Gun Runner won the Woodward and is Tony Stafford's idea of the Breeders' Cup Classic winner

Monday Musings: Expectation vs Reality

I fully expected to be writing here about a nice win for Tarnhelm at Chelmsford City on Saturday evening, but a bad bump from the opponent drawn immediately to her right in the stalls for the five-furlong four-runner contest, put her on the back foot from the outset and there she stayed, writes Tony Stafford.

Trainer Mark Johnston had flown himself back from the sales at Baden-Baden, taking two hours, forty minutes and said: “It’ll be another hour and a quarter to fly home”. He apparently agreed with most people’s expectation that she should win, conveying that opinion to Derek Thompson in a televised interview before the race.

On a night when Boyzone were responsible for a large influx from the environs of mid-Essex, Johnston still had a couple of winners, including a 1-2 in the most valuable handicap, the Betfred Chelmsford Cup to bring him to 174 for the season. Would have been nice if it were 175!

The good thing about racing, though, is that there’s usually another day. Take for example the American four-year-old Gun Runner, third behind at-the-time unbeaten Nyquist and the tough Exaggerator in the 20-runner Kentucky Derby in May of last year. Almost 11 months later he beat all bar Arrogate, the 2016 Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic hero, in the Dubai World Cup.

It is extraordinary how few horses campaigned at the top level on dirt in the United States, stand the clichéd test of time. Nyquist turned up at the Preakness last year defending an eight-race sequence, but lost his Triple Crown chance when Exaggerator took his revenge at Pimlico. Neither horse ran in the Belmont, but they met again in late July in the Haskell when Exaggerator won again with Nyquist dropping back.

The defining day for the pair came next time out in the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx (Philadelphia Park) when they ran a tag team sixth and seventh back in Churchill Downs order behind Connect while Gun Runner was a battling second, half a length adrift of the winner. Both Classic heroes ended their track careers that day while the smart Bob Baffert-trained Cupid, a disappointing eighth there, has managed only a single run since for his Coolmore owners, admittedly a win in a Santa Anita Grade 1, on May 28. Connect has competed only twice since, again winning both times, in an Aqueduct Grade 1 in November last year, and in May this year in a Belmont Grade 3. Such inactivity suggests training issues for both colts.

The erosional aspect of dirt competition at the top level seems to have at least temporarily debilitated even Arrogate, beaten on both runs since Dubai, first embarrassingly tailed off, and the last time showing a lack of concentration before belatedly staying on for second to stablemate Collected in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

Maybe the effects of that spectacular triumph at Meydan have stayed with him. It took a special performance to shrug off the very tardy start he made that day, and perhaps even more significantly, the effort of beating the battle-hardened California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic which possibly left a bigger mark than was expected at the time.

Meanwhile Gun Runner has put together a set of six excellent displays, with only Dubai on the negative side of the ledger, if it is possible to describe a second prize of £1.6 million a “negative”. Since Dubai, Gun Runner, a Steve Asmussen-trained son of Candy Ride, has secured three of North America’s most-prized  Grade 1 races: the Stephen Foster, at Churchill Downs by seven lengths; and two Saratoga highlights, the Whitney, and Saturday’s Woodford in progressively authoritative fashion.

The double-digits Woodward margin makes him my overwhelming pick for the Classic at Del Mar this autumn, whether Arrogate turns up or not. As they used to say about boxers: “They never come back” and I reckon it will take a character-transplant for Baffert to get Arrogate competitive enough to dent Gun Runner this time.

It is difficult to imagine much of a threat coming from this side of the Atlantic, such are the differing demands of dirt and turf. No doubt, though, the European challenge in the Breeders’ Cup turf races will be as strong as ever and the imminent Irish Champions weekend at Leopardstown and The Curragh will provide plenty of clues.

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Before that there’s an interesting race at Ascot on Friday, for Team Tooth anyway, as the card features a sire-restricted event. The seven furlong two-year-old race is limited to horses sired by stallions that won over 10 furlongs or more and only 19 – compared with 50 in a race worth half the money over that trip at Sandown last week – are entered.

Raymond has a homebred colt by Mount Nelson, called Nelson River, in the line-up and hopefully he will take his chance. Three Frankels and two Nathaniels are among those set to take on Clive Cox’s well-grown colt so it will be a decent examination for sure.

Mark Johnston has one of them, Elarqam, a 1.6 million guineas buy for Hamdan Al Maktoum, who is by Frankel out of Mark’s multiple champion sprinter-miler, Attraction. When I quizzed him he said, in typically forthright manner: “The race is meant to give an opportunity to staying-bred horses, and Elarqam does not really fit that profile, being out of Attraction”, or words to that effect, without suggesting whether he might be “expected”.

As usual there’s a mix of lightly-raced promising types and well-connected debutants representing major stables, but Clive has been pleased with Nelson River’s progress and we hope he will give the proverbial “good account” if he turns up.

One former Tooth inmate, the Wilf Storey-trained Adrakhan, participated last week in an epic day for the Co. Durham trainer when sharing in a Musselburgh double initiated by Mr Sundowner, the only Scat Daddy ever to be sighted in Muggleswick .

Regular readers will know that I have had a connection with Wilf and his family for more than 30 years. He’d been training for quite a while before that and until this year, the most Flat winners he’d sent out in a single campaign was eight, achieved in 1996 and 1997. In those days he was more active in National Hunt, but the near-inevitability that one day most jumpers’ careers will end with some kind of injury persuaded him to change tack.

Adrakhan won one novice hurdle for Dan Skelton before losing his form and Wilf eventually acquired him. A number of Tooth “culls” had already taken that path and the sheep farmer, capably assisted by chief work-rider, box driver and parade-ring escort – daughter Stella – has eked out wins from has-beens that others would hardly bother with.

The two Musselburgh winners were both in Storey’s own colours, because as he says: “Nobody seems to want to have a horse with us nowadays. The other day I heard what some trainers are charging. What they want for a week’s keep will pay for nearly three weeks here!”

The double made it ten for the year, and with at least half a dozen potential winners still active, optimism is high in sheep-rearing country. “It’s made a big difference having the all-weather at Newcastle. It’s a brilliant track – all the other all-weathers are a long way from here – and we can get there in about half an hour. I wish they’d built it 20 years ago,” he says. Needless to say Storey can’t wait for the busy Newcastle winter programme where he hopes to add a few more to that total.

- Tony Stafford

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