International Thoroughbred Racing Editor & Handicapper: Geir W. Stabell 1992 - 2020
STABELL TALK ARCHIVES
by Globeform editor Geir Stabell
09 August 2016
COMPETITIVE ARLINGTON MILLION FIELD
There's no John Henry, there's no Manila, not even a Gio Ponti - and Big Blue Kitten was ruled out over the weekend - so is this Arlington Million a sub-standard one? I'd say so. Though it is shaping up to be a highly competitive affair, posing a true challenge to handicappers getting involved with a view to bet on the famous 10-furlong turf event. One can easily make a case for six of the 13 horses likely to go to post. Though all seven do have question marks hanging over them. In addition, the weather forecasters have promised quite a bit of rain on Friday, with more to follow on raceday.
Still prior to the post-position draw, let's start preparing - by taking an early look at the top contenders;
THE PIZZA MAN - Globeform 118 - won this race last year, when he was solid throughout the season. Something he has not (thus far) been in 2016. He was coming off a win in the Stars and Stripes when defeating Big Blue Kitten here 12 months ago. This time, he is coming off a fourth in the same prep, albeit beaten just a head in a bunch finish with Greengrassofyoming, O'Prado Ole and Pumpkin Rumble. His fifth to Lukes Alley in the Gulfstream Park Turf Hcap in February (when he was condeding weight and compromised by the slow pace) was better form. The Pizza Man should not be written off. This is his type of race, this is perhaps his best distance, and he won't mind any give in the ground.
MONDIALISTE - Globeform 116 - won the Woodbine Mile before finishing second to Tepin in the Breeders' Cup Mile, and ran a fine race to take second behind Time Test in the York Stakes in England last time out. The latter is being pointed at the G1 International Stakes at York next week. Mondialiste is a miler, but he is an off-the-pace miler and might just get the 10-furlong trip at Arlington. He acts on any ground and has a lot of experience.
TRYSTER - Globeform 115 - produced his best form to date when third behind the top class Japanese runner Real Steel and 2014 Beverly D winner Euro Charline in the 9-furlong Dubai Turf at Meydan in March. Tryster had been visually impressive winning the Jebel Hatta over the same course and distance three weeks earlier. He ran resepcatbly when fifth after a layoff in the Prince Of Wales at Royal Ascot in June. The Million will suit him better, but soft ground would not be to his liking.
WORLD APPROVAL - Globeform 114 - is coming here in the form of his life, having beaten subsequent winner Money Multiplier and Wake Forest in the United Nations over 11 furlongs at Monmouth Park in early-July. That success came after a game third place finish in the Manhattan at Belmont Park, where he ran a fine race against Flintshire and Ironicus. He's a prominent runner, and a very effective one too, but most likely World Approval will get pressure from others early on here. Soft ground did not seem to suit him in last year's Hill Prince (fourth, 7 1/2 lengths behind Takeover Target).
DECORATED KNIGHT - Globeform 113 - improved his form to GF 113 with a smooth win over Royal Hunt Cup Hcap winner Portage in the Meld Stakes over 9 furlongs at Leopardstown last month. Previously trained by Roger Varian, this progressive 4-year-old won a minor stakes over 10 furlongs and lost by just a nose in the Diomed Stakes (8.5 fur) at Epsom in May / June (both undulating, tricky courses). Normally held up off the pace, he handles soft ground okay but may be better on good to firm.
DEAUVILLE - Globeform 111 - made all to win the Belmont Derby over this distance in July, when he held on gamely to beat the late charging Highland Sky by a neck, with Secretariat contender Beach Patrol back in third. How the latter performs in the 3yo contest should give us an indication of Deuville's chances in the Million. The Irish trained colt will not get things his own way here though, and a 6lbs weight-for-age break is not exactly generous. Still, his second to 'King George' runner-up Wings Of Desire in the Danta back in May, plus the fact that he is the most likely improver in this field, make it hard to dismiss him. Trainer Aidan O'Brien is having a super season and he would have a short-priced favorite if running Deauville in the Secretariat. But he shoots for 'the Million'.
GLOBEFORM'S ARLINGTON MILLION DAY SPECIAL - ALSO COVERS SARATOGA & DEL MAR SATURDAY
NO CURE NO PAY SECTION - FULL REFUNDS IF BETS FAIL TO MAKE AN OVERALL PROFIT
BELMONT DERBY AND OAKS
Stars and Stripes day is coming up in New York this Saturday, and this is shaping up to be an excellent card,
with the Belmont Derby, Belmont Oaks, Suburban, Jim Dandy, Belmont Sprint and Victory Ride Stakes
on the menu. An early look at leading Derby and Oaks contenders;
BELMONT DERBY (G1) 1 1/4 miles inner turf course
AIROFORCE - one of the best turf juveniles last year, when beaten just a neck by Hit It A Bomb in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Keeneland. Showed great versatility by following up with a wet-track win in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Has struggled to find form this year but shaped with promise behind Oaks contender Catch a Glimpse in the Penn Mile last time out. Experienced colt, 1 1/4 miles probably ideal.
