French 2000 Guineas: Zarak to Pounce in the Poulains

On Sunday, the Poule d’Essai des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas) is run for the first time in its long history at the Hippodrome de La Touques in the chic town of Deauville on the Normandy coast, writes Nigel Howard. This illustrious race was first run in 1883 and has been won by the likes of Blushing Groom, Riverman, Daylami and Kingmambo.

The last eight runnings have seen the home team victorious with the last overseas winner being Astronomer Royal trained by Aiden O’Brian in 2007. The last winner for ‘les Anglais’ was current super sire Sharmadal in 2005 for Godolphin. He went on to complete the French classic double when lifting the Prix du Jockey Club, the first year that the race was dropped in distance to one mile two furlongs.

A field of thirteen line up for this Group 1 contest which will be run over the straight mile course, the same strip of turf that hosts the Group 1 Prix Jacques le Marois in August.

Heading up the home team is ZARAK, who carries the famous green silks of the Aga Khan and is trained by Alain de Royer-Dupré. If the race was to be decided on breeding alone, this bay colt would surely win hands down being by Dubawi out of Arc winner Zarkava. He is the first of her offspring to make it to the track and he has a perfect record so far having won both his starts, the first of which was when winning his maiden as a two-year-old at this course back in October

On his seasonal reappearance over the straight mile at Maison-Laffitte in April, he showed a really good attitude, quickening up well under big race jockey Christophe Soumillon to take the lead and then holding the late challenge from GEORGE PATTON in the final furlong.

That form looks rock solid as GEORGE PATTON, who re-opposes on Sunday, had previously beaten subsequent Group 1 winner Robin of Navan at this course as a two-year old. Trainer Jean Claude Rouget’s son of War Front looked green as he put his head in the air when asked for his initial effort but then found plenty to push ZARAK all the way to the line. The experience is sure to help him and he looks a leading player on Sunday.

Rouget boasts a strong hand this year as the Pau-based handler fields two other smart colts in the form of ZELZAL and TAAREEF. The former, owned by Al Shaqab Racing, opened his account on the all-weather track at Deauville in March beating the same owners’ Qassem by an effortless six lengths. The son of Sea The Stars then went to Chantilly where, again on the sand, he quickened impressively under big race partner, and the owners’ retained rider, Gregory Benoit, to win by an easy four lengths.

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ZELZAL’s form at first glance looks difficult to assess but interestingly, on a line through Qassem, we find that that horse was three lengths adrift of Qatar Dream in a race at Lyon-Parilly last year and Qatar Dream was in turn one and a half lengths behind ZARAK when he won his maiden as a two-year-old.  Although It might be unwise to rely too heavily on this form line, especially when comparing two very unexposed animals, it does put ZELZAL slightly ahead of ZARAK. However, the fact that ZELZAL has yet to run on turf would not be in his favour and adds to the list of unknowns regarding this horse. The bookies are finding it difficult to separate the two and they are both trading at around 4/1.

The Prix de Fontainebleau at Chantilly in April saw the return of Rouget’s other representative TAAREEF who would also have solid claims based on his good second behind DICTON in that Group 3 contest over a mile. The form was given a timely boost on Tuesday when the third placed horse, Almanzor, also trained by Rouget, romped home in a Group 3 at Chantilly over 1m2f. He now heads to the Prix du Jockey Club in June. TAAREEF finished well in the Fontainebleau and the Hamdan Al Maktoum-owned son of Kitten’s Joy would seem to represent good each way value at around 16/1, especially as his handler is expecting him to step up considerably on that performance at the weekend.

The winner, DICTON, was one of two horses supplemented for the event; a decision that was probably made much easier for connections after the performance of Almanzor. The son of Lawman made it four wins on the bounce and a first group winner for his Italian trainer, Gianluca Bietolini, in France. DICTON was originally in the ownership of Wertheimer et Frère and trained by Freddie Head but his current handler bought him out of a claiming race last year for the meagre sum of €22,317 and he has not stopped improving. He might have benefitted from being race fit in the Prix de Fontainebleau but he quickened well in the final 100 metres to secure victory and he is obviously still on the upgrade. He seems to be indifferent to underfoot conditions having won on heavy and good ground and this might be in his favour should the skies open at the Normandy track.

A potential yard stick between the English and French Guineas could be established by the performance of either ATTENDU or MOON TROUBLE who both finished behind Newmarket third, Ribchester, in the PRIX DJEBEL at Maison-Laffitte back in early April. Ribchester was eventually disqualified for having caused interference and indeed ATTENDU was quite badly hampered that day so did well to hold on to third. The form of the race was obviously given a fillip by the performance of Ribchester so ATTENDU, trained by Carlos Laffon-Parias and owned by Wertheimer et Frère cannot be lightly overlooked. The Freddie Head-trained MOON TOUBLE, a son of Lope de Vega, was running on well towards the end of the race so he too could have place claims.

Carlos Laffon-Parias and owner Wertheimer et Frère are doubly represented with the inclusion of ALIGNEMENT, a son of Pivotal and winner of a minor event at Fontainebleau in April. Although the second has gone on to score nicely since at Maison-Laffitte, this is obviously a major step up and he would not make the short list.

Looking to secure an astonishing seventh win in the race is the master French handler, Andre Fabre. His JIMMY TWO TIMES, a son of French sire Kendargent, is an intriguing entry as he has been campaigned solely over sprint distances until now. His last effort saw him finish second behind British raider, Quiet Reflection, in the Group 3 Prix Sigy over six furlongs at Chantilly. Karl Burke holds Quiet Reflection in very high regard and is aiming the filly at the top Royal Ascot sprint races. The fact that Fabre is running him here catches the eye and therefore he has to be considered.

As for the overseas contingent, top of that list has to be THE GURKHA, supplemented for the race by Aidan O’Brian and preferred over Bravery, who he removed from the field at the final declaration stage. THE GURKHA comes into the race on the back of a nine length win at Navan and he went straight to the head of the market for this classic contest and now shares favouritism with both ZELZAL and ZARAK. The son of Galileo is obviously talented but with only two runs under his belt remains totally unexposed, if a little inexperienced.

The all-conquering John Gosden is represented by CRAZY HORSE, who is unbeaten in two starts, the last of those being the Group 3 Horris Hill Stakes at Newbury. He comes here without a run this term but Frankie Dettori takes the ride. Any move in the market would be an obvious positive but that aside, he is difficult to assess.

Godolphin entry, BIRCHWOOD, brings more substantial form to the table having been extensively campaigned last season. He has yet to race this season, but we know the son of Dark Angel has talent having finished a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf on his last start at Keenland. He was not exactly a leading light on British shores last year but his Keenland run deserves some credit. He could run a place.

With a great race in prospect, the result should certainly help clarify the overall merits of the male classic generation. Three unexposed horses head the market, all trading at around 4-1, so backing the favourite might even reap a decent reward on a reasonable investment.

Of all the trials run over the last few months, I can’t help but return to the performance of ZARAK at Maison-Laffitte. Christophe Soumillon rode the horse with supreme confidence and he really knuckled down to his task when asked to quicken. Alain de Royer-Dupré wisely stated that “He is not yet Zarkava” but he said it in such a way that suggests that he could be.

Of the others, TAAREEF looks the value bet at 16-1 each way but he would not want it soft. Also JIMMY TWO TIMES from the Andre Fabre stable must be considered. A win for DICTON would make a great headline having been bought out of a claimer and in the event of heavy ground, he must have a winning chance.




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