The Guineas Classics at Newmarket last weekend were, quite rightly, hyped as mouthwatering prospects.
But not for the first time, the Rowley Mile did not quite deliver what was expected.
In Saturday’s QIPCO 2,000 Guineas, the best horses probably occupied the first three places. Unfortunately, they were spread across the expanse of the track in a two-group race that was difficult to swallow, both aesthetically and evaluatively.
Sunday’s QIPCO 1,000 Guineas panned out in more orthodox fashion as the runners followed an arrow-like formation up the centre of the straight mile. But I will be amazed if the race proves to be anything better than an ordinary renewal.
They took an age to pass the pacesetter, a filly rated only 98 who finished just fifth at Newbury a month earlier in the Fred Darling. The first two home in that trial were deemed not good enough to even take their chance in the Classic. But the 1,000 Guineas was tarnished not only by the defection of J WONDER and AL THAKHIRA. The absence of the ill-fated CHRISELLIAM damaged the quality of the field, as did the 11th-hour withdrawals of three of the major players, MY TITANIA, KIYOSHI and AMAZING MARIA.
On top of that, several fillies who did take their chance did not shine or did not stay. A pre-race plunge on TAPESTRY went awry, with Aidan O’Brien confessing afterwards that he had over-trained the daughter of Galileo, leaving her too light in condition.
Stamina was found wanting in the likes of VORDA, JOYEUSE, SANDIVA and LUCKY KRISTALE while, not for the first time in her career, RIZEENA could not produce her best on the Newmarket undulations.
I am reluctant to denigrate the winner, MISS FRANCE. Her success clearly reflected a characteristic piece of inspired training by revered veteran Andre Fabre to return her back to her best after such a lamentable performance on her seasonal re-appearance. And she benfited from a sensible ride by the brilliant Maxime Guyon.
However, the filly to take from the race was unquestionably LIGHTNING THUNDER, who finished runner-up to Fabre’s charge for the second time in her brief career.
In a contest where it paid to be handy, Lightning Thunder was the only principal to come from off the pace. Furthermore, she was the only filly of the first six without guaranteed race-fitness as she made her first appearance since disappointing in the Rockfel Stakes here last autumn.
It was ironic that Olly Stevens’s daughter of Dutch Art arrived on the scene a shade too late, having got there too soon when beaten by the same Miss France in another juvenile contest at Newmarket, the Oh So Sharp Stakes. But Stevens is convinced she can continue to improve as the season progresses.
Of course, to a large degree, the Guineas are all about the preparation of a road map for the rest of the season.
The Frankel route was the way forward charted for KINGMAN, sensational winner of the Greenham trial at Newbury and hot favourite for the 2,000 Guineas.
Quite whether that will remain unchanged after his narrow, agonising defeat might be the subject of debate. For while he ran a perfectly sound race, quickening to order and definitely allaying all stamina fears, it was a shade disconcerting that he was still beaten, even though he was one of few to maintain a straight, orthodox line throughout the race.
Winner NIGHT OF THUNDER veered violently left as he powered up the hill in the final furlong, yet still reeled in Kingman, somehow turning round a four-and-a-half length deficit from the Greenham. While Joseph O’Brien on AUSTRALIA, having broken up the centre of the course, opted to switch markedly left to join the group on the stands’ side where he perhaps ended up racing too soon to throw down his challenge as those in front of him weakened.
The wisdom of O’Brien’s manoeuvre can hardly be criticised. But the wisdom of the decision by champion jockey Richard Hughes on TOORMORE to initiate that shift to the near rail certainly can.
I suspect Hughes did it in full expectation that many of the jockeys would follow, thus making life very difficult for -- or even isolate -- the favourite, Kingman, who was drawn furthest away from the stands in stall one.
It certainly didn’t work for his own mount, with Toormore not appearing to enjoy being out in front so long (unlike at The Curragh last September) and ending up being beaten by both his stablemates, who are considered inferior colts.
But irony of ironies, Hughes’s employer, Richard Hannon, still won the race -- with a different animal that Hughes had championed after his two electrifying wins as a two-year-old.
Night Of Thunder’s victory was no fluke. And it brought welcome success for owner Saeed Manana, who has invested heavily in British racing for many years, and for jockey Kieren Fallon, whose career has followed many varied paths but whose race-riding remains intelligent and intuitive.
However, there is equally little doubt that the second and third must still be considered top-class horses. Yes, Kingman was vanquished -- and the frustration was etched all over trainer John Gosden’s face as long as 24 hours after the race. But the book will continue to tell us that he thrashed the winner of the 2,000 Guineas by four-and-a-half lengths.
As for Australia, Epsom on Saturday 7th June surely beckons for the son of a Derby winner (Galileo) an an Oaks winner (Ouija Board). O’Brien leaves himself open to much mickey-taking and mocking when he issues statements along the lines of ‘best horse I have trained’. But this colt looked magnificent at Newmarket and, considering the circumstances of the race over an inadequate trip, produced a serious performance that went some way towards supporting his praise.
It might stick in the craw of sporting enthusiasts that only a matter of months after Australia bashed up the Poms in the Ashes, it might do so again in the Derby. But after a Classic weekend which threw up more confusion than clarity, that just might be the most concrete conclusion to draw.