CAMELOT KITTEN was well beaten in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf but has turned a corner with two solid wins this season (after being fitted with blinkers). Came from off the pace to beat BEACH PATROL by a head in the American Turf over 1 1/16 miles at Churchill, and again when passing the wire a neck in front of HIGHLAND SKY in the Pennine Ridge over 1 1/8 miles here at Belmont Park. This step up in distance will suit him well.
DEAUVILLE - a notch below the top juveniles in Europe last year, when runner-up to Foundation in the Royal Lodge at Newmarket and fifth to Marcel in the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster (Foundation an unlucky third). Opened his 3yo campaign by taking second to Wings Of Desire in the Dante Stakes at York (Foundation third), but had no chance in the Derby at Epsom in June (Wings Of Desire fourth). Needs good or good to firm ground.
HIGHLAND SKY, who had won the Woodland Stakes at Aqueduct in April, was coming off a layoff and finished strongly from way off the pace for second behind CAMELOT KITTEN in the Pennine Ridge. He ran a similar race when sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last October. A strong pace over 10 furlongs and would make him a danger.
HUMPHREY BOGART beat Carntop and Across The Stars readily to capture the Lingfield Derby Trial over 11.5 furlongs in May. Ran respectably for fifth in the Derby at Epsom (though beaten 11 lengths behind Harzand, who also win the Irish Derby). Looked a bit one-paced when sixth in the 12-furlong King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot two weeks later, going down by 3 1/2 lengths behind Across The Stars. This drop in distance is the main question mark.
BELMONT OAKS (G1) 1 1/4 miles inner turf course
BALLYDOYLE, winner of the Prix Marcel Boussac at Longchamp last fall (beating the fresh G2 winner TURRET ROCKS by 1 1/4 lengths), ran another excellent race when finishing strongly from the rear to take second in the 1,000 Guineas over a straight mile at Newmarket in May (3 1/2 lengths behind Europe's best 3yo filly, Minding). Ran a bit flat when only sixth in the Prix de Diane (French Oaks) over 10.5 furlongs in June (stable companion COOLMORE fifth) but that may have been nothing but an off-day. Neat filly who will handle the inner turf course better than most Europeans.
CATCH A GLIMPSE has won all of her seven races since running unplaced in a 5.5-furlong sloppy main track maiden at Saratoga on her career debut almost a year ago. Winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (where she beat Alice Springs, who was third behind Minding and Ballydoyle in the 1,000 Guineas this May), and four Grade 3 events thus far in 2016, Catch a Glimpse now steps up to 1 1/4 miles. With great tactical speed, and the look of a typical miler, stamina is far from guaranteed. On the other hand; has she been stopping at the end in her races? No she has not. She acts on any going.
HARMONIZE has been knocking on the door on more than one occasion, and this daughter of Scat Daddy will relish the distance. Off-the-pace winner of the Jessamine and a decent seventh at the Breeders' Cup last year, she is now coming off placed efforts behind Catch a Glimpse in the Edgewood at Churchill and behind Time and Motion in the Wonder Again here at Belmont. Big filly and may be a late developer.
LAND OVER SEA broke her maiden on turf at Del Mar last summer but has since been racing on dirt, with solid results; She chased North America's best runner Songbird to take second both in the Las Virgenes and Santa Ysabel at Santa Anita, before herself running away with the Fair Grounds Oaks. Came up with another impressive run in the Kentucky Oaks, where only Cathryn Sophia beat her, but was well below her best when sixth in the Black Eyed Susan at Pimlico two weeks later. She's had a tough campaign already.
TIME AND MOTION is a progressive, quite lightly raced filly likely make an impact. A winner of all of her three races this season, she was 1 1/2 lengths too good for HARMONIZE when they met in the Wonder Again over 9 furlongs at this track a month ago (LAST WALTZ ran on to take third). Time and Motion asserted nicely inside the final furlong and she was strong passing the winning post - looking a like a runner who would not mind another furlong. She was beaten less than two lengths when fifth to Catch a Glimpse at the Breeders' Cup last year.
