Top class flat racing comes thick and fast at this time of year and as the curtain came down on Glorious Goodwood on Saturday, France kicked off its summer racing festival in the chic town of Deauville, writes Nigel Howard.
At this time, it seems the entire flat racing fraternity migrates to the Normandy coast, which boasts a vast training centre and two hippodromes (La Touques and Clairefontaine) for an equine bonanza comprising twenty-eight days of quality racing spread across the month of August. Add to this the famous Yearling Sales and it becomes abundantly clear why Deauville is the perfect summer location for racing enthusiasts and professionals alike.
Sunday saw the first of five Group 1 contests to be held over the month, the Prix Rothschild, run over the straight mile for fillies and mares. In the event we were treated to a scintillating display by the Al Shaqab Racing-owned QEMAH for the all-conquering Jean-Claude Rouget. Rouget was recording an astonishing seventh Group 1 win this season.
Previous winners of the Rothschild, such as the brilliant Goldikova, have gone on to further Group 1 glory at the festival by lifting the showcase event, the Prix Jacques Le Marois, later in the month but sadly, that will not be route taken by this outstanding daughter of Danehill Dancer as Rouget stated she will next head to Leopardstown for the Matron Stakes on September 10th
The Group 1 action continues this weekend with a top class bunch of sprinters taking centre stage in the Prix Maurice de Gheest run over a straight 1300 metres (6½ furlongs). Established in 1922, the race was named after a former racing official at the course and was reduced to its current distance (from seven furlongs) in 1966. It was originally a Group 3 contest but was elevated to Group 2 in 1980, before achieving Group 1 status in 1995.
Won last year by the Charlie Hills-trained champion three-year-old sprinter, Muhaarar, this year’s renewal has drawn an impressive field of seventeen, nine of which herald from the Classic generation.
A strong British contingent is headed by DUTCH CONNECTION who looks to have an outstanding chance after a mighty performance at Goodwood in the Lennox Stakes a fortnight earlier over seven furlongs. The drop in trip is a slight concern as all his best efforts are over further. However, a quick reappearance after his Goodwood exploits would suggest that last year’s winning trainer believes the four-year-old son of Dutch Art remains in good order, and this looks a good opportunity for him to score at the highest level.
Equally, ex-French trained SUEDOIS, now with David O’Meara, would also have solid claims based on his creditable second behind the impressive Limato in the July Cup last time. That was clearly a step up on his previous form and a reproduction of that Newmarket run would see the progressive five-year-old son of Le Havre go close to the frame.
Adding a truly international flavour to the race, GOLD FUN will attempt to give ex-French based handler Richard Gibson a welcome return to Deauville since jetting off to train in Hong Kong back in 2012. The seven-year-old is a triple Group 1 winner at Sha Tin and most recently ran a gallant second to Twilight Sun in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. Gibson was delighted with that performance and given the fact that the son of Le Vie Dei Colori might have won given an extra half furlong, the step up in trip is sure to suit. Christophe Soumillon again takes the ride as GOLD FUN bids to become the first Hong Kong-based horse to win on French turf.
SIGNS OF BLESSING was another to make a bold showing in that Ascot showcase and who just missed out on second to GOLD FUN on the line. That was his best performance to date but the feeling is he was running out of steam that day and this longer trip won’t suit.
Third in last year’s race, GORDON LORD BYRON bounced back to something like his best at the Curragh last time and has to be respected. The old boy likes to get his toe in so any give in the ground would aid his cause.
Les Français would seemingly have the best of the classic generation, though, with the Andre Fabre-trained JIMMY TWO TIMES topping the list. He was quietly fancied when he ran in the French 2000 Guineas earlier in the year but finished a disappointing tenth. Sprinting is obviously his game as before that contest he was a head second to top speedster, Quiet Reflection, in a Group 3 over six furlongs at Chantilly and has since scored twice over six furlongs at this track, most recently in the Group 3 Prix de la Porte Maillot. There is a suspicion that he needs soft ground to produce his very best form which is no surprise being a son of French sire, Kendargent. It will require a career best performance to claim the spoils, but if the heavens open on Sunday, he may be able to take that step forward.
The Wertheimer & Frere-owned ATTENDU is another to have shown himself more adept at shorter distances after faltering at Classic level. The son of Acclamation bounced back from a poor effort in the Poule d’Essai des Poulains to thrash a below par Esoterique over seven furlongs here in early June. He has not run since so comes here fresh and is another whose form suggests he prefers a soft surface. He remains relatively unexposed and given his conditions, he can be considered.
Winner of a Group 3 over six furlongs last time, DAMILA is the only filly in the race and she too looks an interesting prospect. Trained by Henri-Alex Pantall, who has a good record with his sprinters, she beat LOVE SPIRIT last time at Maisons-Laffitte and is obviously on the upgrade. The Loire-based handler is doubly represented as he also saddles BLACK MAX who, up to now, has been campaigned solely over a mile. This drop in trip might suit but it is a serious hike in class for the son of French miler, Fuisse.
The British based three-year-olds make less appeal with the Hugo Palmer-trained GIFTED MASTER looking the best of them. However, he was beaten three-and-a-half lengths by DUTCH CONNECTION at Goodwood and to turn the tables on his older rival looks a tall order.
Aiden O’Brien runs last season’s champion two-year-old AIR FORCE BLUE and again he holds a prominent position in the market even though he has failed to spark in any of his races thus far. He is overlooked.
In summary, the feeling is that this race is set up for the older horses and indeed they have won seven of the last ten editions of the race. With the lack of a true champion in the line-up, DUTCH CONNECTION has a great opportunity to lift his first Group 1 prize. GOLD FUN looks next best after a promising run at the Royal meeting and has been laid out for the race.
A herd of unexposed three year olds makes this a fascinating contest with JIMMY TWO TIMES and ATTENDU the stand out candidates. They are both currently available at 14/1 and any positive movement in the market for either should be closely monitored.
Going forward, the Prix Jacques Le Marois run on Sunday 14th August is the highlight of the meeting and this year’s event looks sure to live up to expectations.
A whole host of top class milers are currently declared for the 2016 renewal including the likes of 2000 Guineas winner GALILEO GOLD, Godolphin’s RIBCHESTER and Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Irish 2000 Guineas winner, AWTAAD. They could be joined the Aga Khan’s French 1000 Guineas winner, ERVEDAYA, last year’s winner, ESOTERIQUE, trained by Andre Fabre, as well as his exciting VADAMOS who trotted up at Maisons-Laffitte recently.
Aidan O’Brien has declared many of his outstanding crop of three-year-olds including MINDING and THE GURKHA but it is more than likely that they will head to other engagements at York’s Ebor meeting. We will have to wait and see which of his equine stars take their chance.
The following day could see a shake up in the Arc market with a rematch between the first and second in the French Derby. What a race it could be if the Aga Khan’s ZARAK takes up the challenge against Jean-Claude Rouget’s Derby winner, ALMANZOR, in the Group 2 Prix Guillaume D’Ornano.
To add to the occasion, the Prix Eugene Adam’s first and second could also join the party in the shape of HESHEM for Al Shaqab Racing and Godolphin’s ULTRA, who won last year’s champion French juvenile event the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere but who only made his reappearance in the Maisons-Laffitte event at the end of June. Add to this the possible presence of Sir Michael Stoute’s recent Gordon Stakes winner, ULYSSES, and you have a race to savour. Let’s hope they all turn up on the day.