So finally, after 76 days, 330 lost meetings and something of a cliff-hanger, the wait is officially over, writes Tony Stafford. Oliver Dowden, Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, was in the saddle to announce the go-ahead at Saturday’s coronavirus briefing in Downing Street. Thus, unlike his government’s much-maligned advisor Dominic Cummings, Newmarket trainers and horses will legally have carte blanche to take the long road north to Newcastle.
With ten races both on Monday and Tuesday at Gosforth Park, all limited to maximum fields of 12, it might have been expected that there would be an imbalance of runners from HQ. In the event, while there are Newmarket-trained representatives in most (eight) races on Monday and all ten on Tuesday, the total is a fairly modest 22 on the opening day and only 15 on the second, which must have been a relief for many trainers and owners in the north.
Kempton on Tuesday predictably has a southern bias, but it will not be until today Monday’s 72-hour declarations for the first of four days at Newmarket that the skilful hand of the BHA will be properly shown. The first four of seven races are all restricted to two-year-olds and, with the same limitation of 12 runners per race as elsewhere, three of the four can be divided. That means we will have seven races for juveniles, helping to make a start to redressing a few of the forfeited opportunities in the void of April and May.
Smaller fields and racing behind closed doors will enable the continued practising of social distancing rules. With the last week also (thanks principally to a big drop on the Tuesday after the latest Bank Holiday) contributing another approximate 20 per cent fall in the number of UK deaths (on my figures a 21.4% decline and 1696 deaths), the government felt able to counter some northern politicians who wanted a further delay. Even more compelling is the continued reduction in the weekly numbers in hospital suffering from the disease, down 15% on the week.
Dowden clearly believes that horse racing will be an important potential agent for renewed public confidence after the shock and denial of entertainment of the past 11 weeks. Even better news for the man in the street, not that he’s been anywhere in sight of late, is the prospect of re-opened betting shops on Royal Ascot eve, Monday June 15. Just as it was deemed possible to regulate customer-flow in supermarkets at the height of public hysteria and fear about Covid-19 - which would have been fine apart from many customers’ refusal to comply with the two-metre apart arrows - then it should be easy enough to allow the smaller volume of people wishing to enter betting shops to do so in an orderly and safe fashion.
With top professional football also resuming that week, couch potatoes will be in their element. However it’s the four days of Newmarket that excite me with last year’s Derby winner, Anthony Van Dyck, heading a possible team of three from Ballydoyle in the Hurworth Bloodstock Coronation Cup, transferred from Epsom. Broome and Sir Dragonet can bolster the Aidan O’Brien team and the Irish maestro is reportedly taking a short lease on a property in the town to accommodate his staff in what will be something of a satellite operation with 14-day isolation rules in place while the horses can fly back and forth as needed.
Two other highly-interesting names are included in the 11-horse entry, with Stradivarius, champion stayer for the past two years, dropping back to a mile and a half, and Godolphin’s Ghaiyyath, who would have been one of the obvious favourites had the Dubai World Cup meeting gone ahead as planned, representing Charlie Appleby. Ghaiyyath has the advantage of a run this year, winning a Meydan Group 3 by eight lengths in late February.
At five, so a year younger than Stradivarius, he is lightly-raced with six wins in nine starts, but critics will point to his flop when only tenth of 12 in last autumn’s Arc behind Waldgeist and Enable. So far he has yet to click on the biggest days but his official mark of 126 clearly indicates what a classy performer he is.
Later today, the acceptors will be known for the 2000 Guineas but also today the French maintain their edge of getting going first of the three major European racing powers with both Guineas mile Classics, transferred to Deauville from Longchamp. That latter track was summarily, but probably only temporarily, closed after an initial flurry three weeks ago.
Many of the big trainers are based near or in Chantilly, which was previously also in the same proscribed Red Zone as Paris proper, but they will have been relieved that Chantilly has now been given the all-clear so meetings there and at nearby Compiegne can resume from this week. One obvious exception is Jean-Claude Rouget who trains in the west, so within easy reach of Deauville. Rouget and Andre Fabre both have fancied runners in each race, but I expect Ecrivain, second while not getting a clear run in the trial (Fontainebleau) three weeks again, to beat both in the “2000” for the Carlos Laffon-Parias stable.
As with the Coronation Cup, Appleby and O’Brien will be going head to head on Saturday in the 2000 Guineas, but five-day confirmations will not be known until after these words are published on Monday morning. Pinatubo has been favourite, and a short-priced one throughout the winter and the subsequent period of no racing, and remains odds-on to confirm his superiority over Coolmore’s Arizona, whom he beat by two lengths in the Dewhurst Stakes last October.
While confidence abounds in the favourite, word from Ireland suggests that O’Brien, already winner of the Newmarket colts’ Classic ten times, could not be happier with Arizona’s progress, so an each-way bet at the prevailing 6-1 could be a value bet-to-nothing, possibly with a small saver to be second to the favourite as insurance.
Ryan Moore has had his moments of misfortune as well as success in the 2000 Guineas in the past decade, winning on Churchill and Gleneagles, but having to watch from Churchill Downs two years ago while Donnacha O’Brien collected on Saxon Warrior before his own unfortunate ride on Mendelssohn in the Kentucky Derby. Last May he looked across from the middle of track on the non-staying favourite Ten Sovereigns as stable-mate Magna Grecia, again with the younger O’Brien son riding, swept to victory up the stands rail.
Ryan’s international pursuit of big prizes has often extended across to Japan and as recently as last November he teamed up with the two-year-old Contrail to win a Group 3 race in Tokyo. The colt won two more important races without Ryan, the Group 1 Hopeful last backend and the Japanese 2000 Guineas (Satsuki Sho) this spring. Both races were over ten furlongs and Yuichi Fukanaga had the mount each time. Contrail won the Guineas by half a length when the runner-up was Salios.
I’m sure that without those quarantine rules, Ryan would have been seeking out connections to try to get back on Contrail in yesterday’s Japanese Derby (Tokyo Yushun) for which he was the 2-5 favourite in a field of 16 over the mile and a half trip. Salios again proved to be his main challenger but this time the victory margin was three lengths as the winner, a son of star stallion Deep Impact, took home the first prize of more than £1.5 million.
No doubt Moore will be fully aware of the missed jockey’s share, but will hope he can pick up some compensation nearer home. Already O’Brien has intimated that the jockey will not be going across to The Curragh for the following weekend’s Guineas double. As to Contrail he seems to be following hard on the example of the brilliant filly Almond Eye as another potential Japanese star set to take on the world’s best in the coming months.