Tony Keenan: Irish Flat Season 2019 Preview

You might have guessed this already but more than anything in horse racing, it is the role of the trainer that fascinates me, writes Tony Keenan. We can wonder about the influence of various factors in trainer success, some of which are very obvious, others of which we will never know; no more than a punter, if a trainer has an edge, they can hardly be expected to comment on it publicly.

(A somewhat random aside: I read recently that Thady Gosden – son of John – had spent some time at the Joseph O'Brien yard and while I appreciate O’Brien Jr. seems a thoroughly decent man, there surely had to be the temptation to either: one, fill him with misinformation to take back to Gosden Senior, or, two, lock him in a darkened stable with a fire and a poker to extract the secrets of what his father does so well. I have never understood this part of racing where one trainer allows a rival, actual or potential, access to their yard. It must be because they’re all lovely people.)

One thing we can do however is look at the broad sweep of success trainers have over a period of time. Below I have put together the records of the top 20 active Irish flat trainers (with one exception, Patrick Prendergast, for reasons that will become apparent) and their turf runners in Ireland over the past decade; Dundalk is not included. It necessarily leaves out some relevant figures – notably Fozzy Stack – but should offer a decent overview of what has happened since 2009.

It deals with winners only which is a pretty blunt instrument but one that most trainers seem to apply as a measure of their own success. A clatter of winners doesn’t always equal success however; Aidan O’Brien had a record-breaking season at home in 2018 but most (including the trainer himself) would have regarded the campaign as a down year if not a failure. Ken Condon had only seven turf winners last year but one of them was Romanised in the 2,000 Guineas so 2018 might even prove the best of his training career. But in the main, winners figures are useful, especially when compared to what went before.


That’s a whole lot of numbers right there so the Cliff Notes version is below:

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This does give us a fair overview of what has happened over the last ten years or so, which yards have risen and which have fallen, what rising stars made it and who never got there (hint: it’s very difficult to make it in Irish flat racing). The decline of the veteran pair John Oxx and Kevin Prendergast are patterns that jump out immediately as is the gradual rise of Ger Lyons, while a recent jump from Jessica Harrington and the rapid growth of Joseph O’Brien are also notable.

Atop the table for the decade and every year of it is, of course, Aidan O’Brien. 2018 was represented as a disappointing campaign for Ballydoyle, a mid-season bug impacting a number of horses, his record outside of Ireland significantly worse than previous years and the yard a little thin on stars, relatively speaking (see last season’s flat season review for more on this). But at home, it wasn’t just business as usual but a record-breaking season with 143 winners on the turf, his previous best being 124 in 2013.

From the point-of-view of the other major Irish yards, it was both disappointing and surprising that they weren’t able to exploit this brief chink in the Ballydoyle armour with the likes of Weld, Bolger and Lyons having down seasons to one degree or another. Perhaps his continued success at home, numerically at last, allowed O’Brien to remain quite sanguine about his horses being sick though experience does seem to have brought confidence whereas in times past he may have let it rattle him a little. If anything it was his son who took advantage of any slippage, his win in the Irish Derby standing out, though much of Joseph’s success came in lower grade handicaps with acquisitions from other yards. Aidan can at least console himself that should things ever go belly-up at Ballydoyle, he can have an assistant trainer post on the hill!

It is hard to get away from the belief that 2019 will be another big year for O’Brien, Sr. He has a huge team of horses, the spring has been kind weather-wise and his stars all seem healthy, none of the big guns ruled out yet. His early returns have been good with the likes of Magical, Le Brivido, Flag Of Honour and Sergei Prokofiev running well on seasonal debut.

One of O’Brien’s old rivals in the best races was John Oxx and his 2019 could be one of the most fascinating of all, Patrick Prendergast having come on board as assistant trainer and taken his team of horses with him. Plenty wondered at Prendergast’s motivation for this move, viewing him as a trainer on the up with Oxx the main beneficiary of the new setup. I don’t think it’s as simple as that as the John Oxx name still has some cachet while there is also succession to think about with Oxx aged 68.

It is also important to note that while Prendergast trained his first Group 1 winner in 2018, these successes have proved largely useless in elevating mid-range trainers to a higher plane. There have been numerous examples of Irish trainers winning their first Group 1 race this decade and it doing little or nothing for them in terms of getting more winners or horses in the short-term. Ger Lyons won the 2011 Cheveley Park with Lightening Pearl; he trained 31 winners that year and 24 and 29 the following years. Eddie Lynam won the Nunthorpe with Sole Power in 2010; he had 10 winners that year and 13 and 9 respectively the next two seasons.

It was a similar story with Mick Halford and Jessica Harrington in 2010 as they won Group 1 juvenile races with Casamento and Pathfork and while it could be argued that all those trainers making the top-level breakthrough around that period was awful timing with a view to attracting new owners as they may have cannibalised each other’s opportunities, neither Adrian Keatley nor Ken Condon seem likely to ‘kick on’ from recent Classic victories. Both Lyons and Harrington have gone to another level since those wins but that was because of their broad body of work rather than one win or horse and Prendergast may well have been wise to learn that lesson from recent history.

One thing Oxx may be hoping to get from Prendergast is an edge with juveniles; Oxx has trained only one two-year-old Group winner since 2013 and if there is a single cause for his decline this might be it. His patience, once seen as a virtue, now seems a black mark for prospective owners. Oxx did have a reasonable record with juveniles in the early part of the decade but that dwindled to nought in the last five years with only nine two-year-old winners from 137 runners (6.6% strikerate) between 2014 and 2018; in that period, Prendergast was 21 from 196 (10.7% strikerate).

Last season, with Skitter Scatter playing a big part, Prendergast finished tenth in the trainers’ championship, Oxx only thirty-eighth. Combining their prizemoney would have brought them up to eighth overall. Oxx commented in a recent interview that he felt he had only seven horses that could win a race going into last season (eight won in the end) but combining his and Prendergast’s numbers puts them in a better place for 2019. Oxx ran 35 horses, Prendergast 28, and 63 total horses would have left them just behind the O’Briens, Weld, Bolger, Lyons and Harrington last year. In the same interview, Oxx said they had 75 horses in for the season and while all of them won’t run, they should be significant players.

To conclude, let’s look at a yard or two that might be due some regression, be it positive or negative. One way to do this might be to compare what a trainer did last season versus the broader picture of the last ten years but sometimes that gives a false impression. Using an approach like that, one might think that the likes of Jessica Harrington and Johnny Murtagh are due to drop off now while someone like Mick Halford or Kevin Prendergast will bounce back. The reality is that both Harrington and Murtagh are simply yards on the up, the former in particular having taken a leap seemingly out of nowhere, never having more than 28 winners prior to 2017 but having 40 in each of the past two years.

I do think that strikerate could be informative here is it takes less account of the actual of number of horses in the yard; a trainer might be able to maintain a broadly similar return regardless of how many individual runners they have from season-to-season, allowing that there are outliers now and then. So below are the ten-year strikerates of the top 20 active turf trainers versus what they did last year.



The majority of the differences are too small to be statistically significant though the numbers for Oxx and Patrick Prendergast are interesting in light of what is discussed above. The one that stands out however is Harry Rogers who had a terrible 2018 but might be about to improve on that this year. Smaller yards like his can be a hostage to fortune and the dry summer of last year hardly suited his horses, many of whom prefer an ease. I must admit to being a bit of a fanboy of this stable as I like how his horses run frequently when they are fit and better days should be ahead.

