A truly spectacular weekend of racing awaits with the English and French Derbies being staged on Saturday and Sunday respectively, writes Nigel Howard.
The atmosphere at Chantilly, which provides the venue for the French Classic, is in complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of Epsom as it lies in the shadow of the grand Chateau de Chantilly and looks on to the magnificent Grandes Ecuries (Great Stables) built by Louis, Prince de Condé in 1719.
The Prix du Jockey Club was first staged in 1836 and was originally run over the classic distance of one mile-and-a-half. However, the distance was controversially dropped to one mile two-and-a-half furlongs, to set it apart from Epsom in an attempt to increase its appeal to owners and trainers by giving the ‘doubtful stayer’ a chance at Derby glory.
It is a policy that has succeeded in increasing the field sizes since its introduction in 2005 and has helped speedy types such as Shamardal, Lawman and Le Havre to Derby honours whilst surely costing the mighty Hurricane Run victory in its inaugural year at this distance, ironically at the hand of Shamardal.
Since 2005, the race has only crossed La Manche twice, with the last successful raider being the admirable The Grey Gatsby, who came to Chantilly after lifting the Dante Stakes at York.
The build up to this year’s event has in part been dominated by the weather, with the Paris region soaking up close to 200mm of rain in May, an amount not surpassed since 1873.
Directeur du l’Hippodrome, Mathieu Vincent, interviewed on Wednesday, was surprisingly optimistic and predicted that the course would have dried out to measure a respectable 3,5 on the pénétromètre, or bon souple (good to soft), come race day.
Like Epsom, Sunday’s event is a wide open affair, with seventeen Classic hopefuls from four different nations going to post, competing for a very healthy prize of 1.5 million euros.
Heading the home team and vying for favouritism is MEKHTAAL, trained by Jean-Claude Rouget. The Al Shaqab Racing-owned son of Sea The Stars put in a mighty performance on French Guineas day at Deauville when powering six lengths clear of his rivals in the Group 2 Prix Hocquart over one mile two furlongs. That was only his third career start and he remains unexposed. Since that victory, the horse has stayed in Deauville and was seen working to good effect on the turf track at La Toques Hippodrome on Wednesday.
Rouget stated, “We’ve just kept him ticking over since his impressive win in the Hocquart and he comes into the race in great form. I just hope he gets a clear run in what is a very big field”.
The Pau-based handler is also running ALMANZOR who completed his preparation for the race with an easy success in the Group 3 Prix de Guiche at Chantilly in mid-May over one mile and one furlong. His form looks solid enough as he previously ran third on his seasonal reappearance in the Group 3 Prix de Fontainebleau over a mile. Rouget believes the step up in trip will see further improvement and this son of Wootton Bassett looks a lively contender.
The winner of the Fontainebleau and supplemented at a cost of 72,000 euros, DICTON, ran a blinder to finish third in the Poule d’Essai des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas) last time behind runaway winner The Gurkha. He would surely have finished second given a clear run and the way he was staying on at the line suggests this son of Lawman will have no problem seeing out an extra two furlongs in this Classic contest.
Ground conditions are of no concern either as he has performed on soft and heavy. Indeed, the more it rains, the better his chances may become as heavy ground is likely to be against some of his rivals.
The Aga Khan’s ZARAK will be given the chance to make amends after he disappointed in the Poulains. Finishing fifth, connections were clearly expecting great things from the son of Arc heroine, Zarkava. Georges Rimaud, racing manager for the Aga Khan, suggested that he may have been inconvenienced by his low draw, contrary to The Gurkha who made his run down the centre of the track whilst ZARAK was stuck on the rail.
It is unlikely that, handed a wider draw, the Dubawi colt would have finished anywhere near the winner but what is certain is that given his breeding, he will appreciate this step up in trip and is clearly worthy of a second bite at the Classic cherry.
Even though Freddy Head has an astonishing twenty-eight French Classic victories to his name as a jockey, including four in this race, he is yet to taste glory at that level as a trainer. In an attempt to redress the balance, he fields RASEED for Hamdan Al Maktoum. This son of Dubawi ran out a clear winner of the Group 3 Prix Noailles over one mile two furlongs at this track at the end of April.
However, the second that day did nothing to frank the form when finishing last in a Listed event at Bordeaux next time out. Although he remains relatively unexposed, on paper he has a lot to find and the feeling is that M. Head may have to settle for place money at best.
