Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, writes Tony Stafford. Apart from a cedilla (again) under the “c” of ca and a circumflex accent on the first “e” in meme – my keyboard probably does them, but I don’t know how - little happens that hasn’t happened before. Thus, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Except for the Kentucky Derby. Once again the elements conspired against the 150,000 crowd at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky, on Saturday night, heavy rain turning the dirt track into something resembling a swamp and presumably bringing back all too clearly to Ryan Moore his nightmare ride on Mendelssohn last May.
In all the general early buffeting that guaranteed the Aidan O’Brien/ Coolmore colt’s obliteration, there was no official sanction against any jockey contributing to the mayhem and quite a few of them did. It seemed in that race, for all its pre-eminence in the US Racing Calendar, anything went. Indeed never in its history had a winner been disqualified from first place for a riding or traffic misdemeanour.
Saturday night, though, one was. Maximum Security, unbeaten in his three previous races, forged ahead from the start, but moved off a straight line before the home turn. This caused general bunching and inconvenienced several of his opponents, although nothing so extreme as befell Mendelssohn. He was straightened out again by Panamanian jockey Luis Saez and despite looking briefly in trouble, pulled away once more for a convincing near two-length win.
Here we had, it seemed, another Justify, the career unbeaten (six in six) Triple Crown winner from last year and indeed American Pharoah, also a Triple Crown hero, if not quite, in his case, unbeaten from three years ago. What could beat him in the Preakness or the Belmont?
You could almost sense the Coolmore team getting out the stud books to assess what the colt’s sire, New Year’s Day, would be bringing to the party if they had indeed continued their monopoly of Triple Crown winners at Ashford Stud, Kentucky.
New Year’s Day had been on the Tabor/Magnier/Smith radar seven and a half years earlier. Their colt Havana (in Michael’s silks) looked sure to win the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita until New Year’s Day, trained by Bob Baffert, swept past to win going away.
He raced in the same maroon colours as the first-past-the-post colt, those of Gary and Mary West, who stand New Year’s Day. His 2018 fee was $5,000! Their home-bred, trained by Jason Servis, maintained the characteristics of his sire – unraced after that Juvenile triumph – by winning “going away”.
Then the stewards, much to almost everyone’s surprise, decided to take a second look, then a third, and from their bunker under the stands a 32nd, 42nd and probably 142nd view from five simultaneous screens calibrated to show every angle of the incident.
In the end, possibly 15 minutes after they went past the post, the news came that the 65-1 shot Country House, ridden by Frenchman Flavien Prat and trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott had got the race. Understandably, UK punters might have expected Maximum Security to be relegated to second, but as the stewards found Long range Toddy, who finished 16th of the 19 starters, to be one of those affected, the original winner goes down as finishing 17th. Long Range Toddy therefore will have dual infamy in history, as his rider Jon Court, 58, is the oldest jockey ever to take part in the Derby.
So we had a race where the second favourite crossed the line ahead of a 65-1 shot, who in being awarded the race, became the second-longest priced winner in the history of “the greatest two minutes in American sports”. The 4-1 favourite, one of three runners for Bob Baffert, was Improbable, who finished fifth of the 19.
While Ryan Moore might have been relieved this time not to be on the other side of the Atlantic on 2,000 Guineas Day, unlike last year when Donnacha O’Brien stepped in to ride the winner Saxon Warrior, metaphorically speaking, he appeared once again to be on the wrong side of the divide at Newmarket on Saturday.
As in Kentucky, 19 horses faced the starter in the UK’s first Classic of 2019. As in Kentucky, the second favourite won; and as in Kentucky, a 66-1 chance followed him over the line and the favourite, Ryan’s mount Ten Sovereigns, finished fifth. Once again Donnacha O’Brien collected the prize on Magna Grecia.
I know Andrew Balding was confident that his candidate, Shine So Bright, the Free Handicap winner, was drawn on the right side, near the stands rails. His main worry was the King Power colt might lack sufficient stamina and so it proved.
A similar stamina question mark was posed about the favourite, winner of the Middle Park last year. His gallant effort from mid-track perhaps understandably ran out of steam up the final climb and he was only third of the main bunch as Craven Stakes winner Skardu, and Madhmoon, passed him close home. He will probably join the more than a handful of Guineas non-stayers (Mozart, US Navy Flag et al) that later excelled in sprints and I feel a July Cup, if not Royal Ascot, coming on.
Meanwhile on the largely-unpopulated stands side, where surprisingly just the three saw fit to race, far removed from the rest who congregated in the middle, Shine So Bright set a strong pace. Magna Grecia comfortably followed and Richard Hannon’s longshot, King of Change, also kept in touch with them.
A long way from home, the trio could be seen to hold an advantage over the rest and Donnacha had merely to choose his moment to take the lead and secure Aidan O’Brien’s remarkable tenth training victory in the race. Once again Doncaster’s Futurity (now Vertem) provided the key to the result, last October’s narrow winner Magna Grecia following the example of Camelot and Saxon Warrior in recent years.
It was windy enough at Newmarket and although there had been a fair amount of rain, times were very similar to last year’s. That was true in the Guineas where this year’s running was 0.29sec slower than Saxon Warrior.
There was also a close relationship between the last two versions of the Zoustar Palace House Stakes. My favourite sprinter, Mabs Cross, won them both, the 2019 edition similarly slightly slower than last year’s in line with the Guineas. Mabs Cross was 0.23sec slower this year than last.
That said, in 2018 Mabs Cross met her contemporaries on level weights, apart from her 3lb female allowance, but yesterday she was burdened by a 7lb Group 1 penalty for last year’s Prix de l’Abbaye success, compensation for her paper-thin defeat in the Nunthorpe at York.
After Newmarket last year, when she had the benefit of a previous run, Michael Dods took her to Haydock where she finished a strong fourth before again running on well to be third as a 20-1 shot behind the fliers Blue Point and Battaash in the King’s Stand at Royal Ascot.
The Dutch Art mare is so tough and yesterday’s win under 9st 10lb I am sure will be the prelude to her becoming yet another Palace House winner to follow up in the King’s Stand. I still get a vicarious thrill when the Armstrongs’ red, white spots on cap, go over the line in front. What delights me equally is when they do, Emma Armstrong doesn’t mind my coming into the winner’s enclosure to help celebrate their success.
- Tony Stafford