- Tony Keenan

Stat of the Day, 12th October 2018

Thursday's Pick was...

2.15 Bangor : Handy Hollow @ 3/1 BOG UR at 9/4 (Took keen hold, led, going well enough before blundered and unseated rider at 4th)

Friday's pick runs in the...

4.10 Newmarket :

Before I post the daily selection, just a quick reminder of how I operate the service. Generally, I'll identify and share the selection in the evening before the following day's race and I then add a detailed write-up later on that night/next morning.

Those happy to take the early price on trust can do so, whilst some might prefer to wait for my reasoning. As I fit the early service in around my family life, I can't give an exact timing on the posts, so I suggest you follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook for instant notifications of a published pick.


Astronomer @ 9/2 BOG an 11-runner, Class 2, Heritage Handicap for 3yo over 1m4f on Good to Firm ground worth £74700 to the winner...


This 3 yr old colt has finished 41111 so far, including 4/4 under today's jockey Donnacha O'Brien, 3/4 on the Flat, 2/2 at 1m4f and 2/2 in handicaps. He's won on Good, Soft and A/W too so the ground shouldn't be an issue either. This is a tougher task than he's faced so far but (a) that's why were not facing really short odds and (b) I think he has plenty more in his locker.

Over the last 14 days...

  • Trainer Aidan (AP) O'Brien is 16/52 (30.8% SR) for 10.8pts (+20.8% ROI)
  • Jockey Donnacha is 8/28 (28.6%) for 1.91pts (+6.81%)
  • And together they are 6/17 (35.3%) for 6.56pts (+38.6%)

And here on the Rowley over the last four seasons...

  • AP is 27/113 (23.9%) for 59.9pts (+53%)
  • Donnacha is 4/12 (33.3%) for 12.54pts (+104.5%)
  • And together : 4/9 (44.4%) for 15.54pts (+172.7%)

And from AP's 27 from 113 record here quoted above...

  • 11-45 days since last run : 17/64 (26.6%) for 65.8pts (+102.8%)
  • on Good to Firm : 16/50 (32%) for 74.9pts (+149.8%)
  • LTO winners : 14/44 (31.8%) for 16.9pts (+38.4%)
  • 3 yr olds : 9/45 920%) for 11.6pts (+25.7%)
  • at Class 2 : 2/7 (28.6%) for 9.66pts (+138%)

And, since the start of 2015, Irish horses (ie those with IRE after their name) are 131/998 (13.1% SR) for 131.3pts (+13.2% ROI) in UK Flat/AW handicaps after having run in Ireland last time out, from which...

  • those whose yard run most of their races in Leinster, Ireland are 88/531 (16.6%) for 165.7pts (+31.2%)
  • 16-25 days since last run : 36/202 (17.8%) for 76pts (+37.6%)
  • over a 1m4f trip : 16/81 (19.75%) for 84.6pts (+104.5%)

...and from the above, there's a nice little micro (or nugget as someone on the Gold forum very kindly described these supplementary angles) whereby in this 2015-18 timeframe, those whose yard run most of their races in Leinster, Ireland and are now racing over 7.5 to 12 furlongs, within 25 days of their last run are 33/129 (25.6% SR) for 133.9pts (+103.8% ROI), including 4 winners from 8 for 33.9pts over the last five weeks! us... a 1pt win bet on Astronomer @ 9/2 BOG, a price available from BetVictor, BlackType, Coral & Ladbrokes at 4.50pm on Thursday evening, a price still widely available at 8.45am Friday when I started typing my notes up.  To see what your preferred bookie is quoting... here for the betting on the 4.10 Newmarket

Don't forget, we offer a full interactive racecard service every day!


Here is today's racecard

P.S. all P/L returns quoted in the stats above are to Betfair SP, as I NEVER bet to ISP and neither should you. I always use BOG bookies for SotD, wherever possible, but I use BFSP for the stats as it is the nearest approximation I can give, so I actually expect to beat the returns I use to support my picks. If that's unclear, please ask!

Aidan O’Brien: The Season So Far

A record total of 28 Group/Grade 1 winners worldwide last year set an impossibly high bar for Aidan O’Brien to surpass in 2018 but any regression has been speeded along by a bug in the Ballydoyle barns, writes Tony Keenan. We know this because the trainer has been so open about the situation, commenting in early August that it would take six to eight weeks for his horses to come right. He added at the recent Irish Champions Weekend launch that “it went through the whole yard and all the horses got it. We hadn’t leaned on any of the horses up until last weekend [Phoenix Stakes day at the Curragh] and we thought if we got through last weekend we might be able to start leaning on them a little bit more”.

His reference to the six to eight week timeframe might be the most interesting point; his horses were probably incubating something when not at their best in June and July and aren’t expected to come back to form until mid-September at the earliest. That’s an important stage of the Irish season – Champions Weekend is on September 15th and 16th – but also shows how harmful a mid-season illness can be to a big stable as the majority of major races are at this time. Below is the breakdown of Group 1 races in Ireland and the UK by month; I have taken the race dates from 2017 here but bar one or two that are at the turn of the month, the numbers are the same this year. Those mid-summer months are vital and so too is September with six Group 1s over Champions Weekend as well as the St Leger, Sprint Cup, Cheveley Park and Middle Park.


UK and Irish Group 1 Races by Month

Month Number of Group 1 Races
March 0
April 0
May 6
June 11
July 7
August 7
September 9
October 8
November 0


Group 1 winners may be thinner on the ground than they were last year – O’Brien has eight at this point – but any virus in the yard has not been reflected in his record at home. His overall win strikerate (first table below) has been better than any of the previous four seasons and he seems sure to break the three-figure winner barrier as he has done in each of the two previous campaigns. His record in Group races (second table below) has dropped off a little but hardly so much that it is statistically significant.


Aidan O’Brien in recent Irish Flat Seasons

Season Wins Runs SR% Places Place SR% Actual/


2018 so far 86 366 23.5% 167 45.6% 0.92
2017 119 555 21.4% 260 46.9% 0.90
2016 117 589 19.9% 278 47.2% 0.85
2015 98 441 22.2% 193 43.8% 0.94
2014 103 520 19.8% 208 40.0% 0.86


Aidan O’Brien in Irish Group Races

Season Wins Runs SR% Places Place SR% Actual/


2018 so far 17 94 18.1% 38 40.4% 0.80
2017 32 151 21.2% 75 49.7% 0.99
2016 25 118 21.2% 51 43.2% 0.82
2015 20 84 23.8% 37 44.1% 1.16
2014 23 115 20.0% 41 35.7% 1.03
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But Group 1’s are ultimately where it is at for Ballydoyle and only Lancaster Bomber has managed to win an Irish Group 1 in 2018, from seven in all thus far. That obviously takes in the Classics too and 2018 is in danger of becoming the first year since 2005 in which O’Brien failed to train an Irish Classic winner; since 2009, he has won 19 of the 49 Classics as we can see below. It is odds-on however that he maintains that impressive record with Order Of St George set to go off a very short price for the Irish St. Leger, his task eased by Torcedor moving to be trained in Germany in recent days.


