Now the dust has settled on another jumps season and we have waved our final farewells to AP, it’s time to concentrate on the Flat.
I often worry that the start of the new Flat campaign is nigh-on obliterated by the attention paid to the plethora of spring festivals over the sticks. And of course, this year, we were treated not only to a typically memorable three days at Aintree but also the fanfare that enveloped Tony McCoy’s last appearance as champion jockey. What’s more, the Irish beanfeast at Punchestown is still to come.
Racing should be proud of the way it has ‘re-invented’ the Grand National and also of the way it handled McCoy’s retirement party at Sandown.
However, time waits for no man, not even the greatest, and it would be punting folly to ignore Newmarket’s Craven meeting, Newbury’s Greenham meeting and also the first day of Sandown’s April fixture. For they yield a goldmine of information and clues that guide us safely through the gateway to every new Flat season.
Our resident racing expert RICHARD SILVERWOOD was there for all five days and has compiled this list from the meetings of 21 horses to follow in the coming weeks.
BEAUTIFUL ROMANCE 3yo filly (Saeed bin Suroor), 3RD Newmarket
Richard Hannon’s Osaila received a lot of praise for her victory in the Nell Gwynn, a trial for the 1,000 Guineas. But this lengthy daughter of New Approach was the pick of the paddock and very much the one to take from the race for me. Not necessarily for the Guineas, although she would acquit herself well, but for the Oaks at Epsom. Having won over 1m on her sole juvenile start, the drop to 7f looked sure to be against her, but she showed plenty.
FIELD OF FAME 4yo gelding (Andrew Balding), 3RD Newbury
Andrew Balding’s four-year-old had not been seen since landing his sole juvenile start in Heavy ground, so it’s indicative of how highly regarded he is that he has been kept in training. The decision looked thoroughly justified after this re-appearance in a hot handicap. Travelling noticeably smoothly, despite very different ground, he would have gone close to winning but for getting squeezed out late on. Compensation awaits in the coming weeks.
GIFTED MASTER 2yo colt (Hugo Palmer), WON Newmarket
Newmarket handler Hugo Palmer has been quick out of the blocks this term, including with this speedy juvenile, who was the subject of glowing reports leading up to a terrific winning debut. The son of crack sire of two-year-olds, Kodiac, he displayed signs of greenness but also a ready turn of foot once finding room on the stands rail. Royal Ascot has been circled in the Palmer diary.
HARVARD MAN 2yo colt (Brian Meehan), WON Newbury
When a two-year-old in the care of Brian Meehan wins first time out, it’s a fair bet he’s above average. So keep an eye on this son of Royal Ascot sprint winner Equiano, who unleashed a blistering turn of speed just after halfway under his emerging jockey Antonia Fresu to kill this early-season maiden stone dead. Meehan considers the colt himself to be Royal meeting material.
INTILAAQ 3yo colt (Roger Varian), WON Newbury
Newmarket handler Roger Varian hasn’t exactly set the first few weeks of the Flat season alight, so it’s probably significant that the one outstanding exception to the norm has been this son of Dynaformer who built on a nice debut last autumn to make all in blistering fashion here. It’s a maiden that often contains some promising sorts, but by halfway, he had most of them in trouble and the way he quickened clear in the final furlong suggests connections are right to consider a tilt at the 2,000 Guineas.
JACK HOBBS 3yo colt (John Gosden), WON Sandown
It required explanation why a horse arrived for one of the best early-season 10f handicaps for three-year-olds as an odds-on favourite on the back of just one win in a modest maiden on the all-weather. The superb-looking colt’s performance duly provided it. Once set alight by Frankie Dettori in the final furlong, he bolted clear in the style of a class act and one heading for Epsom on the first Saturday in June. Time will tell whether he’s good enough to win a Derby, but he’s certainly good enough to win Group contests.
JELLICLE BALL 3yo filly (John Gosden), 2ND Newbury
Take out hot favourite Tiggy Wiggy, who was below par, and this was a weak Fred Darling. But John Gosden’s once-raced filly was the one to catch the eye as she defied inexperience, a poor position towards the rear and the need for further to run a solid trial, not just for the 1,000 Guineas but also for the Oaks, for which she is bred. After making steady headway, she threw down a resolute challenge to the pillar-to-post winner and must improve as the season progresses.
KURLAND 2yo filly (Martyn Meade), WON Newmarket
Quite a few were in the know about Newmarket trainer Martyn Meade’s grey newcomer, a daughter of Kheleyf, ahead of this respectable maiden. And they weren’t disappointed. She travelled markedly strongly, quickened to the front approaching the 1f pole and forged clear. No wonder Meade is now eyeing the Queen Mary at Royal Ascot, in which her dam, Bunditten, finished fourth.
LUCKY KRISTALE 4yo filly (George Margarson), 5TH Newmarket
After a wasted campaign last year, when efforts to turn her into a miler failed, this was a significant return to sprinting by the 2013 winner of the Cherry Hinton and Lowther Stakes. Anchored in rear, she travelled smoothly and ended up running on strongly after meeting telling interference when jockey Tom Queally first tried to make his move. The classy daughter of Lucky Story must be followed over 6f from now on.