TEPIN'S ROYAL ASCOT TASK
Wonder mare Tepin, who beat the boys in the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1) at Keeneland last autumn, and has started her 2016 campaign in a most impressive way, goes for the Queen Anne Stakes (G1) on opening day at Royal Ascot. Having improved again this term, and produced Globeform 123 when outclassing Wekeela and Illuminant in the Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1) back at Keeneland on April 14, she will be clear top rated as she goes to post at Ascot. Hopefully, racing without a nasal strip will not affect her chances.
She may be the best on show but this race will be a tough test for her. If the race had been run at Keeneland or Churchill, well then Tepin would be odds-on, and deservedly so. She is a top class miler, she is stronger both mentally and physically this year, the quality of her spring form has been well advertised, she will be receiving three pounds from the males, and her experience will stand her in good stead. Form students will not miss the fact that the two she slammed at Keeneland filled the exacta in the Gamely Stakes (G1) next time they ran. Tepin herself strolled to another effortless win in the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2) on Kentucky Derby day. Students of form will also be well aware that Tepin will carry three pounds less than her male rivals in the Queen Anne. Which means that if she runs to GF 123 it will take GF 126 or better for the likes of Belardo and Endless Drama to beat her. None of the males entered for the race have been anywhere close to such a mark to date. Perhaps Tepin's toughest rival is the French trained filly Ervedya, who won the Coronation Stakes (G1) at this meeting last year. Or perhaps it could be Amazing Maria, who took the Duke Of Cambridge (G2) last year - notably over this straight mile - and showed her liking for running straight twice more when completing a unique treble by going on to wins in the Falmouth Stakes (G1) at Newmarket and Prix Rotschild (G1) at Deauville.
The straightway will pose a challenge. Running over a straight course will be something altogether new to Mark Casse's contender. Though Tepin has plenty of experience, with big wins Delta Downs (on dirt as a juvenile), Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Tampa Bay and Belmont Park, running in a race with no turns means going into unknown territory. We all remember Animal Kingdom, and how he ended his career on a low note in the Queen Anne. He went off 5/4 favourite for the 2013 edition but beat only two home as the race went to Declaration Of War. Despite having been prepared in England, and had a racecourse gallop at Ascot, Animal Kingdom failed on the big stage. Anyway, let's not read too much into that result. He ran too bad to be true, and the reason for his poor performance couldn't have been the course alone.
Tepin has a better chance of succeeding. She is a specialist turf miler, something Animal Kingdom obviously wasn't. While the latter went into the Queen Anne off a break since winning a sub-standard Dubai World Cup (G1), she is coming off two very easy wins at home. And, while Animal Kingdom was switching surface and cutting markedly back in distance, Tepin will be playing the game she is best at. Racing over a mile on the lawn. That she has become so relaxed these days should be a tremendous help at Ascot. That she has Julien Leparoux, arguably one of the the very best turf riders in North America, as her partner is also a big plus. If they find the same rhythm at Ascot as we have seen at Keeneland and Churchill Downs they will be extremely hard to beat. Geir Stabell
THESE ODDS-ON LOSERS
Rewind to just under a week ago, and you are in a phase where most racing sites and publications are preparing headlines for upcoming championship races. Such as "Nyquist set for breakaway in Preakness" in North America and "Minding to take care of second Guineas" in Ireland, where one might also have read lines like "O'Brien has Found her another Group One".
Well, Nyquist, who was 7-10 favorite for the Preakness was beaten, by two horses, Minding, the 4-11 choice in the Irish 1,000 Guineas lost by a head and Found, 8-15 as the gates opened for the six-runner Tattersalls Gold Cup, was hammered to the tune of almost four lengths by Fascinating Rock, who had beaten her also in last year's Champion Stakes at Ascot - but lost against her when making his seasonal debut over the same course and distance three weeks prior to the valuable contest.
Do these three losing favorites have much in common? Not really. Except for two things; they were all way overbet and they were all beaten. Did we learn something from seeing these three 'shock results' within less than 24 hours? We should have, and we should be able to make use of this knowledge going forward.
