The Flat season is in full swing, and the action goes up a gear this weekend with the first two Classics, Saturday’s Qipco 2,000 Guineas, followed by the Qipco 1,000 Guineas 24 hours later.
Also going up a gear is excitement in the historic racing town of Middleham in north Yorkshire, which houses two more-than-credible candidates for the big races.
Not since 2004, when Mark Johnston’s filly Attraction powered home on Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, has the North celebrated victory in the Classics. But thanks to Johnston’s colt ELARQAM and Karl Burke’s filly LAURENS, hopes are high that the drought can be broken.
By a lovely coincidence, Elarqam, a 6/1 chance for the 2,000 Guineas, is a son of Attraction, not to mention the mighty Frankel, and Johnston is hoping the colt he describes as being “the spitting image” of her can deliver a third British Classic success for the stable.
Now a trainer for more than 30 years, Johnston said that no horse had given him as much pleasure as Attraction, the winner of ten of her 15 races, including the Irish 1,000 Guineas and three other Group One prizes.
Elarqam comes into the Newmarket contest with an unblemished record from two runs, most recently when taking the Group Three Tattersalls Stakes at the track last September. And, having taken the colt for a racecourse gallop at Newmarket during the Craven Meeting last month, the trainer reported himself pleased with the build-up to the Guineas.
“It wasn’t exactly a hard piece of work, and he hardly ended up seeing the other two horses, “said Johnston. “But he needed the experience of a day out because it’s a concern for me going into the Guineas with only two runs under his belt.
“In actual fact, it was a piece of work he’d done here under Joe Fanning with Mildenberger (winner of the Bet365 Feilden Stakes at the Craven meeting) that was the most important. Joe said he was really pleased with that and felt he’d come on mentally over the winter.
“Elarqam has to improve, but I have a lot of faith of in his ability. And in a lot of ways, it’s more exciting than it was with Attraction because being by Frankel out of Attraction, he’s the best-bred horse I’ve ever trained, the best-bred horse by a country mile that I have ever taken to a Classic. The implications of what sort of stallion he would be, or how popular he might be as a stallion if he won the Guineas, don’t bear thinking about.”
Johnston continued: “After he won his second race, owner Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum said that would be for it for the season. I might have run him once more, perhaps in the Royal Lodge, but Sheikh Hamdan made that call.
“At that time, he and jockey Jim Crowley both believed firmly that Elarqam would want a mile and a quarter this year, so we are going to the Guineas saying: This is maybe not the whole story. But the Guineas is the best Derby trial and if he was not to finish in the first three, you could well see him going on to the Dante at York and possibly to Epsom. That would not be impossible at all.
“The reality is that the Classics are still the most important races in the calendar and the hardest to win. But, on everything I have seen so far, I do have faith in his ability.
“Elarqam is the absolute spitting image of Attraction. If you could draw a blueprint of what a colt out of Attraction would look like, you’d draw him. It’s a huge pleasure to be sent the offspring of Attraction to train.
“Up to date, I think she’s had 11 foals and this was only the third that we had been sent. The first two were winners, both good horses, and we’ve now also got a Dubawi two-year-old which Sheikh Hamdan has kindly sent to us.”
Across town, Karl Burke says he believes his 1,000 Guineas contender Laurens could still be “under the radar”, despite her victory in the Group One bet365 Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket at the end of last season.
The daughter of exciting French stallion Siyouni improved throughout last season, taking the Group Two May Hill Stakes at Doncaster before holding off the late lunge of September by a nose over the course and distance that will be used for the Classic on Sunday.
“There are no easy Group Ones, no easy Classics,” Burke said after watching his filly canter on the High Moor gallops in Middleham. “All you can do is get them there as fit and as well and healthy as you can.
“At this time of year, I think it’s especially hard for fillies. You can’t push them. You’ve just got to let them come and see if they’ve got the ability or they haven’t. And we know this filly has got the ability. It’s just a matter of getting her there on the day.
“I think she’s got a big chance. Her two-year-old form was very good and, if anything, I think she has improved on that. She’s a well-balanced filly for one who is so big and who has such a massive stride.
“I think she’s just gone under the radar a little bit. We analysed the times of that Group One. Everyone said September was unlucky and she was slightly impeded, but they also said she was quickening at the finish. It wasn’t that. Laurens was slowing down, and that was just weakness.
“Now she’s a big, strong filly, and she can keep up that great gallop, while doing the sectional times she was doing in the middle of that Group One win. She started slowing down at the two-pole in that race and her last furlong was her slowest. Now she’s that bit stronger. If she can keep that momentum and that gallop up, it’s going to be a good horse that gets by her.
“All winter, September has been about ten points shorter in the betting which we can’t really understand, bar the fact that she is trained by Aidan O’Brien.”
Burke took Laurens for a racecourse gallop at Newcastle on April 18, and PJ McDonald, who rode the John Dance-owned filly in all four of her starts last season, will again be in the saddle at Newmarket. However, the pair were reunited first for a gallop close to Burke’s Middleham last Friday.
“Going to Newcastle definitely brought her along, more mentally than physically. She did two good canters here last Tuesday, and she galloped on Friday under PJ. That was her last proper piece of work before the Guineas.
“The thing is, although we want to win a Guineas, there’s a long season ahead of her. You can risk turning the screw with these fillies too early and we haven’t done that. She’s going to improve through the year, just naturally, more than us doing anything, and that’s the balancing act we have with her.”
Burke added: “It would be fantastic to have a British Classic on the CV. The best day I had in racing was when we sent Libertarian to the Investec Derby and he finished second. The whole event was fantastic. If we could go one better on Sunday, it will be an amazing day.”