Prix de Diane (French Oaks) Preview
Whilst Royal Ascot claims the international racing headlines this week, France prepares for its own version of the Royal Meeting when it stages the 167th running of the Prix de Diane on Sunday at Chantilly, writes Nigel Howard.
This spectacular meeting is the one time in the racing calendar when the French manage to embrace everything the sport has to offer. With the weather set to be fine, the place will be awash with picnickers in their fancy hats and summer finery, watching the female classic generation strutting their stuff on the track.
Run over 2100 meters (1m2½f), this year’s renewal will see sixteen runners go to post from four different nations. The Directeur du l’Hippodrome, Mathieu Vincent, predicts some rain over the next couple of days but is hoping for good or good-to-soft ground come race day.
With Jean-Claude Rouget carrying all before him in this year’s Classics, it will come as no surprise to find that he once again holds the strongest hand for the home team. He fields three, including LA CRESSONNIERE, already a Classic winner thanks to her pillar-to-post victory in the Prix d’Essai des Pouliches at Deauville in May. That was a brave performance and she remains unbeaten.
By La Havre, who has already sired a winner of this race in the form of Avenir Certain in 2014, out of a Galileo mare, it is possible that she will improve again for this step up in trip. Add to this her indifference to underfoot conditions and it becomes perfectly clear why she is one of the market leaders. Her part-owner Gérard Augustin-Normand remains supremely confident after he saw his Almanzor stride to victory in the French Derby two weeks ago. She has obvious claims.
The Pau-based handler also fields the very likable JEMAYEL who bounced right back to her best in the Normandy sunshine when she landed the Group 1 Prix Saint-Alary at Deauville earlier in the month. That 1m2f contest saw her defeat CAMPROCK, who re-opposes and who was favourite on the day.
The daughter of Myboycharlie, trained by Mme Pia Brandt, was previously unbeaten, yet all her victories were achieved on a softer surface. It is likely that she did not appreciate hearing her hooves rattle at Deauville and indeed the trainer confirmed, stating that any juice in the turf would be to her advantage. She stays and is a lively contender, especially if the heavens open before Sunday.
JEMAYEL meanwhile, a daughter of Lope de Vega, must also enter calculations. She too has proven her stamina but would seem to prefer good ground to show her best.
Rouget’s third candidate, ZGHORTA DANCE, is another daughter of Le Havre and she won the Group 3 Prix Vanteaux at this track at the end of May. Although she is obviously improving, on her previous start she was beaten by Magnanimem, a horse that could manage only fifth in the Prix Saint-Alary behind both JEMAYEL and CAMPROCK. On paper, therefore, she doesn’t look good enough.
Of twenty supplementary entries made over the last twenty-three years only two have converted, namely Valyra for the Aga Khan in 2012 and West Wind in the famous claret colours of Sheikh Mohammed in 2007. This year, two fillies have been supplemented - VOLTA for François-Henri Graffard and HIGHLANDS QUEEN for Yohann Gourraud.
The former was last seen bolting up over a mile in the Group 2 Prix de Sandringham here on Derby day. She took that event by four lengths and is clearly smart. Having stumped up the supplementary entry fee of €60,000, connections will be hoping that she can see out the extra two-and-a-half furlongs of this classic contest, although, being a daughter of speedy Siyouni, there must be some doubts.
Stamina issues are of little concern for HIGHLANDS QUEEN, who, on only her third career start, ran out a comfortable winner of the Group 3 Prix Cléopatre at Saint Cloud at the end of May. For her young trainer, ex-jockey Yohann Gourraud, this will be a first runner at Group 1 level and he has reported the daughter of Mount Nelson to be at the top of her game after she worked on the gallops at Chantilly on Tuesday. She remains relatively unexposed and the booking of William Buick catches the eye. She could go close.
Nicolas Clement, perhaps best known for training Saumarez to win the Arc in 1990, presents THE JULIET ROSE. This daughter of Monsun showed off her staying qualities with a pillar-to-post victory in the Group 3 PRIX DE ROYAUMONT over 1m4f at this track on Jockey Club day. She is therefore being asked to drop back in distance and her preference for being up with the pace suggests she will attempt to make this a true test of stamina. She is not without a chance and may make the frame.
ARMANDE finished third in that race and although the daughter of Sea The Stars didn’t get the clearest of runs, the feeling is that Andre Fabre will have to wait at least another year before lifting his fifth Prix de Diane trophy.
As talented a bunch of fillies as the home team might represent, this year’s race risks being dominated by a formidable challenge from across La Manche.
John Gosden, winner of the race last year with Star of Seville, must have enjoyed watching Even Song romp home in the Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot on Thursday as his representative, SWISS RANGE, had that filly five lengths back in third when she easily landed the Listed Pretty Polly Stakes at Newmarket in May. After that victory, Gosden immediately named the Diane as her primary target and with Frankie Dettori in the irons the daughter of Zamindar has an outstanding chance.
Aiden O’Brian has yet to lift this French classic but he must be more than hopeful as he fields both BALLYDOYLE and COOLMORE, two daughters of the remarkable stallion, Galileo. BALLYDOYLE comes into the race on the back of a fine run in the English 1000 Guineas, beaten only three and a half lengths by the mighty Minding. She is already a Group 1 winner here in France having triumphed as a juvenile in the Prix Marcel Boussac over a mile at Longchamp on Arc day. She tackles this trip for the first time but her breeding suggests that she will have little trouble staying the extra two-and-half furlongs required here. COOLMORE would seem to be well held on current form and has no doubt been declared to ensure a truly run race for her more fancied stable companion.
With a large field of unexposed fillies lining up for this Classic contest, there is every hope that a new equine star will be unveiled on Sunday. The feeling is that BALLYDOYLE is the horse to beat having already shown her wellbeing this year in the English Guineas and that this step up in trip will be very much up her street.
It is equally hard not be impressed by the way SWISS RANGE won at Newmarket and the form of that race was clearly franked by the performance of Even Song at Royal Ascot on Thursday.
LA CRESSONNIERE is the obvious choice from the home team and as she carries an unbeaten record into the race her limits are still unknown. She too must have a fine chance.
Sadly, none of the above represent great value and perhaps a more sporting alternative would be the unexposed HIGHLANDS QUEEN who has won her last two starts with ease.
Best bet: HIGHLANDS QUEEN E.W. (generally available at 12-1)