My thoughts on the three events;
Nyquist ran a good race in the Preakness, but he had three things against him. Firstly, there is no getting away from the fact that he had a hard race when winning the Kentucky Derby. After racing up with the pace all the way he pulled out all the stops to win. Exaggerator, on the other hand, finished the Derby full of energy. Easy to say now of course but that's how it was. Nyquist was also up against unfamiliar track conditions at Pimlico. He probably has trained over wet tracks, but running in a race like this on a sloppy track is totally different to having a workout on a rainy day. He coped with it well, but there was a third factor, the most detrimental one, to overcome; the pace scenario. Nyquist was on the lead, in company with Uncle Lino, and they did go too fast too soon. I'm not going to start criticizing his rider, Mario Gutierrez. Not after seeing him ride one below par race on a colt he has ridden to absolute perfection on eight previous occasions. No I'm not. I'll leave that to others, most likely some bad losers who burnt cash on the Preakness favorite. The pace was too hot though, and the party that deserves a pointing finger is that of Uncle Lino, who pressed Nyquist to fractions of 22.2 and 46.4. We have seen longshots ridden like this many times in Triple Crown races. What on earth are they thinking of? The horse may have early speed but, on all known evidence, he is not good enough to win the race, and on top of that he is stretching out in distance. Yet he is ridden as if his initials are AP and his trainer's initials are BB. I can't imagine Uncle Lino enjoyed the experience, as he weakened right out of it in the home stretch to be beaten 13 1/4 lengths by Exaggerator. Almost five lengths more than he was in the 9-furlong Santa Anita Derby. Very clever. Nyquist dug deep, once more showing his grit, but he was tired and Exaggerator - perfectly ridden by Kent Desormeaux - swooped by him to win by 3 1/2 lengths. Cherry Wine also stayed on from off the pace and threw his nose in front of Nyquist as they went under the wire. Then came Stradivari, an inexperienced runner who raced too freely just a couple of lengths off the frantic early pace. As we all know, the pace makes the race, and that's never more true than in the 2016 Preakness. Where the weather also played its part.
Nyquist spiked a fever after the Preakness, and his blood tests told trainer Doug O'Neill to keep him away from the Belmont. Perhaps the colt wasn't 100 per cent on Preakness day, or the race knocked him back a bit. Either way, it could be a wonderful blessing in disguise. The Belmont would never have suited him in any case.
Nyquist stays 1 1/4 miles but make no mistake about it, his natural speed means that the Derby trip is his limit. I'd love to see him over a mile. That will not happen of course, but the main thing now is that the son of Uncle Mo gets a rest. I have noticed that this year's Breeders' Cup is at Santa Anita, his home court, where speed horses are so often at an advantage. I should think all players on Team O'Neill have too.
Minding ran an excellent race in the Irish 1,000 Guineas. Seriously. I know that she took a knock to her head as the stalls opened and bled from a cut between her nostrils. It's impossible to say whether this had an effect on her performance. If it did, well then she is some filly. Okay, she lost to Jet Setting, a filly bought for just 12,000 guineas last autumn, but that filly is also top class - and she loved the testing ground on the day. We should also make a note of the margin back to the third placed runner, the easy 1,000 Guineas Trial winner Now Or Never. Ten lengths. For the two principals to pull that far clear in a mile classic is almost unheard of. To put things into perspective; finishing ten lengths behind last year's winner of this race, Pleascach, meant trailing home in 12th place. Jet Setting, shrewdly acquired out of Richard Hannon's yard at the end of her juvenile campaign, is handled by Adrian Paul Keatley, a man in only his third year as a trainer. She is the 'female Makfi' - a quality animal that slipped away from a big operation and subsequently became a Guineas winner. Knocking Minding's run at The Curragh makes little sense. Still many are happy to do just that. Would they be on the same track if Jet Setting were trained by Jim Bolger or Dermot Weld? Probably not.
Found, incidentally second as the 5-4 favorite in last year's Irish 1,000 Guineas, was backed as if defeat was out of the question in the Tattersalls Gold Cup, a race diminished by ground related defections of both The Grey Gatsby and Time Test. She had beaten her only serious rival, Fascinating Rock, with ease when they met early in the month, but simply could not live with him this time. Dermot's Weld's star, a big horse and just the type to improve again at five, won as he pleased by 3 3/4 lengths. Found was 1 1/2 lengths in front of Success Days, who ran right up to his best on ground he thrives on. Found also likes tsoft ground, so it's hard to find any excuses. She just wasn't having a good day at the races, and odds-on backers were having a terrible weekend. For various reasons.
DERBY WITH NO FAVOURITE
There's only one Derby. Then there are loads of Derbys. Or Derbies if you like. Though, to be precise, there is only one. The Derby, run over a mile and a half over the tricky Epsom Downs racecourse outside London on the first Saturday of June each year. That's the one, the historical classic that has been won by unforgettable champions like Sea Bird, Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Roberto, The Minstrel, Shergar, Sinndar and Sea The Stars - though in recent years also by easily forgettable runners like Oath, Benny The Dip, Kris Kin and Ruler Of The World.
