Got your breath back yet? What a pulsating tune of early-season Flat racing we have been dancing to over the past week or so, with meetings at Newbury, York, Newmarket and Deauville throwing up any number of exciting performances.
From the best two-year-old seen so far this term, Richard Hannon’s MEHMAS, through a cluster of rapidly improving handicappers ready to make their mark at Royal Ascot next month (CASTLE HARBOUR, BARSANTI, OH THIS IS US etc) to freshly-emerging Classic hopefuls, we’ve had the lot. And for good measure, the treats were topped by a victorious debut for the first progeny of the mighty Frankel.
More of him later. But first things first. What about the performance of Jeremy Noseda’s NEMORALIA on her seasonal return at York! Did you see it? Oozing class, she earned the right to share top billing with MINDING in the 3yo fillies’ department and looks a tempting bet for the Coronation Stakes at the royal meeting.
Mind you, Minding is unlikely to be in opposition, given that she has Epsom on Friday, June 3 circled on her calendar and the tell-tale step-up to 12f for the Investec Oaks. After York, she appeared to be guaranteed a serious rival thanks to SO MI DAR’S impressive romp in the Musidora Stakes at York but, sadly, John Gosden’s filly pulled out lame on Monday morning and misses the race. Her absence is a hammer-blow because UK-based opposition to the odds-on favourite is now decidedly thin on the ground. Maybe it will be headed by Hugo Palmer’s ARCHITECTURE, who is considered superior to stablemate WE ARE NINETY, winner of Newbury’s Oaks trial on Saturday, or maybe Gosden himself will re-route SWISS RANGE and/or SNOW MOON.
Either way, the Derby is shaping up into a far more competitive heat, with the week yielding several fresh candidates, most notably THE GURKHA, WINGS OF DESIRE, DEAUVILLE, MEKHTAL and ULYSSES, and while I rarely agree with the increasingly eccentric views of ‘Racing Post’ tipster Tom Segal these days, he is so right when he warns of an unusually big field for the flagship Classic in which traffic trouble and jockeyship could prove vital.
The Gurkha’s runaway dismantling of the French 2,000 Guineas on Sunday can only be described as scintillating, particularly as he delivered it only five weeks after his racecourse debut. However, if he takes his chance at Epsom, we return to the subject of stamina that bogged down last week’s column. Yes, he’s a son of the great Galileo but, like Minding, he’s out of a Danehill Dancer dam, namely Chintz, who was a 7f filly. The colt himself is also a full brother to winners at that trip, although further down the pedigree line, he does hail from the family of Derby hero Authorized.
Like The Gurkha, terrific progress in a short space of time has been achieved by Wings Of Desire, winner of a competitive Dante Stakes at York, just a month after he was beaten on his debut at Newmarket’s Craven Meeting. Gosden’s colt took his time to wear down the dogged and determined Deauville, another product of the Aidan O’Brien middle-distance conveyor-belt, but in doing so, he displayed a taking attitude and a likely aptitude for the Derby distance. There is no better trainer in the country for maintaining improvement in a horse than Gosden, although it wouldn’t surprise me that if the front two end up duelling again for prime prize, it will be in the St Leger, rather than the Derby.
Mekhtal might have slipped under the radar by making all to land the Group Two Prix Hocquart at Deauville on Sunday. But Jean-Claude Rouget’s improving son of Sea The Stars is guaranteed to eat the Derby trip for breakfast and could give owners Al Shaqab Racing the ideal excuse for not risking doubtful stayer GALILEO GOLD in the race.
Risk is also the word attached to MIDTERM, whose eclipse as the Dante’s warm favourite threatened to leave Sir Michael Stoute without a runner at Epsom. Riding to the rescue the following day was Ulysses, who turned an albeit weak maiden at Newbury into a procession and whose credentials were further advertised 24 hours later when IMPERIAL AVIATOR, his conqueror on seasonal bow at Leicester, blew away the rest in one of the best pre-Ascot handicaps of the year, the London Gold Cup at Newbury. It would take a giant leap of faith to expect Ulysses to make the transition to Group One company so soon, but he’s only coming to hand so late in the piece because he had a few problems during the winter. Stoute, who is revelling in a purple patch of form, knows what it would take to get the colt to a track he was born to grace, as a son not only of Galileo but also of Light Shift, brilliant winner of the 2007 Oaks for Sir Henry Cecil.
Talk of Cecil brings us back, of course, to Frankel. The vibes were low-key for the eagerly-anticipated debut of his first foal, CUNCO, at Newbury on Friday. And that key dropped a further decibel or two when, by all accounts, he misbehaved beforehand and was more interested in displaying his manhood (as ‘The Sun’ would put it), rather than his racing ability. But if you remember, his dad was hardly a model of relaxation early in his career, and such antics proved to have no bearing on Cunco’s performance. Bearing a striking resemblance to Frankel in markings and body shape, he unleashed the memories as well as a potent turn of foot to win most takingly.
Up to 100 more sons and daughters of Frankel are expected to make the track in the coming months. If they are all on a par with the first, this Flat season is going to be even more entertaining than even the last few days have promised.
Time to end pea-brained criticism of the Derby
It’s started already. And it’s likely to go on until mid-June. The depressing annual ritual of slagging off the Derby and its supposed status on the world stage of racing.
It’s a long time now since the Derby was in decline, yet still the pea-brained criticism rages, brazenly ignoring the admirable efforts of Epsom and sponsors Investec to create a bouncy two-day festival, laced with fine racing and one that bristles with atmosphere, attracts packed crowds, yet still doffs a hat to the unerring traditions of the great race and its sister, the Oaks.
Dissing the Derby without foundation does untold damage to the image of racing in the UK. And, in the ever-evolving era of digital media, judging it solely on the number of terrestrial TV viewers it gets on a minority channel is reckless folly.