Irish Classic Winners since 2009

Year 2,000 Guineas 1,000 Guineas Derby Oaks St. Leger
2018 Condon Harrington JPOB Haggas ?
2016 Prendergast Keatley Weld APOB Mullins
2015 APOB Bolger Gosden Palmer APOB
2014 Gosden APOB APOB APOB Dascombe
2013 APOB Hills JSB Royer-Dupre Weld
2012 APOB Channon APOB Gosden Carmody
2011 APOB APOB APOB Al Zarooni Gosden/Johnston
2010 Hannon Weld APOB Dunlop Noseda
2009 APOB Wachman APOB Bell Oxx


The place where the yard’s issues have really been felt is with the UK runners and the next table reveals how his strikerate, win and place, has fallen dramatically. UK races are vitally important to the Coolmore/Ballydoyle operation: there are few cases when a trainer would not prefer to win a UK version of a race than the Irish equivalent, the Epsom Derby being typically a better race than the Curragh one for instance, with the Irish Champion Stakes a notable exception. Not only that but the UK simply has far more Group 1 opportunities, 36 Group 1’s versus 13 in Ireland this year.

With this in mind, Ireland is sometimes the training ground for the O’Brien runners but the UK is the testing ground and by-and-large in 2018 they have been failing. Part of that might be the standard of competition: in the UK so far this year, the average field size in Group races has been 9.2 runners whereas in Ireland it is 7.1 and oftentimes there will be [many] more than one O’Brien runner in the latter. His horses seem able to get away with being just a little off concert pitch at home but not on their travels. Interestingly however, the lack of success hasn’t deterred the trainer, with O’Brien having more UK runners than ever before this season. I wrote last year that as his yard gets bigger this was an inevitable consequence as he sought more suitable targets for them. (link:


Aidan O’Brien in recent UK Flat Seasons

Season Wins Runs SR% Places Place SR% Actual/


2018 so far 13 142 9.2% 43 30.3% 0.59
2017 32 165 19.4% 69 41.8% 1.07
2016 28 133 21.1% 70 52.6% 0.98
2015 17 78 21.8% 37 47.4% 0.97
2014 11 81 13.4% 24 29.6% 0.82


O’Brien has had eight Group 1 winners this year: Saxon Warrior (2,000 Guineas), Rhododendron (Lockinge), Lancaster Bomber (Tattersalls Gold Cup), Forever Together (Oaks), Merchant Navy (Diamond Jubilee), Athena (Belmont Oaks), Kew Gardens (Grand Prix de Paris) and U S Navy Flag (July Cup). That none of them has managed a second Group 1 thus far hasn’t helped; as you can see below, eight horses won multiple Group 1’s for the yard last year. That table includes all their Group 1 winners from 2017 and their fates since. There have been some untimely injuries, notably with Capri, but these things are inevitable with a stable of that size. It is the fillies from last year that have been the most disappointing; the big four juveniles (Happily, Magical, September and Clemmie) have contributed little while the two flower girls, Rhododendron and Hydrangea, have regressed from promising returns.


2017 Group 1 Winners

Horse 2017 Group 1 Wins 2018
Churchill 2 Retired
Winter 4 Retired
Wings Of Eagles 1 Retired
Highland Reel 3 Retired
Caravaggio 1 Retired
Capri 2 1 run, injured thereafter
Roly Poly 3 Retired
Sioux Nation 1 1 win (Group 3) from 5 starts
Hydrangea 2 0 wins from 3 starts
Happily 2 0 wins from 4 starts
Order Of St George 1 2 wins (Group 3, Listed) from 3 starts
Clemmie 1 0 wins from 3 starts
Rhododendron 1 1 win (Group 1) from 5 starts
U S Navy Flag 2 1 win (Group 1) from 5 starts
Saxon Warrior 1 1 win (Group 1) from 4 starts
Mendelssohn 1 2 wins (Group 2, Listed) from 4 starts


With all this in mind, the next few weeks take on an additional significance. By the sounds of things, the O’Brien horses are only really starting back at the Ebor meeting and it will be fascinating to see how the market deals with them. Certainly the trainer left the impression in recent comments that Saxon Warrior’s main autumn aim was the Irish Champion Stakes rather than the Juddmonte International, and historically the Ebor fixture has not been a good one for O’Brien (see below), perhaps all the more so this year as he builds towards Irish Champions Weekend, the Arc meeting and beyond.


Aidan O’Brien at the Ebor Meeting (since 2003)

Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


10 117 8.6% 44 37.6% -78.39 0.50


So what might all this mean? In reality, very little. A drop-off from the highs of 2017 was likely and Aidan O’Brien does not strike me as a man under pressure, at least judging by his dealings with the media. There were times in the past when a down period like this might have produced some external evidence of stress but seemingly not anymore. His status as Master of Ballydoyle is like that of Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford or Bill Belichick at Foxboro yet he now deals with the media much better than the latter in times of adversity; if you have never seen Belichick’s ‘Moving on to Cincinnati’ interview following a heavy loss, here it is!

O’Brien certainly hasn’t blanked media questions with ‘moving on to Irish Champions Weekend’ comments, in fact quite the opposite; he has been utterly open about wellbeing or otherwise of his horses this season and is in general a much-improved communicator with the media. Regardless of what unfolds between now and season end, I suspect he will look back fondly on a  season when his sons trained and rode the Irish Derby winner with Latrobe, a Group 1 race he didn’t want to win!

- Tony Keenan

Monday Musings: Blame it on the novichok…

You can blame it all on novichok and Brexit, writes Tony Stafford. But for the political reaction to the first Salisbury poisonings back in the spring of a former Russian spy who years ago sold secrets to the British, and his daughter, many more England supporters would have dared to travel to Russia for the World Cup.

It was suggested around 3,000 England fans were in the stadium in Samara on Saturday as they beat Sweden 2-0. By my reckoning, not far short of 3,000 more blocked the traffic going down from Regents Park towards Camden Town at around 5.30 on Saturday afternoon. Luckily I was able to take a right turn and escape with a clean car unlike the Emergency Ambulance, jumped upon and as good as wrecked in Borough High Street, Central London, that evening.

As England’s path to a second World Cup win moves ever closer, confusion over Brexit and indeed novichok, following another dual exposure in the Salisbury area late last week, deepens.

David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, resigned over the weekend. Governments like to issue bad news when there are other distractions, so Mrs May might well be grateful of the progress in the World Cup by the home country’s footballers.

She will probably also be relieved that it was Croatia rather than the hosts that won Saturday’s other quarter-final after a penalty shoot-out in Sochi. Croatia’s female president showed her dancing skills when her team opened the scoring, while Russia’s PM Medvedev looked away. Considering the extreme cool in the Putin – May relations since Salisbury, it might be worth Betfair’s opening a market on whether Theresa will find time to travel to the Final next Saturday should we be there, with so much turmoil around Westminster.

My Internet-minded wife did show me one video image late yesterday, on the reaction of the Russian police when one misguided England fan, mirroring the ambulance abuse back home, jumped on a vehicle over there. Within seconds he was hauled off and got an instant “correction” from a policeman’s baton.

I played cricket the only time we won the World Cup when probably a good few of Eton Manor’s team preferred to watch the football. On Saturday I was at Sandown for the Coral-Eclipse Stakes which suffered a last-minute absentee when Masar, the Investec Derby winner had to miss the race through a minor setback.