This year's edition is fast approaching. The 2016 Investec Derby will be run on June 4 - and it promises to be quite different to most of the preceding editions. This Derby is - at least at this stage - quite unusual, in that it doesn't have a favourite. A glance at the current odds reveals just one possible contender priced up at under 9-2, and that is the filly Minding, who is more likely to run in the Oaks. This Derby has no standout favourite, not even two or three names sticking out as the leading players. What's going to start favourite? Who knows. We don't even know exactly what horses will line up. Decisions are yet to be made about colts that will - if they turn up on the downs in just under three weeks' time - have a strong impact on the betting market. Sir Michael Stoute (photo) trains the deeply impressive Newbury maiden winner Ulysses, who is one such horse. More high profile is The Gurkha, who outclassed his rivals in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains at Deauville. His is the latest name to be thrown into the ring. One publication resembling a newspaper today even wrote that he will run in the Derby. Will he? I'm not so sure. Would I run him at Epsom? I'm not so sure. He is a son of Galileo, but so was Frankel, and he has a lot of speed. The Gurkha raced prominently all the way over the straight 1600 metres at Deauville, where he kicked away for an easy 5 1/2-length win. It was a slowly-run affair, and the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth placed finishers were separated by just a touch more than a length. Are these seven colts all genuine Group 1 horses? Probably not. Still, The Gurkha could hardly have been more impressive. He will beat better horses than these, that's for sure. If he runs at Epsom he will have to be respected. If he doesn't run the decision to bypass, in favour of the St James's Palace Stakes - a race that is tailor made for him - will be very much respected.
His stable companion US Army Ranger, stupidly elevated to Derby favouritism by the bookies after a heavy ground maiden win, had his reputation dented when just scraping home in a photo finish against another Ballydoyle colt, Port Douglas, in the Chester Vase. Port Douglas, who was tenderly ridden, was even conceding four pounds. So why is US Army Ranger currently a 9-2 shot and Port Douglas as big as 16-1? Perhaps they should meet up somewhere in the middle, at around 10-1? It will be interesting to see whether both take a shot at the Derby. Neither has done anything close to what a Derby favourite should have on his cv.
Nor has John Gosden's Dante winner Wings Of Desire, who was taken out of the Derby but will now be supplemented at the cost of £75,000. After his win over Deauville at York, Gosden confessed that he had taken him out of the Derby in March. I do like this colt, not least since he is open to plenty of improvement - and guaranteed to stay the Derby trip. Like Ulysses, he is a horse that keeps on surprising even those closest to him.
Then we have Andre Fabre's contender Cloth Of Stars, visually impressive in the Prix Greffulhe at Saint-Cloud, where he reversed the form with last year's Criterium de Saint-Cloud winner Robin Of Navan - and did so with ease. These are two smart colts, but hard on their heels in third was Kidmenever, who had managed only third in a €9,000 event on the all-weather at Marseille on his previous start. Perhaps he was aptly named in this context. So is Cloth Of Stars the real deal? Impossible to say. His trainer certainly is, however, and he will take some action in the betting ring. Hardly enough to go off favourite though. Owned by Godolphin, an operation still in search of their first Derby win, he will be sporting the same silks as Moonlight Magic, winner of the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown - where he beat Shogun by 1 1/4 lengths. Idaho, a big scopey colt who looks improving, was third. Solid form? Not really. Too many have beaten Shogun to say that this is form is exciting. Nobody in their right mind would make Moonlight Magic favourite for the Derby. Not many would be brave enough to write this Jim Bolger trainee off either. Of course not.
Galileo Gold, who won the 2,000 Guineas and is going for the Irish version on May 21, two weeks prior to the Derby, seems most unlikely to be sent to Epsom. So, even with Dettori on his side, he won't be the Derby favourite then. Who will it be? Well, if she runs it will probably be Minding, if The Gurkha and Ryan Moore is printed in the racecard then there's your likely favourite.
Though we may also experience what happened in 1953, when the premier classic had joint favourites, the winner Pinza and Preminition both going off at 5-1, and again in 1991, when Generous won at 9-1, with the 4-1 joint favourites Corrupt and Toulon well beaten in sixth and ninth place respectably. Was that a poor Derby? No it wasn't. Subsequent St James's Palace winner Marju filled second and Hector Protector, another top class miler, was fourth. Both hammered by the proper mile and a half performer Generous at Epsom. And was all right, wasn't he?