Andre Fabre has saddled four winners of this race including last year’s impressive victor, New Bay, for Prince Khalid Abdullah. On this occasion he presents FLOODLIGHT and TALISMANIC, both for Godolphin and both by American sire Medaglia d´Oro.
On the book, neither seem to have the credentials necessary to lift this Group 1 prize. Of the two, TALISMANIC has the most appeal having triumphed in a Listed event at Saint Cloud on his most recent start, whilst FLOODLIGHT was well beaten behind ALMANZOR last time out. They regretfully don’t make my short list.
Of far more interest and heading up the British contingent is recent Dante third FOUNDATION. He hails from the all-conquering John Gosden stable and he will have the able assistance of Frankie Dettori in the saddle.
It has been well documented that this has been the main target for the son of Zoffany and he looks a worthy favourite. It will be a surprise if he isn’t in the mix. Of course, with FOUNDATION having finished behind Wings of Desire and Deauville at York, his price is likely to fluctuate based on how that pair fare at Epsom on Saturday.
This could equally be the case for ROBIN OF NAVAN who in winning the Group 1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud last term, beat Epsom Derby hopeful Cloth of Stars. The pair again drew swords in the Group 2 Prix Greffulhe run at the same course in May where Cloth of Stars took revenge on Harry Dunlop’s charge, producing an impressive burst of speed to collar the field in the final furlong with ROBIN OF NAVAN holding on for second.
After the race, Dunlop was far from discouraged by the performance, pointing to the fact that the son of American Post was making his seasonal reappearance and that he would improve ten pounds for the run. There is little doubt that a good showing from Cloth of Stars at Epsom on Saturday will clearly highlight the chances of ROBIN OF NAVAN and he is another that won’t be inconvenienced by any juice in the Chantilly turf. He must have serious claims.
Also flying the flag for team Great British Racing is the second supplementary entry, IMPERIAL AVIATOR. His handler, Roger Charlton, burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion when pulling off a rare Derby double by saddling Quest for Fame to win The Derby and then unleashing Sanglamore to win here for owner Prince Khalid Abdullah in 1990, his first season as a trainer.
Ironically, Charlton has not tasted Classic success on either side of the Channel since but he is obviously hopeful with the open nature of the race that IMPERIAL AVIATOR, a son of up-and-coming sire, Paco Boy, could trouble the judge; and indeed we have to respect the large supplementary fee paid by Qatar Racing for the horse to take his chance.
Oisin Murphy will ride and it will be interesting to see if there are any significant moves in the market on the day. He is a fascinating contender.
Astonishingly, Aidan O’Brien is yet to win this coveted prize: he saddled the second here last year in the form of Highland Reel but that is his best result to date. At Wednesday's first forfeit stage, Ballydoyle still had ten horses engaged in the race but that was whittled down to just two by Thursday, with the nod given to BRAVERY and BLACK SEA.
The market points to BRAVERY being the stronger of the two, this son of Galileo was seen running his best race to date when finishing fourth behind Awtaad and Galileo Gold in the Irish 2000 Guineas at The Curragh last Saturday. He might well improve for the extra two furlongs and cannot easily be overlooked when considering the ammunition O’Brien has at his disposal.
BLACK SEA is more easily dismissed having finished well down the field in the Dante at York on his most recent run.
So, an enthralling renewal of the Prix Du Jockey Club with much still depending on the weather and the consequent state of the ground on Sunday. Rain has thus far stayed away and, if this remains the case, then a sound surface may prevail.
Of the home team, it is difficult not to be impressed by MEKHTAAL who I witnessed at first hand at Deauville and who would seem to be the one to beat. However, it is also possible that ZARAK could bounce back after his disappointing effort in the French Guineas.
But the horse to really take out of that race should be DICTON who has been supplemented here, and who was really running on after a troubled passage. The feeling is that he would be a shorter price if trained by one of the major handlers.
For Les Anglais, FOUNDATION is the obvious choice, but I feel Cloth of Stars will run a big race at Epsom and for that reason ROBIN OF NAVAN should not be overlooked; and indeed IMPERIAL AVIATOR also gets a mention after bolting up in a very strong handicap last time.
Best Bet: DICTON E.W. (generally available at 14/1)
- Nigel Howard