MAHSOOB 4yo colt (John Gosden), WON Newbury
Exploiting a lenient mark with an improving, lightly-raced sort is one of John Gosden’s strengths, so it was no surprise to see this son of Dansili boss such a competitive handicap. However, the startling manner in which the Hamdan Al Maktoum-owned colt did it suggests he’s heading for Group company. From an impossible high draw, he found himself out the back turning for home before making relentless progress, topped by a turn of foot that propelled him to the front, even though he veered left through inexperience.
MUSTAAQEEM 3yo colt (Sir Michael Stoute), 2ND Newmarket
Most of Sir Michael Stoute’s seasonal debutants have been needing the run, so when this tall colt arrived in the paddock green and noisy ahead of the Wood Ditton Stakes, similar was expected. What an eye-opener it was then for the Hamdan Al Maktoum-owned son of Dynaformer to figure so prominently. Well related, he clearly has a bright future over 1m or further.
MUTARAKEZ 3yo colt (Brian Meehan), WON Sandown
Over-watered ground on the Esher slopes justifiably upset a lot of professionals. Many horses, expecting ground verging on quick, failed to pick up. But not this colt, who produced an effortless change of gear to streak clear in what is always a competitive 1m handicap for three-year-olds. Trainer Brian Meehan was not surprised and has now hatched a plan that will lead the horse to the Britannia Stakes at Royal Ascot. via an interim engagement at Haydock.
NEXT APPROACH 3yo colt (John Gosden), 3RD Newmarket
This fascinating maiden has been farmed in recent seasons by John Gosden, who has made his customary, slick start to the new campaign. He didn’t win it this time, but his chief representative, a good-looking chestnut son of Derby winner New Approach, showed enough on debut, surrounded by more experienced rivals, to suggest he won’t be long in getting off the mark.
RING OF TRUTH 2yo filly (Sir Michael Stoute), 2ND Newbury
The Queen is an annual attender of Newbury’s Greenham meeting, so she must have been delighted that this daughter of Royal Applause was forward enough to unveil bags of promise for the future. There’s not much of her, but she quickened up takingly in the final furlong to bear down on the smart winner close home, without being subjected to too hard a ride on debut by Richard Hughes.
SALT ISLAND 3yo colt (Charles Hills), WON Newmarket
A seriously impressive sprinting performance on his handicap bow by Charles’ Hills’s son of Exceed And Excel. After winning on debut as a two-year-old, he was never well, but made up for lost time here, tanking through a competitive race, exploding to the front and shooting clear. He’s definitely better than a handicapper, so expect to see him next at in Newbury’s Listed Carnarvon Stakes in mid-May.
SIXTH SENSE 2yo colt (Mark Johnston), 3RD Newbury
It might seem crackers to note a juvenile already beaten twice in the early weeks of the season. But this regally-bred son of Shamardal, out of a Sadler’s Wells mare, was by far the best looker in the field for what proved to be a good maiden, and is simply crying out for further than the minimum trip before he breaks his duck. He’s a half-brother to numerous winners.
VIBE QUEEN 3yo filly (John Gosden), 4TH Newbury
Although he saddled the warm favourite for this informative fillies’ maiden, John Gosden’s other two runners caught the eye most in the paddock, including this neat and compact daughter of Invincible Spirit. At no stage was she close enough to win the race, but she ran on most encouragingly late in the piece and is sure to land a prize or two as the season progresses, probably over further than this 7f.
WAADY 3yo colt (John Gosden), WON Sandown
John Gosden isn’t renowned for his training of sprinters, but he knows what to do with one when he gets one, and this powerful son of Approve is progressing perfectly. He wears a hood and got a bit warm ahead of this decent handicap, but settled, travelled and, when a convenient gap appeared, he was good enough to quicken through it to run out a taking winner. The colt has now taken three of four starts, and should win more before the campaign is out.
WATCHABLE 5yo gelding (David O’Meara), 2ND Newmarket
Trainer David O’Meara is a dab-hand with recruits from other yards -- and this five-year-old looks poised to develop into a leading sprinter this term on the evidence of a fine effort in a fetching, competitive renewal of the Abernant Stakes. Always handy, he was only run out of it by a race-fit rival. Unlike many 5f/6f animals, he has few miles on the clock and has always been highly regarded.
YASMEEN 3yo filly (John Gosden), WON Newbury
Although he saddled the warm favourite for this informative fillies’ maiden, John Gosden’s other two runners caught the eye most in the paddock, including this big, scopy daughter of wonder-horse Sea The Stars. Always prominent, she burst clear in the final furlong, which was quite something considering she’d raced a bit too keenly early on. She’s expected to take a step-up in class in her stride, with Gosden already considering the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot.
ZEB UN NISA 3yo filly (Roger Charlton), 2ND Sandown
Roger Charlton feared this medium-sized daughter of crack sprinter Ifraaj might not have trained on ahead this seasonal bow in a strong, competitive handicap. But she looked a picture and showed more than enough to allay those worries, picking up nicely up late on after needing to be switched to the wide outside once the impressive winner had got first run. Providing she takes her racing, she can win a pot or two.