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Many thought Sheikh Mohammed and his Godolphin entourage might also avoid the engagement, but such is the renewed confidence especially with the Charlie Appleby end of the team, that there was a full contingent to see Hawkbill finish fourth. While not collecting the major prize, Sheikh Mo will have been gratified to see the Derby form upheld, with Roaring Lion, third at Epsom, maintaining his superiority over Saxon Warrior, fourth in the big one, in a tight finish.

Had the pair been competing in France or the US then the slightly errant late course of Roaring Lion, which caused Saxon Warrior to be tightened up might well have been reversed. But with the Sandown crowd building up the excitement with those other Lions about to take to the pitch in Samara, the result, a popular one with the favourite winning, was allowed to stand. The four-day ban that Oisin Murphy, 22, received for the move on Donnacha O’Brien, 19, was enough to salve any protests.

It has been widely assumed that Donnacha , already the possessor of three Classic wins this year to Ryan Moore’s zero, will not wish or be able to continue riding for much longer. Elder brother Joseph at 25 is already an established top-level trainer a couple of years in after his precipitous retirement, but the incentive for the younger O’Brien to remain in the jockey arena could hardly be more attractive.

Well used to reading in the footnotes to ordinary races in Ireland that his mounts would be liable to carrying overweight – 9st was supposed to be his absolute limit – it certainly surprised me that he was allowed to resume his 2,000 Guineas winning partnership with Saxon Warrior. Moore, absent on Kentucky Derby duties with Mendelssohn on that first Saturday in May, was back on the favourite both at Epsom and The Curragh, but again in the US for the very disappointing Mendelssohn at Belmont Park on Saturday night. Luckily Athena – my late mum’s name – picked up just short of 400k when winning the Belmont Oaks, so the trip did have some minor financial recompense for his troubles.

Saxon Warrior, along with the other three-year-olds in the Group 1 Coral-Eclipse, had 8st11lb, but when I asked Aidan O’Brien after the race whether Donnacha had “done” the weight, there was a hint of surprise that I’d even asked. He did. As with Lester Piggott in an earlier age, and until recently George Baker, the lofty Donnacha is showing the amazing will-power that jockeys can employ to manage their weight and of course their appetite.

My appetite was given a bit of a test in the Coral tent – no doubt the early start, England’s match and above all a blockade on the M25 contributed to a host of non-runners among the guest list– after I got a late call from Matt Yates, to partake of some excellent victuals.

Matt was an Olympian 1500-metre runner and if you could believe it actually beat Messrs Coe and Ovett back in the day. He walks pretty quickly too, and his athletic prowess didn’t hurt as he shepherded Coral and Ladbrokes customers from table to bar, and of course to the betting point while Colin Brown (without Desert Orchid) mastered the ceremonies in his usual effortless style.

The food was good, the company even better and until attention switched from horse racing to England on the big screen it was all serene. The initial stages of the match were fairly sterile, and the decision was made to drive back with Peter Ashmore and family to St John’s Wood and watch the second half and the inevitable shoot-out after the probable 0-0 draw in comfort and quiet.

Harry Maguire’s missile-guided head had already altered calculations by the time we got there and the second goal by Dele Alli offered security. It was left to some excellent saves by Jordan Pickford – “that’s what he’s there for” – to retain the victory margin and disguise the actual superiority. With two games to go, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a win. Champions of the World!

Will Mrs May dare to go, though, and sit alongside President Putin at the Final in Moscow? Or even more intriguingly will it be Boris, as Foreign Secretary, or will he have resigned by then, too, in an attempt to unseat the PM and nick the top job for himself amid the inevitable fall-out? When I used occasionally to be in close proximity to Boris (and others of course) going up in the the lift at the old Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street all those years ago, I’d never have believed where he and all of us would be now.

While there may be distractions, the top trainers do not allow themselves to be diverted. On Saturday there were notable multiple wins, not the least impressive being Ian Williams’ four-timer – one at Haydock and three-out-of-three for a 143-1 treble from his only runners at Nottingham.

The horseboxes rolled out early from Kingsley House on Saturday morning, no doubt waking the owners in the guest apartments, aiming for six of the seven Flat meetings on the day- avoiding perhaps fortuitously Sandown and those motorway frustrations.

Mark Johnston’s sole Nottingham runner finished only fourth, but his other 23 contenders fared far more impressively. I wonder whether expectations were particularly high, as of the 24, only two started favourite and neither Austrian School, runner-up as 4-1 market leader at Haydock or the odds-on Winger Spur also second at Beverley, could quite justify the position.

Otherwise it was success everywhere else, with wins at Chelmsford (two), Carlisle, Leicester, Beverley and another double at Haydock. In price order, the winners started at 20-1, 12-1, 8-1, 6-1, 9-2, and 5-2 twice. Johnston had sent out 28 winners in the previous 14 days, so with another at Ayr yesterday, that makes it 36 wins in 16 days. Man in form? He’s almost in the Gareth Southgate class.

Tony Keenan: Training by Gender

About two years ago I wrote about the main Irish flat trainers and how successful or otherwise they were with horses over various trips; it has taken some time, too long in fact, but I now want to follow up and look at the records of those handlers with different genders, writes Tony Keenan. With this in mind, I looked at all Irish flat races between 2012 and 2017, turf and all-weather, which took in 6,727 races and 72,409 runners in all. The average field size for these races was 10.76 runners making the average strikerate 9.29%. Below is a breakdown of all those races, first by simple gender, and then by more specific horse type.







Impact Value

Male 4,195 41,867 10.02% 0.82 1.08
Female 2,532 30,542 8.29% 0.77 0.89


Horse Type





Impact Value

Colt 1,388 9,620 14.43% 0.85 1.55
Horse 48 355 13.52% 0.87 1.45
Gelding 2,759 31,892 8.65% 0.81 0.93
Filly 2,1111 24,929 8.47% 0.77 0.91
Mare 421 5,613 7.50% 0.78 0.81


A few universal truths emerge from this. Male horses make up a bigger proportion of the fields during this time, 58% versus 42% for females, and they win more often too. Keep this in mind later on when looking at the records of different trainers; a trainer may have a lower strikerate with fillies and mares than they have with colts, horses or geldings but it could still be better when compared to the overall horse population.

During this article, the focus will be on the top ten Irish trainers between 2012 and 2017 in terms of total winners trained; I’ve taken out David Wachman because he has since retired which leaves Aidan O’Brien, Dermot Weld, Jim Bolger, Ger Lyons, Michael Halford, Eddie Lynam, Willie McCreery, Jessica Harrington, John Oxx and Kevin Prendergast. Below are their respective records with fillies and mares in the period covered and the order is taken from their total winners in that time.







