Enable, Harry Angel, Winter, a vintage Royal Ascot, Big Orange, Battaash, Ribchester, Aidan O’Brien’s Group One record bid, Ulysses, Highland Reel, a cracking St Leger and a thrilling Derby.
It’s not been a bad old Flat season after all, has it? Despite what you are sure to read elsewhere in the coming weeks. One renowned tipster has already described it as “a damp squib”. Well, if this has been a damp squib, I’d hate to be near him when the fireworks go off!
In fact, when you consider the amount of rain that has fallen since we basked and baked in record-breaking temperatures at Royal Ascot, it’s been a pretty good season.
Frustrated punters have been foaming at the mouth over the weather. Normally, between June and September, they can rely on a consistent spell of decent, fast ground that yields consistent and credible form. Yet barely a meeting has passed without the word ‘Soft’ appearing in the going description, so allied to a string of unfathomable results in nearly all of the big handicaps, making money has not been easy.
However, if the remit for a season is to provide richly competitive, interesting and enjoyable racing, laced with some top-class horses and performances, then the 2017 Flat campaign has definitely delivered.
Quite whether the same will be said of the Jumps season, which is just getting going, is another matter. Outside the major festivals, which are thriving, small, uncompetitive fields are becoming the norm, exposing the fragile state of the National Hunt game in the UK. The number of races featuring odds-on favourites is now alarmingly high, and recent evidence suggests there simply isn’t the strength in depth, nor the number of horses, to meet the demand of so many fabulous Saturday races through the winter.
However, that’s a debate for another time. The Flat season still has two or three of its ace cards to play, so let’s concentrate on those for the time being. This weekend, Newmarket stages the latest instalment of what it now brands its autumn Gold Season. We’ve already had the three-day Cambridgeshire meeting which, as usual, was immensely informative and deserving of far more robust marketing than it currently receives. And last Saturday, the Rowley Mile served up Sun Chariot Day, which also featured the finals in the EBF Breeders’ series of fillies’ handicaps, a hugely popular innovation. Now it’s time for another relatively fresh concept, the two-day Dubai Future Champions Festival in which nine of the 14 races are Group or Listed contests.
The following weekend, Ascot hosts Qipco Champions Day, which is firmly established as one of the highlights of the world racing calendar. And then a Doncaster denouement, featuring those annual staples, the Racing Post Trophy and the November Handicap, is the domestic alternative to the Breeders’ Cup in the USA, which takes place this year over the weekend of November 3 and 4 at Del Mar on the Californian coast. Excited? You bet! It’s not quite time to dust down the Cheltenham members’ badge just yet!
Like so many meetings these days, the Cambridgeshire was branded through its gimmicky sideshow, rather than its racing. Unless you knew better, you were being tempted to a beer festival, which actually amounted to a few brews no-one had ever heard of being served in a spacious tent. On the track is where the focus should have been because stars were born and bubbles were burst in a host of Group contests.
The best performances of the meeting were supplied by Andrew Balding’s rapidly-improving 3yo BEAT THE BANK and by O’Brien’s irresistible 2yo filly CLEMMIE, both of whom defied absences. The former turned the Group Two Joel Stakes into a procession, despite pulling too hard early on, and is now to eat from the top table with Ribchester and Co in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Champions Day. The latter, a full sister to dual Guineas winner Churchill, was polished and professional in landing the Group One Cheveley Park Stakes and became the first progeny of supersire Galileo to win over 6f at the highest level. I would not want to be on anything else at this stage for the Qipco 1,000 Guineas back at Headquarters next spring.
On the same day, O’Brien also bagged a one-two in the Cheveley Park’s equivalent for the colts, the Middle Park Stakes, which was the best, most competitive renewal for many years and yet was largely pooh-poohed because it threw up an unexpected outcome. At least the win by US NAVY FLAG, at 10/1, from FLEET REVIEW, at 25/1, served to dismiss the notion, shamefully bandied about in some quarters, that when O’Brien is mob-handed in races, not all his charges are running on their individual merit.
