The weekend’s two big races, the Pegasus, with its million-dollar entry fee, at Gulfstream Park, Florida, and the Prix d’Amerique, the prime trotting race in the world, at Vincennes in Paris, provided equally captivating contests, and two outstanding winners.
When the Pegasus was first mooted, the initial thought for many was that it would be tough to find enough ownership groupings to stump up the massive stake. This second renewal, won with such determination by Gun Runner from the equally tough West Coast, managed to attract not just a full field of 12 (plus two non-competing reserves), but one with serious strength in depth. Connections of the also-rans, including Toast of New York, whose comeback ended disappointingly in last place under Frankie Dettori, had the consolation of getting a decent chunk of their cash back.
By delaying his stallion career arrival at Three Chimneys Farm, in Midway, Kentucky, Gun Runner was on hand to notch up his 11th victory in 18 starts, the last five (all at Grade 1 level) coming since his final defeat behind Arrogate in the 2017 Dubai World Cup 10 months ago.
While that race proved to be Arrogate’s last victory in a short but stellar career, Gun Runner has utilised his assets of speed, stamina and determination to win these major races. Many believe that this final reckoning proves he should have been ranked top older horse in the Longines World Best Racehorse Rankings, rather than only third, 4lb behind Arrogate and 2lb inferior to Australia’s star older mare Winx. More predictably, he was recently voted Horse of the Year in the US.
Arrogate’s 134 figure belies the fact that he has looked sluggish and if anything less than genuine in his latest races, especially his toiling fifth, more than six lengths adrift of Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar last November.
Five of the first six in that race – the exception was Arrogate, already in situ at $75,000 a pop at Juddmonte Farm, Kentucky – renewed hostilities at Gulfstream. Collected, who was runner-up for Bob Baffert at Del Mar, was only seventh on Saturday with his (and Arrogate’s) stablemate West Coast stepping up from third to a highly-creditable second.
Gunnevera, sixth in the Breeders’ Cup, one place ahead of Churchill (fee €35,000 at Coolmore) progressed to third, but at a gaping ten and a bit lengths behind West Coast who was one length nearer to the winner compared with the three and a half lengths he trailed by in California. War Story, the other returnee from San Diego, dropped from fourth to tenth.
West Coast’s ranking of 122 looks especially miserly not just on these two latest performances but bearing in mind his previous five victories in a row following a narrow defeat on debut. With Arrogate and Gun Runner out of the way, West Coast looks a major player for all the big money pots, and I would not be surprised if he pitches up for Baffert in Dubai in two months’ time. He’s as big as 4/1 to win the Dubai World Cup.
Just as Gun Runner has had to defer to Arrogate in the official rankings, published only last week, he does also in terms of stud fee. He’s available at $70,000. Fleeting brilliance against long-standing dependability seems to be the choice for breeders.
I had one highly-enjoyable visit 20 years or so ago to Vincennes in South-East Paris to see the Prix d’Amerique and yesterday’s renewal attracted the usual massive crowd. In the late 1980’s the great French trotter Ourasi dominated the sport, winning the Prix d’Amerique three times in a row from 1986-8, and after a year’s break, he came back for a fourth in 1990.
Yesterday’s race featured Bold Eagle, who was out to match Ourasi’s hat-trick as the impressive winner for the past two years. His claims were less compelling than previously as he had been runner-up four times in succession before yesterday, although with a career tally of 37 wins from 47 appearances his card was far from shabby.
The main opposition was provided by another multiple winner, Readly Express, at six a year younger than his great rival. He had won 20 of 24, with three seconds and a third and was only narrowly preferred in the market by Bold Eagle. The pair, and also Bird Parker, who made the running, eventually, after nine false starts, are all sons of Ready Cash, himself twice winner of the race.
Unlike thoroughbreds, trotting stallions are allowed to impregnate their mares via artificial insemination using frozen sperm. I cannot say (I doubt) whether this has been the case with Ready Cash, but while this classy trio was growing up, their sire was still active on the track and by 2013 had won 40 times in 63 starts. As one report I saw said: …“Interrupting his career each spring for his stud work”.
Throughout the 3100 metre contest, the principals were in the leading group of the 18-runner affair, with Bold Eagle apparently perfectly placed in Readly Express’s slipstream.
Readly Express went to the front midway through the home stretch, and the Parisians grew excited as Bold Eagle pulled out to challenge. Their optimism proved unfounded as the new king found more in the closing stages for a narrow win. I loved the race but like Racing UK presenter Mark Johnson, won’t be thinking at all about trotting for another year. As for Readly Express and Bold Eagle, both have already emulated their sire by starting to cover mares.
We will all be thinking very seriously, though, for the next few weeks almost exclusively about Cheltenham, and Harry Taylor and I have our reservations for the Festival nicely settled. One trainer who will be going there with a degree of optimism is the hard-working and highly-versatile Brian Ellison whose Definitly Red put up a fine display in Saturday’s Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham. He has a real each-way chance in the Gold Cup.
Ever since Tangognat won the juvenile hurdle on trials day back in 1986 (following victory on the track on New Year’s Day) I’ve always looked closely at the race. His win in the then Tote-sponsored race – I’m looking at the picture of him jumping the last under Peter Scudamore on my office wall as I write this – was nothing like as comfortable as Apple’s Shakira’s on Saturday and she has already bettered him with three easy wins on the course. She’ll be hard to beat when Nicky Henderson sends her to the Triumph.
Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about James Bowen’s undoubted talent, but two female jump jockeys on a similar upward spiral are Briony Frost and Lizzie Kelly, both impressive when winning at Cheltenham on Saturday.
Further afield, I think I saw a potential Cheltenham winner up at Doncaster in the Dan Skelton-trained Long House Hall. Running for the first time for more than 18 months since collecting the Betfair Summer Plate by eight lengths at Market Rasen for owner Carl Hinchey, he looked all over the winner of the Sky Bet Chase until tiring close home.
His backers at a remarkable 18-1, considering the trainer’s skill in bringing back horses after a break to win important handicaps, were aghast that he dropped from being the probable winner going easily at the last, to fourth, losing two places in the last 20 yards, yet still only one length behind the winner Wakanda, trained by in-form Sue Smith.
The meritorious aspect of the run is that it was Long House Hall’s first ever attempt at anything like the official soft at Doncaster. Drier ground at the Festival would make him my banker of the week in whatever race he appears in. After Saturday, even soft would not put me off.
- Tony Stafford