Your eyes told you it was good, writes Tony Stafford. Reflection overnight on the times over the weekend more than confirmed that Winter had stepped up a notch on her 1,000 Guineas victory at Newmarket. It also suggested that Rhododendron, the runner-up that day, will be very hard to beat on Friday in the Investec Oaks.
There were two supporting Premier handicaps on the 1,000 Guineas under-card. The first, half an hour after Winter stopped the clock in 1 min 39.78 secs, was also a fillies’ race for three-year-olds. Constant Comment, rated 80 but a daughter of Fastnet Rock out of a Galileo mare, twin Coolmore influences, completed the mile a full 4.30 seconds slower than the Classic finale.
Then to finish proceedings for an epic meeting, run at a Curragh track denuded of stands and by all accounts facilities, Sea Wolf, a tough 101-rated handicapper, defied 10st1lb in beating 19 rivals. Although the difference in weights carried on the day might seem to have given an obvious advantage to Winter over Sea Wolf, an older colt or gelding would concede the identical 15lb to a three-year-old filly if they were to meet in the eight and a half furlong Diomed Stakes (Group 3) at Epsom on Saturday.
Sea Wolf’s time in a hotly-contested affair was 1 min 42.45 secs, almost three seconds more than Winter’s, reflecting a margin of around 50 yards, if you take an average 13 seconds per furlong.
Racing Post Ratings as ever were quick to offer assessments, suggesting this was a 2lb improvement on the defeat of Rhododendron. Time may well show this to be an over-cautious mark. Caution clearly is inhibiting the other big stables from tackling the O’Brien Classic generation, to such an extent that Roly Poly and Hydrangea were able to participate in yet another 1-2-3 for Ballydoyle, just ahead of Joseph O’Brien’s Intricately, but almost five lengths behind the imperious winner.
The previous afternoon, Churchill preceded his stablemate by also completing the 2,000 Guineas Newmarket – Curragh double with a fuss-free two-and-a-half length win in the Tattersalls-sponsored event. Thunder Snow, at one time travelling apparently better than Churchill until that embryonic champion’s decisive surge, rehabilitated himself after his mulish and inexplicable effort at Churchill Downs with a sound second place.
There was much made of the fact that these two Classic triumphs for O’Brien came 20 years after a similar double set him up for a total to date of 72 European Classic wins. Eleven of these have come in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. Not even Mr Wenger (seven FA Cups in the identical period) can match that.
There is sure to be a blanket attack on Royal Ascot from the Coolmore partners, with the Classic hero and heroine stand-outs for the St James’s Palace Stakes and Coronation Stakes respectively, while on Friday night Order Of St George warmed up for a second Gold Cup challenge with an emphatic success in the Saval Beg Stakes.
In this game, reflecting on triumphs achieved soon has to give way to concentration on future objectives. The proximity of The Curragh’s fixture to the Oaks and Derby, earlier this year due to the timing of Easter, and also relative to Chester and York’s trials has meant that any quick bounce on to Epsom from The Curragh was probably even outside O’Brien’s comfort zone. Luckily Ascot beckons soon after, though not as soon as is usually the case.
Rhododendron’s defeat at Newmarket was attributed by many as partially the fault of Ryan Moore. True he did find a little interference, but as I thought at the time, Winter showed no more sign of stopping up the final incline at HQ than than she did on Sunday. Rhododendron was flying at the finish to secure second and she looks set to make it three UK and two Irish 2017 Classic wins for Galileo, ever more the super-sire.
Without Churchill, the O’Brien Derby challenge looks more questionable, but of seven possible runners, only one, the promising Chester Vase second Wings of Eagles (by Pour Moi) is not by Galileo. Cliffs of Moher, the Dee Stakes winner, rather than Vase hero Venice Beach, seems to carry the principal hopes of connections on a day that looks sure to be characterised by observers as the chance for Frankel to put one over on dad.
He could easily do so with the Anthony Oppenheimer/John Gosden colt Cracksman proven on the track, having beaten Permian (Teofilo, by Galileo) there in the Derby Trial before Permian franked the form in the Dante Stakes at York.
Then there is 2,000 Guineas sixth, Eminent, expected by Martyn Meade to prove better suited to the longer trip, and the unexposed Mirage Dancer, who is highly regarded by Ryan Moore. He represents Sir Michael Stoute, who has a tradition of producing major forward strides with this type of horse in the Derby, but his patient trainer believes this may be too much too soon.
At present odds, there is decent value available about Mark Johnston’s Permian, who won the prime trial for the race, and the fact that the trainer has not had a Derby runner for a long time and needs to supplement him are positives. This time he has a proper candidate, but like O’Brien, I have a soft spot for the Chester trials: I was racing manager when Oath won the Dee Stakes for Henry Cecil and the Thoroughbred Corporation before winning at Epsom under a peach of a ride by Kieren Fallon.
Friday’s second feature, the Coronation Cup, has been selected as the 2017 European comeback for the five-year-old Highland Reel, whose trip to Dubai in March was doomed when the ground turned against him.
Previously, in winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf, he supplanted the lifetime earnings of Found, his contemporary and stablemate, thereby avenging his defeat by her when they were one-two in the Arc at Chantilly last October.
Both are over the £5 million mark and therefore their sire’s top two earners. With Found now retired, Highland Reel can be expected to confirm his status as the “new St Nicholas Abbey” by making a winning Epsom debut on Friday. Should Highland Reel be found wanting, then Idaho looks a worthy alternative in the field, should be run.
If you call a horse Profitable and he wins a Group 1 race, then you have to take yourself at your word and take the profit, as Alan Spence did last year from Godolphin after Clive Cox’s sprinter won the King’s Stand Stakes.
Then to call a filly Priceless and watch her win the Group 2 Temple Stakes, following Profitable’s example of 2016, the only option is not to sell. She is indeed Priceless to Mr Spence and while the original idea was to go to Profitable when she retires, maybe watching the example of Wokingham winner Laddies Poker, now dam of Winter, and other sprinters, he might consider a date with Galileo. Whatever course he takes, the arch-negotiator holds all the aces.
I did notice that it is not just Derek Thompson who refers to Spence as a Director (sometimes Chairman, even) of Chelsea FC when his horses go to post where Tommo is acting as commentator. That description did apply in the Ken Bates days, but he’s now just a humble Vice-President, contrary to the Racing Post’s report on Priceless’s smart win. Had he been at Haydock rather than wasting his time at Wembley, Alan could have prevented the normally punctilious David Carr from making a rare error.