A. O’Brien 187 1,236 15.13% 0.80
D. Weld 233 1,159 20.10% 0.90
J. Bolger 167 1,616 10.33% 0.76
G. Lyons 81 452 17.92% 1.05
M. Halford 96 887 10.82% 0.77
E. Lynam 78 643 12.87% 0.89
W. McCreery 125 1,122 11.14% 0.92
J. Harrington 68 817 8.32% 0.73
J. Oxx 66 523 12.62% 0.76
K. Prendergast 55 568 9.68% 0.78


The first thing that jumps out is that Aidan O’Brien isn’t the best at something in Irish flat racing, Dermot Weld is clearly superior in terms of strikerate and winners trained. Ger Lyons is next in strikerate though with relatively few female runners in that time: despite training the fourth highest total winners in this time, he ran the fewest fillies with the next trainer (John Oxx) having 71 more. Willie McCreery is the opposite, running the fourth most fillies and mares in this time and having one of the better actual over expected figures. Of the top ten, Jessica Harrington comes out worst in strikerate, her figure of 8.32% only marginally better than the national average of 8.29% when you would expect the main trainers to be comfortably beating that.

Next let’s compare those strikerates with both their overall records and how they do with male runners.



Overall Strikerate

Male Strikerate

Female Strikerate

A. O’Brien 21.28% 25.06% 15.13%
D. Weld 17.18% 14.68% 20.10%
J. Bolger 12.32% 14.38% 10.33%
G. Lyons 17.23% 17.02% 17.92%
M. Halford 12.44% 13.36% 10.82%
E. Lynam 11.78% 11.43% 12.87%
W. McCreery 10.27% 7.54% 11.14%
J. Harrington 9.70% 11.30% 8.32%
J. Oxx 13.42% 14.35% 12.62%
K. Prendergast 9.62% 9.56% 9.68%
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The expectation here based on the overall horse population is that trainers should do better with colts and geldings so it is the yards that deviate from the norm that are most interesting. That Weld has a much better record with females than males was surprising though the McCreery figures were much more expected; my anecdotal sense looking at his runners was that he did well with fillies and mares. Ger Lyons is a really unusual case in that his strikerate is consistent across the board but that was also the case when looking at distance in the previous article. Bolger, along with Harrington, doesn’t do as well when compared with their record with males.

To wrap up looking at the top ten trainers as a whole, let’s consider how their stables are broken down in terms of male and female runners. The overall population is 58% male and 42% female in this time so they are the base rates to work off and perhaps also bear in mind whether trainers with good/poor strikerates are training too many or too few fillies and mares.



% of Males

% of Females

A. O’Brien 61.9% 38.1%
D. Weld 53.9% 46.1%
J. Bolger 49.1% 50.9%
G. Lyons 76.9% 23.1%
M. Halford 63.9% 36.1%
E. Lynam 50.7% 49.3%
W. McCreery 24.2% 75.8%
J. Harrington 46.1% 53.9%
J. Oxx 46.0% 54.0%
K. Prendergast 50.8% 49.2%


Some of these trainers seem to have things spot-on; Willie McCreery’s yard is predominately female and while some of this may be self-fulfilling it does make sense. Dermot Weld has more than normal percentage of fillies and mares but it does look as if a few of these trainers might be leaning too much towards females, notably Jim Bolger and Jessica Harrington.

But it’s Ger Lyons that is the really strange one. Despite having the second-best strikerate with fillies and mares, his yard is heavily stacked towards males; unlike Bolger and Harrington, he probably isn’t training enough fillies.

The trainer says this is because his has traditionally been a selling yard and without black type it is difficult to sell fillies. Furthermore, Hong Kong – where a number of his horses have been exported to – have no real interest in fillies. That said, he has been buying more fillies in the last two years and in 2017 he had 22 winners from 115 female runners, whereas his previous highs were 13 winners (2013 and 2015) and 80 runners (also 2013).

Lyons has had Group race success with fillies this year courtesy of Who’s Steph and Lightening Quick, and that is reflected in his overall record with different genders in the better races. Furthermore, his sole Group 1 winner to date was the filly Lightening Pearl. Below is his record in UK and Irish Group and Listed races between 2012 and 2017 by gender.






Level Stakes


Male 21 198 10.6% -75.15 0.67
Female 13 94 13.8% -26.14 0.98


Weld however remains the best with fillies and mares and has had nearly twice as many female than male Group and Listed winners in UK and Ireland between 2012 and 2017, 70 versus 36. Those looking for a punting angle might consider linking this back to the training for distance article; Weld is not a trainer of sprinters but does well over longer trips. Below is his record over varying distances with female runners in the period covered.






Level Stakes


5f – 6½f 15 158 9.49% -79.52 0.58
7f – 8½f 101 532 18.99% -108.50 0.88
9f plus 121 485 24.95% -26.96 1.01


In the period covered, McCreery has managed only one male Pattern winner as against 14 female winners of such races; his best horse to date, Fiesolana, came around the start of this time and may have helped in bringing more fillies and mares in. In terms of betting on his fillies and mares, age is something to consider as seen in the table below. One word of warning however: the massive level-stakes profit is due to some big-priced winners including 66/1, 25/1 and 16/1 (three times). Still, his strikerate is markedly better with the older ones.






Level Stakes


2yos 25 255 9.80% -84.77 0.86
3yos 49 517 9.48% -161.82 0.76
4yos plus 53 376 14.1% +77.24 1.17


The red herring in the whole group however is Jessica Harrington, her overall strikerate with fillies and mares the worst of the top ten trainers. This is despite her best flat horse to date, Alpha Centauri, being a filly and this could be a case where the numbers cannot be trusted. If we look at her 18 Listed and Group winners between 2012 and 2017, we see that 11 were by fillies and mares and that includes the talented pair Bocca Baciata and Jack Naylor. Maybe she is good with the better fillies but not so much with the ones down the pecking order.

This is only one way of measuring a trainer’s success with fillies and mares and there are obviously other methods of doing it, getting black type for a high proportion of their female runners something that springs to mind. Still, we are working off a reasonable sample size of six years racing, and it raises some interesting questions, not least about whether or not trainers sell themselves as being good with fillies. I suspect Willie McCreery already does and Ger Lyons should do it a bit more.

- Tony Keenan

Harrington filly shines brightest at Royal Ascot

John Gosden, Sir Michael Stoute and Aidan O’Brien completed a hugely successful Royal Ascot, though it was arguably Irish racing royalty Jess Harrington, that stole the show.

Better known for exploits during the winter months, Harrington is responsible for this summer’s ‘wonder-filly’ Alpha Centauri. Runner-up in last year’s Albany Stakes, this powerfully built three-year-old now stands head and shoulders above her peers. Destructive in the Irish 1000 Guineas a month ago, she was simply magnificent on Friday, when annihilating a high-class field to take the Group One Coronation Stakes, giving her trainer a first Royal Ascot success.

Sent to the front over a furlong out by Colm O’Donoghue, this mighty filly simply powered clear, storming through the line in record time. Mark Johnston’s Threading backed up her stunning performance at York, with another terrific effort, though was simply no match for the outstanding winner, some six lengths back in second. Newmarket Guineas heroine Billesdon Brook lacked the gears to land a blow, though battled on bravely for fourth.

“I’m relieved because I definitely got very wound up,” Harrington said. “I was nervous today. I know she was very good. We were under the radar in the Irish Guineas, whereas today, there we are as the favourite and we are there to be shot at.

“The ground is key to her. As you can see there, she is a very big filly, she weighs 520kgs. I think when she is on soft ground she physically can’t get her feet out. What she wants is good ground. She is a big striding filly and Colm did not want to break her stride at all.”

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There’s no doubting that this was a hugely impressive performance from a filly who looks more than capable of taking on, and beating, the boys at a mile.

