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies’ Turf last autumn.
In Kingman, Australia, Toomore, War Command, Outstrip and Kingston Hill, Newmarket parades colts held in the highest regard and boasting form of irresistible merit for Saturday’s 2,000 Guineas.
In Rizeena, Tapestry, My Titania, Vorda, Kiyoshi, Ihtimal, Lucky Kristale and Miss France, the same Rowley Mile unveils fillies capable of making a huge imprint on the roll of honour for Sunday’s 1,000 Guineas.
Most of the focus is on John Gosden’s 2,000 Guineas favourite KINGMAN, whose sparkling win on his seasonal re-appearance in the Greenham Stakes at Newbury had observers whispering ‘Frankel Mark II’.
I was there -- and it was a performance of such jaw-dropping majesty that his Guineas price collapsed within days, if not hours, and now hovers around the even-money mark.
He is the most likely winner on Saturday, but whether he is value at that price is open to question.
Such is his silky cruising speed that doubts have surfaced about his effectiveness, as a son of Invincible Spirit, over a stiff 1m -- although admirable jockey James Doyle insists he took an age to pull him up at Newbury.
Doubts have also been raised by trainer Gosden about the colt’s ability to handle fast ground on Newmarket’s undulations after a winter operation to remove a bone chip from an ankle.
However, the chief challenge to Kingman’s supremacy lies in the sheer strength of the opposition to him in such a richly competitive contest.
Aidan O’Brien, who has won the race four times in the last nine years, is already on record as labelling the impeccably-bred AUSTRALIA as potentially the best horse he’s trained. We’ve heard similar hyperbole before, but racecourse evidence suggests he won’t be far off the mark this time.
When the son of Galileo and Ouija Board came across talking horse Free Eagle at Leopardstown last September, he was expected to play a bit-part. Instead he blitzed Dermot Weld’s colt by six lengths in an extraordinary performance.
Australia would be unbeaten had he not blown the start on his debut. And although he’s likely to at his very best over 10f and 12f later in the season (don’t rule out another Triple Crown bid by the Coolmore crew), his reputation is gilded by the fact that connections house in the same yard WAR COMMAND, a dual Group One winner himself but considered an inferior animal.
War Command earned deserved rave reviews as the next superstar when exploding to his own six-length victory in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot last June, and ended his juvenile campaign with a gritty success in the Group One Dewhurst Stakes here at Newmarket, despite unsuitably softish ground. Given a fast surface this Saturday, the son of emerging sire War Front cannot be far away.
One of War Command’s Dewhurst victims was Goldolphin’s OUTSTRIP, who went on to frank the form in no uncertain terms with a scintillating success in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita three weeks later.
The turn of foot shown by the son of Exceed And Excel that day -- to collar another Ballydoyle star Giovanni Boldini -- confirmed his preference for quick ground. But it also confirmed his status as a top-class animal, to which odds of 25/1 for the Guineas are an insult.
Outstrip’s Dewhurst run was almost certainly a blip, considering he’d previously beaten the runner-up at Doncaster and considering the level of form he had earlier displayed when just behind TOORMORE at Glorious Goodwood.
The unbeaten Toormore, who flies the flag for Richard Hannon on Saturday, possesses a lethal blend of speed and spirit which will be hard to spike. He was an authoritative Group One winner as a two-year-old and advertised his wellbeing when launching his three-year-old career with victory in the main Guineas trial, the Craven Stakes.
Toormore didn’t impress all that day, but he isn’t a flashy sort likely to sluice up. What he did do was defy a penalty, clock a fast time and prove his ability to handle both trip and track.
Representing a different type of colt, and a different formline altogether, is KINGSTON HILL, winner of the Group One Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster last backend. It wasn’t a good renewal and testing ground found out many of his rivals. However, he could not have been more impressive, capping a season of dramatic improvement.
In any normal year, Kingston Hill would warrant the utmost respect. But in the class of 2014, there might just be one or two with more pace than Roger Varian’s first Classic contender.
Balancing speed and stamina is also the task facing punters 24 hours later in the 1,000 Guineas.
On natural ability alone, it would be hard to look beyond VORDA, fleet-footed winner of the Group One Cheveley Park Stakes here at HQ seven months ago. But she appeared not to stay when stepped up to Im at the Breeders’ Cup a month later, although she was trapped unhelpfully wide that day.
There was nothing wrong, though, with her effort over 7f on her seasonal bow at Maisons-Laffitte -- a race in which she had her French compatriot, MISS FRANCE, well beaten.
Miss France was so desperately disappointing that she could not be backed with any confidence this Sunday. But wind the clock back, and she also won impressively at Newmarket last autumn, albeit a lesser contest, and it would be folly to discount any animal trained by the incomparable master, Andre Fabre.
The link between French form and British form is provided by the ante-post favourite, RIZEENA, who was just behind Vorda in the Group One Prix Morny at Deauville last August when both ran remarkably well against the colts.
Veteran trainer Clive Brittain could not have been more bullish about his filly’s chances in the build-up to Sunday’s race and while it’s a shade disconcerting that she was on the go a long time last term, she must be in the nix if she reproduces the same level of form.
One of Rizzena’s rare defeats in 2013 came at the hands of LUCKY KRISTALE, the flagbearer of another wily old Newmarket handler in George Margarson. The daughter of Lucky Story has a terrific turn of foot in her locker. Whether sufficient stamina sits alongside is another matter.
The same reservation surrounds the chances of Charlie Hills’s KIYOSHI, superb winner at Royal Ascot but swatted aside by Vorda later in the campaign.
But in contrast, Aidan O’Brien’s main challenger, TAPESTRY, is sure to stay the stiff 1m and is my strong fancy to land Sunday’s prize.
From the moment she stepped on the racetrack, the daughter of Galileo and a dam, Rumplestiltskin, who was extremely classy herself, has looked something special and was very unlucky to surrender her unbeaten record when narrowly beaten by Rizeena and Kiyoshi in the Group One Moyglare stud Stakes at The Curragh last September.
Reported to be in fine fettle by O’Brien, she will surely improve past those two rivals. And that would put her some way in front of Godolphin’s big threat, IHTIMAL, who is held on the two-year-old book by that same duo.
The fly in the Tapestry ointment could be fellow Irish raider, MY TITANIA, who has yet to tackle Group One company but oozed potential in her three appearances as a juvenile and will love the forecast fast ground.
She’s a daughter of the brilliant Sea The Stars, whose trainer John Oxx gave a very similar preparation to and made very similarly encouraging noises about before he landed the 2,000 Guineas here five years ago.
Of the rest, AMAZING MARIA is the subject of glowing reports about her homework this spring, although she has a lot of improverment to find on the book.
And I very much like JOYEUSE, who is capable of springing a surprise if ridden with confidence that she will see out the trip.
So there we are. All that remains is for me to pass on my 1-2-3-4 for the two contests.
Because we have had a relatively mild spring, I do not expect fitness to be as much of an issue as it often is for the Guineas Classics. But the quality of the races makes it impossible to be too dogmatic.
QIPCO 2,000 GUINEAS (SATURDAY 3.50)
4 WAR COMMAND
QIPCO 1,000 GUINEAS (SUNDAY 3.30)
2 MY TITANIA