LIKE LONDON BUSES PERHAPS
Anyone who has spent some time in London know the saying 'like London buses'. You wait for ages for one of these famous red double deckers to turn up when you need it. Then, as if by magic, when you have all but given up hope, a whole convoy of such vehicles come around the corner. Nobody has waited 37 years for a bus, I hope, but if so getting two or three quite quickly would be well deserved. Perhaps this is just what we are experiencing in horseracing these days. The gap between Triple Crown winners Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah (Photo: Benoit) last year seemed endless. Totally unexpected too, since Affirmed won the 'TC' just twelve months after Seattle Slew had done the same thing. Although it was clear that, during this 37-year drought, at least one or two other horses would have deserved to win the Triple Crown, the fact of the matter was; it had not happened. Then, in 2015, it did happen. American Pharoah, an outstanding colt trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Victor Espinoza (who else?) swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. And added the Breeders' Cup Classic for good measure.
Here we are then. The calendar pages are showing May, 2016 and a colt called Nyquist - named for the Swedish hockey star Gustav Nyquist , who plays for the Detroit Wings, has won the Run for The Roses. Inevitably, we are all beginning to hope for another Triple Crown winner. Is it too much to ask? Is it at all feasible? Is he in the same class as American Pharoah? Logical answers to those three questions would be 'no, yes, and perhaps'. What does Nyquist have in common with American Pharoah? Not much, some would argue, while others would point out that there are lots of similarities. In fact, also remind us that - at this stage - Nyquist is far more accomplished than American Pharoah was in mid-May last year. For a start, Nyquist is one of only two colts to have managed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile / Kentucky Derby double, having emulated Street Sense, who broke that jinx in 2007. Nyquist is now unbeaten after eight starts. When American Pharoah beat Firing Line at Churchill Downs, it was his sixth win from seven runs. He lost on his debut, finishing fifth almost ten lengths behind Om - a runner who has since won a couple of Grade 2 events on turf but is some way below the best in his division. Pre-Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah had won the Del Mar Futurity and FrontRunner Stakes at two, and the Rebel plus the Arkansas Derby at three. In other words, he had three Grade One wins in the account. Nyquist went into the Derby off a win in the prestigious Florida Derby, to add to his wins in the Best Pal, Del Mar Futurity, FrontRunner and Breeders' Cup Juvenile as a two-year-old and San Vicente Stakes on his seasonal debut at three. Remarkably, Nyquist has won Graded stakes from 6.5 furlongs to a mile and a quarter, and he has won such events at Del Mar, Santa Anita, Keeneland, Gulfstream Park and Churchill Downs. Five of them being of Grade One status.
If his Triple Crown bid fails it won't be because of lack of experience. It won't be caused by lack of versatility either, that's for sure. Lack of stamina seems more of a threat, if the dream is still alive when we get to the Belmont. Though, didn't we say the same thing before his Derby win? And, didn't we have that same fear also for American Pharoah last year? I believe many of us did.
So, what's the verdict? Which one will turn out to be the best, American Pharoah or Nyquist? Probably American Pharoah but don't be too damn sure about it. Nyquist ran to Globeform 123 in the Kentucky Derby, where he beat the impressive Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator by a length and a quarter. American Pharoah ran to Globeform 124, as he beat Firing Line by a length in Louisville. Firing who? Exactly.
We cannot compare Nyquist of May '16 to American Pharoah of November '15. It simply makes no sense. I am not trying to say that Nyquist is as good a horse - American Pharoah was truly special - just pointing out that, as of today, nobody can say that he never will be. They do have similarities, and they have differences. Nyquist has a stronger CV as he is approaching his Preakness run and he even has his name spelt correctly. Imagine if the first Triple Crown winner, back in 1919, was named Sir Batron? Is wouldn't quite do, would it.
TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS
2015 AMERICAN PHAROAH
1977 SEATTLE SLEW
1943 COUNT FLEET
1937 WAR ADMIRAL
1930 GALLANT FOX
1919 SIR BARTON (photo)
SPRINGTIME IN EUROPE; MIND THE GAP...
One down, four to go. The first classic of the season in England, the 2,000 Guineas, is in the books. Air Force Blue was badly beaten at odds-on. Three of the last six colts to start odds-on for this mile contest have lost. How he went off at such cramped odds is beyond me. He looked terrible in the paddock. Coming here extremely fit (clearly hard trained for this task), he was skinny, sharply showing ribs, and dull in his coat. His juvenile form was top class but it's not October 2015 anymore. Some trainers call the Guineas 'the last two-year-old race of the year'. Those guys have normally lost a Guineas or two with fancied runners. This race is not the end of the past season. It is the start of a new, and the gap between the two should never be underestimated.