The opening day of the meeting had belonged to John Gosden and Frankie Dettori. The dynamic duo struck a stunning trio of victories, with Without Parole the highlight in the Group One St James’s Palace Stakes. Dettori struck for home nearing the furlong mark, and though Gustav Klimt closed him down late on, the victory never looked in doubt. Calyx had shown his class earlier in the day, when winning despite being drawn on the wrong side of the track. This is a hugely talented juvenile son of Kingman and looks a thrilling prospect.

Stradivarius was another terrific winner for the pair as he out-battled French raider Vazirabad to win the Gold Cup. Having already landed the Yorkshire Cup, you can imagine this fella going through the campaign unbeaten in top level staying events.

It came as something of a surprise when Gosden’s star performer Cracksman, could only manage a second-place spot in the Prince Of Wales’s. The quick ground may not have been ideal, as he had no answer to the speed of Sir Michael Stoute’s Poet’s Word. The pair pulled well clear of the remainder in a quick time, with the five-year-old winner yet again proving just how good the trainer is at improving these middle-distance types.

To show he’s not just a master with progressive older horses, Stoute sent out the winner of the Commonwealth Cup, when Eqtidaar caused something of an upset in defeating Sands Of Mali. The winner ran a cracker, though it was the runner-up that caught the eye, and was arguably unlucky not to have get up late on. Fahey’s three-year-old looks a class act and could be the one to take out of this race as the season unfolds.

Stoute has an outstanding record in the Hardwicke Stakes and it was no surprise to see his classy Crystal Ocean land the Group Two with something to spare. This fella looks capable of taking on the very best mid-distance types throughout the season.

Team Ballydoyle rarely leave these events empty handed, and on this occasion it was an O’Brien sprinter that shone brightest for the yard. Merchant Navy had proved top class in Oz and has carried that promise to the next level for his new trainer. The three-year-old showed real guts to hold off the French-trained City Light in a thrilling finish to the Diamond Jubilee. Harry Angel was the disappointment of the race. Following a shocking start, he was never able to become competitive, and was eased down some way out. He’s now nought from five at the track.

Magic Wand was another success for Ballydoyle. She seemed to outstay Wild Illusion when comfortably winning the Ribblesdale Stakes. With Oaks winner Forever Together skipping the event, Charlie Appleby’s filly had been sent off the favourite. She put in a solid performance, though maybe a drop back to a mile-and-a-quarter would suit.

Despite winners being tricky to find at times, the Royal Meeting completely lived up to the hype. The best in the business came and conquered, with a special lady from Ireland rather fittingly providing a moment of pure majesty.

Flat Racing Elite set for Royal Meeting

It’s more than likely that the usual suspects will be celebrating another successful Royal Ascot.

And that’s to be expected, at a meeting where major players send their ‘big guns’. For sure, the best from Ireland and the UK will be in attendance. There’ll be a scattering of French flair, and add to that a dash of American and Australian power to maximise the international flavour.

Charlie Appleby and John Gosden appear the form duo from the home nation. The former can do no wrong, with Godolphin reaping the benefits. John Gosden has suffered an early season blow, with Enable currently on the sidelines. Nevertheless, he has a powerful team primed to inflict maximum mayhem, aided by a cocky Italian with a perfect sense of occasion.

Aidan O’Brien is sure to hold a strong hand and regularly leaves the Royal meeting as the leading trainer, though punters should resist the temptation of blindly following Ballydoyle contenders. This gathering isn’t like Cheltenham or Punchestown, where following Willie Mullins automatically leads to winners. Aidan and the boys are the dominant force on the flat, but opposition at Royal Ascot is exceptionally strong.

Andre Fabre and Jean-Claude Rouget tend to send a handful of challengers across the Channel, with a certain amount of success. Le Brivido landed the Jersey Stakes for Fabre 12 months ago, whilst Rouget’s Qemah took the Duke Of Cambridge.

Wes Ward will again lead an American assault, hoping that Lady Aurelia can achieve a trio of Royal Ascot victories. Whilst Redkirk Warrior arrives from Australia with the Diamond Jubilee Stakes the likely target.

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So just who are the leading contenders from the sports elite?

Ballydoyle appear to have a hugely talented contingent, with serious challengers in numerous events. Rhododendron landed the Lockinge last time and is the current favourite for the opening race of the meeting, the Queen Anne Stakes. She’s a class act and looks sure to go close. O’Brien has had plenty of success in the Gold Cup over recent years and will have Order Of St George primed for another crack at the prize. He won the race in 2016 and went down by just a short-head to Big Orange 12 months ago.

O’Brien’s youngsters tend to make their mark at the Royal Meeting and this year’s crop look a talented bunch. Sergei Prokofiev is favourite for the Coventry Stakes following a stunning victory at Naas last time. This son of Scat Daddy is thought to be an outstanding prospect. Also renowned for producing high class fillies, O’Brien appears to have another classy duo in Fairyland and Just Wonderful. Both could line up in the Queen Mary Stakes.

Returning three-year-olds Clemmie and Sioux Nation are also expected to go well. The former was one of the yard’s best juveniles and would have needed the run when beaten in the Irish Guineas recently. The latter is a speedy son of Scat Daddy out of an Oasis Dream mare. He’s one of the best looking colts in training, and is currently favourite for the Commonwealth Cup.

John Gosden has some of the greatest flat racing talent in his Newmarket stable. His Arc heroine, Enable, is currently out of action, but he has a sensational replacement in Cracksman. The Champion Stakes winner will be lining up in the Group One Prince Of Wales’s Stakes and is rated 7lb higher than his only serious rival, Godolphin’s Benbatl.

Gosden also has Without Parole heading the market for the St James’s Palace Stakes. I must confess that I’m not a fan. He beat a handicapper at Yarmouth in April and barely scraped home in a listed event at Sandown last time. Though this looks quite a weak renewal, I’d still fancy something from the English or Irish Guineas to have a little more class than Gosden’s fella.

The trainer does have a huge chance of lifting the Gold Cup, thanks to the talented and gutsy four-year-old Stradivarius. He has Order Of St George to beat, and one can envisage a pulsating finish with little to choose between the pair.

Lah Ti Dar missed the Oaks at Epsom but is expected to make the start for the Ribblesdale. She’ll likely have Oaks runner-up Wild Illusion to beat, though quick ground would certainly help her cause. She’s looked talented thus far, though this is a far tougher assignment.

Gosden also has a couple of classy juveniles in the yard in Calyx and Legends Of War. It seems that only the former will now be taking on Ballydoyle’s Sergei Prokofiev in the Coventry Stakes, though the clash remains a mouth-watering one.

The Andre Fabre-trained Wind Chimes is set to take her chance in the Group One Coronation Stakes. Just touched off in the French 1000 Guineas by David Simcock’s Teppal, she was possibly a little unlucky that day, and there’s every chance she’ll reverse that form. She ought to go very close.

Along with Lady Aurelia, Wes Ward is likely to send Moonlight Romance and Shang Shang Shang for the juvenile events. Bound For Nowhere looks a live contender for the Diamond Jubilee having finished fourth in the Commonwealth Cup last year. And Undrafted looks an interesting entrant in the Wokingham Stakes. He took the Group One Diamond Jubilee back in 2015 and was only a couple of lengths back in sixth a year later. Though now an eight-year-old, he remains a classy type and will run off a mark of 103.

