At a time when Hughie Morrison has been left with a career-threatening alleged offence hanging over him, and one which nobody I’ve spoken to believes he had anything to do with, it was easy to understand his reaction to Marmelo’s run in Australia over the weekend, writes Tony Stafford.
Competing over a markedly inadequate mile and a half in the Caulfield Cup, Marmelo ran around much of the 17-strong field to finish only two and three-quarter lengths behind surprise winner Boom Time in a share of sixth place.
The trainer, viewing the race 10,500 miles away from Melbourne, across which city at the Flemington racecourse on November 7th the Melbourne Cup will be run over two miles, expressed concerned that his constantly-improving four-year-old had been faced with firm ground. The local bookmakers were less fazed, promoting the proven stayer to 5-1 favouritism in general betting.
Marmelo is a typical Morrison project. A son of the high-class Duke of Marmalade, he was unraced at two and made his debut in the Newbury maiden won by Ulysses in May of last year. A second at Kempton followed in June, then a ten-length romp in the soft at Doncaster over a mile and a half when a couple of John Gosden inmates followed him home.
Since then, Morrison’s caution concerning the ground for his big, imposing colt has meant that only one of his subsequent eight races has been in England – he was a creditable close fifth to Dartmouth in the Yorkshire Cup in May.
Otherwise it’s been a season ticket to France, starting at Deauville, then Chantilly and Deauville again last year, first winning a Listed contest over 15 furlongs, before running third in a Group 2 and second in another Listed race at the back end.
The tempo increased this time around with a Chantilly second preceding York, before another excellent runner-up spot, this time at Saint-Cloud in July, and a Group 2 victory over subsequent Doncaster Cup winner Desert Skyline back at Deauville in August.
The three-year-old Desert Skyline provides a form link from Doncaster with another feasible European contender. Thomas Hobson, once trained by Gosden, but latterly a multiple jumps winner for Willie Mullins, was second to the David Elsworth stayer at Doncaster.
Another Mullins Melbourne Cup hopeful is the well-travelled and equally versatile Wicklow Brave who was among the back division in the Caulfield Cup. Although officially run on good ground, the fast time (2min 27 and change) adds credence to Morrison’s horrified “it was firm” reaction and makes understandable, in view of the horse’s avoidance of such surfaces to date, his worries as to whether Marmelo will have come through the race in one piece.
One interesting side-line is that Hugh Bowman, who has been on the super-mare Winx in each of the last 19 winning races in her 25-win and a few losses career, rode Marmelo. It would be salutary to learn his opinion and whether he will remain in the saddle on the big day. Winx of course has another Cox Plate – she’s won the last two - on her immediate agenda. Australia’s premier level-weights all-aged race is scheduled for Moonee Valley, yet another Melbourne track, on Saturday.
Hopefully Marmelo will emerge through his Caulfield exertions in top shape and the trainer will be travelling over to oversee the final preparations. With, apparently, a fair way to go before the disciplinary hearing into one of his horses’ “positive” post-race test at Wolverhampton takes place, he could still be celebrating the first British-trained winner of Australia’s greatest race by the time it comes around.
Aidan O’Brien had the beaten favourite in the Caulfield Cup, Johannes Vermeer, who also came late to finish third, a length or so ahead of Marmelo. I would be surprised if he were to maintain his advantage a fortnight tomorrow over what is a much more suitable trip for the East Ilsley stayer.
Had Johannes Vermeer won, O’Brien would by now already have exceeded Bobby Frankel’s world record of 25 Group (or Grade) 1 wins in a calendar year, but he merely matched it when Hydrangea, to many people’s surprise, outstayed the French-trained favourite Bateel in the Qipco British Champions Fillies and Mares race on Ascot’s Champions Day card.
This was Hydrangea’s first run at a mile and a half – she was runner-up to stable-companion Rhododendron in the Prix de l’Opera over 10 furlongs on Arc Day – and got the trip extremely well.
For much of 2017 she has been – like the other leading O’Brien three-year-old fillies – generally shadowing Winter, but she did get two head verdicts over the dual Guineas heroine at either ends of the season at Leopardstown, more significantly in the Matron Stakes early last month.
Roly Poly, winner of three Group 1 races in the latter half of the season, was sixth that day with Rhododendron, coming back after an injury suffered during the French Oaks, just behind. Alarmingly, for everyone other than John Gosden, Roly Poly on the balance of form, probably rates fourth, narrowly behind Winter, Rhododendron and Hydrangea in the stable pecking order.
That said, Roly Poly’s form got a serious boost when Persuasive, only second to her in the Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket, emphasised her liking for soft ground with an emphatic triumph in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, beating Ribchester and Churchill. In last year’s Matron, Persuasive had been a well-beaten runner-up behind Coolmore’s Alice Springs. That filly has only a single appearance, back in early April on her 2017 card, but it could be interesting if she turns up at the Breeders’ Cup, in which she gets a quote in bookmakers’ lists.
Persuasive’s success was the first part of a brilliant John Gosden double, completed with a seven-length romp by Cracksman in the Champion Stakes. He trounced runner-up Poet’s Word with the gallant Highand Reel running a fine trial for Del Mar next month in third on ground which does not suit him. The likely firm turf and sharp turns of the “Turf by the Surf” will be much more to his liking and he could be Ballydoyle’s banker of the meeting.
I will be surprised if O’Brien is still one short of bettering Bobby Frankel, whose equine namesake got his first British Group 1 success with Cracksman, by the time the Breeders’ Cup comes around. He expects to have “maybe four or five” to represent him in the Racing Post Trophy on Saturday, and most Ballydoyle insiders seem to think it will be the unbeaten Deep Impact colt Saxon Warrior that will provide the spearhead.
Then there are the two French juvenile Group 1 races over a mile and ten furlongs respectively, at Saint-Cloud, in which to achieve his target.
I doubt he’ll worry unduly, but Hydrangea and Order of St George – winner of the Long Distance Cup (why isn’t that a Group 1?) – and three tasty third places brought him to £8,189,630 of British prize money, almost £60,000 more than his own record set last year. John Gosden, with Enable and Cracksman to boost his tally, was an honourable second with his best seasonal haul of a few quid short of £6million. Roll on next year!