Mind that gap. Some horses train on from two to three, others don't. My guess is that this son of War Front hasn't. I'd be surprised if he wins a championship race this year. Massaat, on the other hand, has done really well over the winter, and has the scope to go on. The pick of the paddock, he continued where he left off last term, on an upward curve. However, Galileo Gold, with much more experience, beat him fair and square under a masterful Frankie Dettori and - though this was not a vintage renewal - he was a solid Guineas winner for young trainer Hugo Palmer, a man who will go right to the top in his profession. Of the others, I was quite taken by the fourth-placed Air Vice Marshal - a much better individual than his stable companion Air Force Blue. Overcoming an even bigger gap, making his first start since last July, Air Vice Marshal ran like a horse that would appreciate a drop in distance. Perhaps he is the most likely winner of the 7-furlong Jersey Stakes at Royal Ascot in June. The gap from the Guineas to that meeting is considerably smaller than the gap from the Dewhurst '15 to the Guineas '16. Therefore, we can assess his Ascot chances based on what we saw at Newmarket this weekend.
Four important classics coming up folks. The 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket on Saturday, followed by the 1,000 Guineas for the fillies 24 hours later. Both over a straight mile on a turf course expected to be good. Then, on the following Friday the Kentucky Oaks kicks off the biggest weekend of all at Churchill Downs. Normally, the 2,000 Guineas and the Kentucky Derby are run on the same day but this year, the first Saturday in May is on the seventh, so it falls a week later than the Guineas - a race run on April 30, simply because it needs to fit in with the rest of the European program, where the French version is set to be run two weeks later, and the gap to the Derby at Epsom is five weeks.
The last time this happened was in 2011, when a colt named Frankel won the Guineas by 6 lengths as a part of a perfect 14-for-14 career, and Animal Kingdom took the Kentucky Derby by beating Nehro - who we never heard much about afterwards - and Mucho Macho Man - a runner we would hear plenty of afterwards.
Will we see a 'Frankel like' performance again on the Rowley Mile? Probably not, though just like Frankel the Aidan O'Brien trained Air Force Blue is a very short priced favourite for the 2,000 Guineas. He may well turn out to be way the best but he will not be setting out to make all, as Frankel did five years ago. His stable companion Minding is the clear favourite for the 1,000 Guineas, and this is a filly many experts say will win both the Guineas and the Oaks. Bookmakers offer around 8-1 that she can do so and it's not to shabby a bet. Easy to lay off if she takes the Guineas.
So, with two hot favourites at Newmarket, what can we expect at Churchill Downs? Not more of the same, that's for sure. These are very contrasting classics. Nyquist is sure to go off favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but he will be miles bigger in the betting than Air Force Blue, or Minding for that matter. The Run for The Roses is quite an open affair this year. And the weather might play a big part. A rainy weekend in Louisville would favour Exaggerator, and perhaps also Brody's Cause. However, they are by no means the only serious rivals to Nyquist. Mohaymen's best form puts him right in the mix (we should draw a line through his last run, it was simply too bad to be true), Mor Spirit looks a proper 10-furlong horse, as does the rapidly improving My Man Sam. Has the winner been mentioned now? Perhaps.
The Kentucky Oaks lost the biggest star of all when Songbird was ruled out. A big blow to her connections, and to Churchill Downs, but acceptable news to any betting fan. This Oaks looks tricky now, and anyone who can solve the trifecta, or even the superfecta, in this classic will be handsomely rewarded. I do have a clear pick in this race, weather permitting, but let me get back to that later on. These classics need to be dealt with one at a time.
HOLLENDORFER, WE NEED MORE OF HIS KIND
We are into the final furlong leading up to the big Kentucky Derby weekend. These are the days when every horseplayer holding a future bet for Churchill Downs is keeping and anxious eye on the news updates on contenders, thinking 'let's hope the horse makes it to the gate...' Over these late April / early May days we will, unfortunately, get news of defections. Either through injury, illness or other forms of set-backs making it impossible to run in the classic.
THE NEWS ABOUT SONGBIRD (pic Benoit) missing out on the Kentucky Oaks was very disappointing. We won't get another defection more significant than this one. Even Nyquist dropping out of the Derby wouldn't be bigger. Songbird looks the best three-year-old in North America at the minute, and her absence is a serious blow to Churchill Downs. At first, the news made me sad - what a shame she won't run in the Oaks - then, on second thoughts I felt really good about it. Not that she is out, but that her trainer JERRY HOLLENDORFER has taken the decision, almost three weeks ahead, to tell the world that she will miss the party. A party where she most certainly would have been the star attraction, and almost certainly a facile winner once more. Songbird has gone down with a fever, and her trainer will not push her. What a call.
His own words; "You know what matters most? Taking care of Songbird".