The Ballydoyle boys were denied a notable 2yo Group treble when NELSON was just touched off by ROARING LION in the Royal Lodge Stakes over 1m. But I reckon time might tell that still wasn’t a bad performance by the son of Frankel, who is crying out for middle-distances next season, because John Gosden’s winner is a lovely-looking grey, improving at a rate of knots and possessing the scope to develop into a top-notcher. Don’t be surprised either if the top-notch tag is applied in time to Mark Johnston’s Tattersalls Stakes winner ELARQAM, a superbly-bred son of Frankel and his brilliant 2004 1,000 Guineas winner Attraction. Nor indeed to the first two home in the 7f maiden, THRAVE, trained by Henry Candy, and ELWAZIR, the latest in a string of promising juveniles to emerge from the stable of Owen Burrows, Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s retained trainer.
So, can we expect similar pointers from this weekend’s Future Champions Festival? Almost certainly because, of the Pattern races, six are for 2yos, including the Group One Darley Dewhurst Stakes and bet365 Fillies’ Mile. The Dewhurst, in particular, is shaping up to be a magnificent renewal, spearheaded by the return of EXPERT EYE, regarded by Sir Michael Stoute as one of the best juveniles he has trained. At the time of his breathtaking win in the Qatar Vintage Stakes at Glorious Goodwood, I was of the opinion that he hadn’t beaten much. But three of those who trailed in his wake that day have gone on to big-race success, so if he is fully recovered from an infection that he picked up subsequently, he must go close on Saturday. Dangers abound, however, most notably Gosden’s EMARAATY, who won with ridiculous ease at Newbury last time, and VERBAL DEXTERITY, trained by Jim Bolger, who made the Dewhurst his own between 2006 and 2012, landing it five times. And then, of course, there is the threat from the battalions of O’Brien, who is now just three victories away from breaking Bobby Frankel’s record for the number of Group or Grade One triumphs in a calendar year. The aforementioned US Navy Flag, plus SEAHENGE, HAPPILY, MAGICAL and the not-to-be-under-estimated Royal Ascot winner SEPTEMBER, who has not had her ideal ground on her last two starts, are the main dice he throws at Newmarket. And lower down the food-chain, he also has an interesting posse of staying types entered in the Listed Zetland Stakes over 10f.
One race O’Brien won’t be winning is the Betfred Cesarewitch, which also takes centre stage on Saturday. One of the oldest races in existence, first run in 1839, the 2m2f marathon remains a popular betting heat. But not far behind it is the bet365 Old Rowley Cup Handicap for middle-distance 3yos, which has developed into an end-of-season treat since it was inaugurated in 2014. Don’t miss it. In fact, don’t miss any of the action at Newmarket this Friday and Saturday. It promises to be the perfect aperitif to the Champions’ Day bonanza a week later.
There is little doubt that Flat racing in the UK is in a very good place at the moment. A place that has been enhanced by Prince Khalid Abdullah’s decision to keep horse of the year, ENABLE, in training for another season. I must say I’m surprised, given the daughter of Nathaniel’s value as a broodmare, but it can only be healthy for the sport and should give the filly the opportunity to make a mockery of ludicrous claims currently doing the rounds that she has been a beneficiary of the weight-for-age scale and fillies’ allowances this term. The function of the scale and allowances is to create a level playing-field for 3yos still developing and not yet as mature, both physically and mentally, as older rivals, not to create some sort of advantage. Given that Enable didn’t even see a racecourse until November 28 last year, only ten-and-a-half months ago, she can hardly have been fully mature and fully developed this season.
Racing on also raises the possibility of a clash or two next summer with WINX, the mighty mare from Down Under. It might never happen because Enable is essentially a staying horse, best over 12f, as we saw in the King George and the Arc, while Winx is essentially a speed horse, best over 1m or 10f, as we saw at Flemington for her 21st successive triumph the other day. But there’s no doubt, again, that such a duel would be healthy for the sport, creating a wave of public interest. Racing just needs to be careful not to turn it into an artificial, manufactured circus. If the pair are going to meet, let it happen naturally, within the context and perspective of an established Group One contest. This is racing, not boxing. The horse must come first, and form and fitness must dictate where and when they run.