The Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury is the highlight of this weekend’s action.
The one-mile contest forms part of the Qipco Champions Series, which sees three-year-old’s kept away from the older horses until the generations clash in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood. From Newbury’s showpiece, attention will turn to Royal Ascot and the Queen Anne Stakes, won last year by the season’s outstanding miler Solow.
First run in 1958, the Lockinge Stakes was raised to Group 1 status in 1995 and has gone to numerous outstanding milers in its illustrious history. In 1972 the race was won by one of the greatest milers of them all, Brigadier Gerard. In a dazzling career over three seasons, he was only defeated once in 18 starts. Trained by Major Dick Hern and ridden in all his races by Joe Mercer, the horse became a phenomenon, with arguably only Frankel matching his astounding achievements.
Sir Henry Cecil’s extraordinary champion won all 14 of his career starts, though it was not just the victories that impressed, rather the style of those victories. Frankel was a monster on the racetrack, and his win in the Lockinge of 2012 typified that destructive manner of success. On that occasion he crushed an outstanding miler in Excelebration. Given the perfect tow into the race from stable companion Bullet Train, the mighty colt was sent on by regular pilot Tom Queally just inside the two-furlong mark. Frankel devoured the turf, pulling five lengths clear at the post.
This legendary pair were as good a miler’s as we are ever likely to see, though most that win the Lockinge are top-class and become multiple Group 1 winners. Last year’s race went to the 2014 Guineas winner Night of Thunder. That victory made it two in a row for trainer Richard Hannon, having taken the 2014 renewal with Olympic Glory.
Between them, Hannon senior and junior have trained four of the last six Lockinge Stakes winners, and Godolphin have become the most successful owners, thanks to two victories in the last three renewals. Tomorrow the teams unite with Toormore looking to go one better than 12 months ago, when he was pipped at the post by Night of Thunder. He’s likely to go off as favourite having won his seasonal return at Sandown in the Group 2 Bet365 Mile. He’s undoubtedly classy, though his only Group 1 success came as a juvenile in the National Stakes at the Curragh.
His latest win came at the expense of another Godolphin pair in Dutch Connection and Belardo, though it would come as no surprise should that form be reversed. At Sandown Dutch Connection travelled like the best horse through the race before tiring late on, whilst Belardo was given a rather mediocre ride, being left with far too much ground to make up in the latter stages. Charlie Hills trains the former and is adamant that soft ground will be far from ideal. The opposite is true of Roger Varian’s son of Lope De Vega, and I’d expect a huge run from Belardo should the ground at Newbury remain testing.
Ground conditions are sure to play a huge part in proceedings. Limato was strongly fancied before the rains arrived, and is now drifting considerably in the markets. He’ll be tackling a mile for the first time, and has never run on ground officially slower than good. His trainer, Henry Candy, will walk the course on Saturday before committing the horse to the race.
Kodi Bear on the other hand, will love conditions if they remain testing, and has been backed accordingly. His stunning success in the Group 2 Celebration Mile last August came in testing ground, though he failed to reproduce that kind of form when stepped up to Group 1 company in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Champions Day. As much as conditions look set to suit this fella, I fancy he’s not quite good enough to win at this level.
In a race that has been dominated by four-year-olds in recent times, Ger Lyons has an intriguing contender from Ireland in the form of Endless Drama. Another son of Lope De Vega, he was a close second to Gleneagles in the Irish Guineas last May, before injury put an end to his three-year-old campaign. Returning in a Group 1 is far from ideal, but his pedigree suggests that conditions should be fine, and he had Belardo behind him in the guineas. He’s a huge beast and remains an exciting prospect.
But it’s Godolphin that appear to hold the strongest hand, as they look to add to their six previous victories. Favourites have a great record in the Lockinge, with five of the last six successful. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that the form of Toormore’s Sandown win will be turned on its head. I’ll likely back both Dutch Connection and Belardo, with both four-year-olds having the potential of improving past the likely favourite. I fear Ger Lyons Irish raider, though the lack of a prep-run will stop me from backing him.
Many of these will head to Royal Ascot, when the ground is likely to be much quicker. I’d be surprised if Dutch Connection and Endless Drama don’t prove to be the best of the bunch as the season unfolds.