Expect thrilling clashes between some of flat racing’s most powerful yards, at the sports most prestigious event. Jump racing has Cheltenham, whilst the Flat has Royal Ascot. It’s as simple as that.

Can a Young Rascal sink the mighty Saxon Warrior?

Having landed the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, Saxon Warrior is a short-priced favourite to give Aidan O’Brien his fifth Epsom Derby in seven years.

The latest Ballydoyle sensation is looking to emulate Camelot in landing the Guineas-Derby double and has been treading a virtually identical path. Both captured the Racing Post Trophy as juveniles prior to winning the Newmarket Classic on seasonal debut at three. Camelot arrived at Epsom with an unblemished record of three victories from three runs, whilst Saxon Warrior heads for the Derby having won all four outings to date. Even the BHA struggled to separate them at this stage of their careers, with Camelot rated at 121 and Saxon W coming here off a mark of 120.

There’s little doubt that this year’s Derby favourite holds all the right credentials to complete the celebrated double. He’s by the Japanese racing sensation Deep Impact. Peerless at home, the colt came a close third in the 2006 Arc and has found similar success as a stallion. On the dam’s side we have yet another Galileo mare, in the 2012 Oaks fifth Maybe. The pedigree suggests the trip will be ideal, indeed, Ballydoyle have hinted that the St Leger may well be targeted should all go well at Epsom. His Guineas success coupled with the continued positive reports from the stable, points to a huge run from Saxon Warrior. He’ll take some beating.

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Dermot Weld won the Derby with Harzand in 2016 and is represented by close relative Hazapour. He landed the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown last time, travelling powerfully throughout and showing the better turn of foot to defeat a couple of O’Brien runners in Delano Roosevelt and The Pentagon. All three reoppose, though I fancy they’ll finish the Derby in a slightly different order. Of the trio I’m inclined to favour Delano Roosevelt, who finished particularly well last time. He’s a lovely imposing colt and his pedigree suggests he’ll enjoy a little juice in the ground.

Roaring Lion takes on Saxon Warrior for the third time and is currently two-nil down. He showed plenty of zip when winning a slowly run renewal of the Dante Stakes at York, though there must be a concern that the ground at Epsom (currently soft) will blunt that speed. The pace of the race is also likely to be far more testing, with the keen front-runner Knight To Behold likely to set decent fractions. Gosden won this race with Golden Horn in 2015, but I’m not convinced that this fella has what it takes.

Wings Of Eagles won at 40s last year, but it’s usually the fancied contenders that prevail in the Derby. Nine of the last 10 renewals went to horses priced at 7/1 or shorter, so in searching for the winner we ought to focus on those at the front end of the market.

One colt that looked to have huge potential when winning the Chester Vase is the William Haggas-trained Young Rascal. He’s by Intello, himself a son of Galileo, out of a Clodovil mare. The pedigree suggests that he’ll love conditions and though his inexperience is a concern, that run at Chester could prove invaluable. Despite his size, he coped admirably with the sharp turns that day and though I fancy Epsom will not be ideal, his raw talent could see him running a huge race. The Haggas team are in sparkling form, as is race jockey James Doyle.

The aforementioned Knight To Behold also lacks experience and may need to settle better than he did at Lingfield last time. He was an impressive winner of the Derby Trial that day but is sure to have more company at Epsom, with Ballydoyle likely to sacrifice one of their five runners at the front end. Nevertheless, this son of Sea The Stars looks a talented sort and may be capable of landing a place at decent odds.

Despite finishing third in the 2000 Guineas, Masar appears to have been written off by many. Currently best-priced at 25/1, this son of New Approach out of a Cape Cross mare ought to be suited by the step-up in trip. The ground may have gone against him, though his form looks as strong as any bar the favourite. Godolphin have a rotten record in the Epsom Derby, but this fella certainly has a chance if coping with conditions.

It’s difficult to see past Saxon Warrior and everything points to him prevailing. Nevertheless, I’ll be putting a few quid on Young Rascal as I believe he has the potential to put in a huge performance. Delano Roosevelt looks best of the remaining Ballydoyle battalion. Good luck to those having a punt.

Haggas team flying as Epsom looms

William Haggas has had a wonderful start to the latest Flat season and heads to Epsom this week with live contenders for both the Oaks and the Derby.

A strike-rate of 27% is testament to the yard’s form, though that rises to 31% over the past two weeks, with a further double at Leicester yesterday. He’s currently top of the trainers’ championship despite having infinitely fewer runners than Mark Johnston in second and John Gosden who lies third. Few would expect him to maintain such a lofty position though there does appear to be a marked upgrading in stable quality. It’s dangerous to disregard any Haggas runner at present.

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Addeybb, though disappointing on fast ground last time, remains a hugely progressive sort and is sure to bring further success to the yard before the season closes. Just a few days ago at Goodwood, three-year-old Society Power made it five wins on-the-bounce, when sweeping from last to first in a competitive handicap. He’ll likely be given a mark in the mid-100s, and now looks sure to be tried in pattern company.

In the coming days Haggas has a chance of adding to those two Classic victories of Dancing Rain in the Oaks of 2011 and Shaamit’s Derby success of 1996. Young Rascal runs in the colts’ classic, following a cosy success in the Chester Vase. The leggy youngster coped well with the tight turning track that day, and despite appearing a little green down the straight, quickened nicely to beat Dee Ex Bee with something in hand.

A son of French Derby winner Intello – himself a son of champion stallion Galileo – he remains rather inexperienced as he heads to Epsom, though looks a colt of huge potential. Not all horses take to the track and there’s certainly a chance that this fella could become unbalanced at certain points. He may also find the infamous ‘camber’ problematic. Nevertheless, his odds of 12/1 reflect the talent we have already witnessed, and should this examination not come too soon, he may be the one to launch the greatest challenge to the O’Brien ‘good thing’.

The Newmarket handler also has a couple of fillies primed for the Oaks, though a final decision on the participation of Sea Of Class will be taken this morning. With just two career starts to her name, the trainer may feel that Epsom arrives too soon. By Sea The Stars out of a Hernando mare, the mile-and-a-half trip should hold no fears, and her last run at Newbury was certainly eye-catching. She hammered Aidan O’Brien’s Athena that day, powering clear in the final furlong. Way back in third was Sir Michael Stoute’s much touted Crystal Hope. The form looks rock solid, and should she take her chance, despite her inexperience, she appears to be a leading contender.

Give And Take is the trainer’s other runner, and she was last seen landing the Musidora Stakes at York. That was her fifth career start and she’s yet to finish out of the first two. Popular opinion is that the York renewal was somewhat sub-standard, and there’s no doubting that the field were tightly packed at the line. The pace of the race would probably not have suited this filly, so for her to win as she did was arguably more impressive. The Oaks trip should prove ideal and though possibly less classy than her stable-companion, she’s certainly more street-wise. This looks an open renewal of the Epsom Classic and she looks capable of being involved at the business end.

It’s undoubtedly a huge weekend for Haggas and the team and, though the might of Ballydoyle will take some toppling, the Newmarket handler couldn’t have his stable in better form as he takes on this huge challenge at the highest level. The dual-Classic winner gives little away when questioned but must be excited at the possibility of further Group One glory.