How many times have we seen young horses, held up by foot bruises, fevers, and other 'niggling problems' as trainers so often like to call them, being pushed to the race anyway? How many times have we had scenarios where horses have been described as 50/50 to make the starting gate at Churchill Downs less than a week before the race, and been sent to the battle? Quite a few. And how many times have we not seen such horses perform poorly on the day, then end up on the reported missing list for a considerable length of time afterwards? Sometimes for good.
This is why I feel fine about Songbird missing the Oaks. She will recover, we will see her again, and bypassing Churchill Downs is of course the right decision. The first weekend in May is important in North American racing but it should never be treated as a 'run at all costs' fixture.
Horseracing needs more men like Hollendorfer, that's for sure.
ARKANSAS DERBY, WHY SO UNFAIR?
It's the last major prep for the Kentucky Derby, it's a million-dollar event, and it offers crucial Run for The Roses qualification points. Why then, does the Arkansas Derby also offer such an unfair deal? Twelve horses have been declared to run, with Bob Baffert's Rebel winner Cupid the likely favorite. His win at Oaklawn Park less than a month ago gave the son of Tapit more than a bit of course experience though. It also gave him a weight penalty for having captured a stakes event. He will carry 122 pounds in the Arkansas Derby, four more than all but two of his rivals, Smarty Jones winner Discreetness and Southwest winner Suddenbreakingnews.
Four pounds is a considerable factor over this 9-furlong distance, normally equal to two lengths. Cupid may be the best, and most talented, horse going into the race, but his Rebel runner-up Whitmore, who was beaten a 1 1/4 lengths while spotting Cupid two pounds last time, is now six pounds better off at the weights. No wonder his connections will fancy their chances of reversing the form.
It is quite possible that at least one of the three will be narrowly beaten in the attempt at giving weight to the winner. Such a scenario, where the best horse lost, is not a new thing but to stage a Derby under such weight conditions, well, it just doesn't seem right.
FLORIDA DERBY - MOST UNSATISFACTORY
Nyquist retained his unbeaten record and will go to Churchill Downs with an impressive 7-for-7 record. Mohaymen, who ran as if something was amiss, finished fourth and performed to a level which is on a par with some of the better 3yo maiden winners seen at this Gulfstream Park meet. In between the two we had Majesto, who was coming off a win in one such maiden (on his fifth try) and Fellowship, who had finished six lengths or further behind Mohayen on his two preceding starts, in the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth. This time he beat Mohaymen by four lengths.
The Florida Derby, so often an excellent pointer to the Run for The Roses in the past, became rather disappointing this time. It elevated Nyquist to Derby favoritism and perhaps that's fair enough. Though beating Majesto with ease, in a race run at nothing but an average pace, does not make him a stronger Kentucky Derby contender than he was going into this race. Let's face it, for whatever reason, Mohaymen really 'wasn't at the races' on this Saturday. When assessing the form we may as well treat him as a non-runner. If he had been a scratch, we would have been looking at this 1-2-3-4 in the 2016 Florida Derby; Nyquist, Majesto, Fellowship, Sawyer's Mickey. Okay, the latter was beaten 15 3/4 lengths but he is also a maiden who was beaten over six lengths when third in the Battaglia at Turfway Park three weeks earlier. That minor event was won by Surgical Strike, who was third in the weakly contested Spiral Stakes, beaten two necks behind Oscar Nominated and Azar.
These formlines make for one conclusion only; as top level contests go,
the Florida Derby was a most unsatisfactory race.
Let's shift our attention to Santa Anita, shall we?
NOT SO SURE ABOUT THIS 100-POINTER
Dubai World Cup day was a great international success, with winners for the home team, USA, Australia, England, France and Japan - a nation capturing two of the nine big events at Meydan and perhaps unfortunate not to hit the target three times. Duramente undoubtedly ran a great race for second behind Postponed in the Sheema, racing with a front shoe missing. That's what we call bad luck. Look out for this colt in future championship races, Like Postponed, he is a serious turf runner. Japan's UAE Derby winner Lani booked his place for an upcoming championship race. Not just any race either. By beating the terribly unlucky filly Polar River and maiden winner Yu Change by three parts of a length and a neck, Lani earned 100 points and secured a berth in the Kentucky Derby. So he gets to Run for The Roses on May 7. The first leg of the Triple Crown Series will probably be over subscribed, meaning that Lani pushes a North American based challenger out of the contest.
Of course, Lani is a nice and improving colt, and it's anybody's guess which horse will be one step away from getting into the Derby field. What we do know, is that Lani's win came in what was one of the weakest Derby preps. Many would object to calling it a Derby prep at all. Should it carry Kentucky Derby qualifying points? And if so, should it really be worth 100 points to the winner, making it as valuable as races like the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes and Arkansas Derby? I'm not so sure.