Rhododendron Blooms at Newbury

Aidan O’Brien’s Rhododendron got the better of Lightning Spear to land a thrilling Lockinge Stakes at Newbury.

Despite concerns over the drop back in trip, Ballydoyle’s filly proved she had the ‘zip’, holding off David Simcock’s talented miler by a nose. O’Brien had four runners in the field of 14, and three were prominent from the off. Deauville set the pace followed closely by Lancaster Bomber. Ryan Moore shadowed the pair aboard race favourite Rhododendron, whilst Oisin Murphy was keen to keep tabs on Team Ballydoyle, positioning Lightning Spear alongside the filly.

Moore made his move approaching the two-furlong pole, driving the favourite to the front down the centre of the track, whilst Murphy, possibly travelling slightly the better at that stage, came stand-side to make his challenge. At the furlong mark Rhododendron was half-a-length to the good, but that advantage was whittled away approaching the post. The filly clung on for victory, much to the frustration of Lightning Spear’s connections, who saw their horse clearly ahead just yards past the line.

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Lancaster Bomber was outpaced by the front pair, though stayed on well for third, whilst Dutch Connection ran a belter, but ultimately failed to see out the one mile trip back in fourth.

O’Brien said of the winner: “I was delighted, we thought she’d come on from her run last time (fourth to Cracksman) and Ryan’s given her a brilliant ride. It’s a big team effort and we’re delighted.” Of future targets, especially Royal Ascot, O’Brien added: “We were thinking of coming here, then going to Ascot. She would have the option of going the mile (Queen Anne) or the mile and a quarter (Prince of Wales’s Stakes). We’ll have a good chat to Ryan and then the boys will decide after that.”

Ryan Moore spoke to ITV Racing after the win, saying: “She’s a Group One winner at two, three and now four and she’s had an incredible career. After what happened to her in the French Oaks (bled badly), what Aidan and the team have done with her, it’s a massive turnaround. She was very good at two and could have won a lot more at three. She was unlucky in the Guineas, then ran into Enable in the Oaks. She came back and won the Opera, and had she had a draw at Del Mar she’d have won there.”

David Simcock looked gutted after losing out in the head-bobber yet composed himself and spoke to ITV Racing straight after the race: “I’ve not had the wind taken out of my sails like that for a while. I’m just a little gutted, but very proud of the horse. He was given a great ride - I thought he was going to win nearing the line. Oisin Murphy has given him a fantastic ride. It is just so frustrating.

“We're just very fond of him and he's never let us down. He's been placed in so many Group Ones, you just feel we'd like to have won one with him, but he's run a great race. They finished a good two lengths clear of the third. Fair play to the filly. I would say we'll go to the Queen Anne. It's the obvious place to go.”

Of those further back in the field, Addeybb clearly found the ground too lively, fading out of contention in the latter stages. Limato again looked a non-stayer at a mile and will surely drop back in trip with a crack at the Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot likely.

Ryan Moore was winning his first Lockinge, with O’Brien landing the event for the first time since Hawk Wing in 2003. Rhododendron’s victory continued the strong trend of success for four-year-olds in the race, with 10 of the last 12 renewals now won by that age group. It is of course yet another Group One for O’Brien and his team, as he sets out on another campaign of top-level dominance.

Bomber can land telling blow at Newbury

The Group One Lockinge Stakes takes place at Newbury on Saturday, with Aidan O’Brien targeting a first success since 2003.

Excelebration was one of Ballydoyle’s classier contenders when runner-up in 2012, though had little chance of winning with Frankel in opposition. Hawk Wing landed the prize for the yard in 2003 by 11-lengths, having been kept in training following something of a ‘nearly’ season as a three-year-old. Runner-up in both the 2000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby, the classy colt did manage to win the Eclipse at Sandown. Sadly, after his Newbury romp, he suffered a career-ending knee injury at Royal Ascot.

It’s fair to say that this is a race the Ballydoyle boys have tended to ignore. It’s usually a case that O’Brien’s most talented milers are sent to stud following successful campaigns at three. Last year’s Guineas winning pair of Churchill and Winter have followed that path, leaving Rhododendron as their leading Lockinge contender and current favourite for the race.

Her three-year-old campaign pretty much mirrored that of Hawk Wing back in the day. Runner-up in both the Guineas and the Oaks, she had a spell on the side-lines before a win in the Prix de l’Opera at a mile-and-a-quarter. Her return at Longchamp last month, when fourth to Cracksman, was satisfactory. She’s likely to improve for the run, though there must be a question as to whether this one-mile trip will suit. She’s looked a filly that needs slightly further, though this does look a sub-standard renewal.

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Limato is next-best in the betting, though the trip for him appears a touch beyond his best. He was fourth in this race back in 2016, when looking a little one-paced late on. He similarly faltered in the latter stages of last year’s Lennox Stakes at Goodwood. Quick ground at Newbury will certainly help his cause and he’s likely to be travelling better than anything deep into the race. Harry Bentley has the task of whether to kick clear and hold on or wait to the last moment in the hope that the six-year-old has enough in the tank. I’d be taking the first option and using that devastating change of gear to put distance between myself and the rest.

William Haggas has his team in sparkling form and is represented by the fast improving Addeybb. The four-year-old landed the Group Two bet365 Mile last month, though this will clearly be a tougher task. Those aged four have won eight of the last 10 renewals, though the race does tend to go to proven Group One performers. He lacks that high-level experience and I’d be slightly concerned over ground conditions. He’s been impressive on soft and good-to-soft thus far, and he’ll need to prove that he has the tactical speed for this race on fast ground.

Like Addeybb, the Andrew Balding-trained Beat The Bank looks a progressive four-year-old, though he did disappoint on his final outing last year, when stepped into Group One company for the QEII at Ascot. This son of Paco Boy had flopped at Ascot earlier in the campaign, so I’m inclined to forgive him those two shockers. His strongest performance came in the Group Two Joel Stakes at Newmarket, when he slaughtered a decent field by five lengths. He has something to prove at this level, though there’s surely more to come.

Like Limato, Suedois is something of a sprinter turned miler, though he has proven himself capable of seeing out the trip at a high level. He’s consistent and is likely to be in the mix especially on this quicker ground. No seven-year-old has won the race and he’s certainly vulnerable to an improving youngster. Nevertheless, 20/1 is a fair price for a horse suited by track and conditions and possessing such an amount of experience at this level.

Lightning Spear was runner-up 12 months ago, and is another that could outrun his odds. In a weak looking renewal, he has a big performance in the locker, though last season proved rather inconsistent. Another seven-year-old, he’s unlikely to be winning, but is another at a price, capable of hitting the frame.

One that should run well, if lining up, is O’Brien’s four-year-old colt Lancaster Bomber. Fourth in last year’s Guineas and runner-up in the St James’s Palace, he’s a class act on fast ground. Ryan Moore will be aboard the filly, but this fella should not be discounted if given the green light.

This is a tough race to call, with no outstanding miler apparent. I’m a huge fan of Rhododendron but I’m far from convinced that this is her trip. If he runs, I’ll be siding with Lancaster Bomber in the hope that ground and trip will suit him better than his stable companion. Though he’s too old to win, Lightning Spear can run into a place. Best of luck to those taking a punt in this tricky renewal.

Centennial Celebration Chester Vase

Chester’s May festival begins, with a special opening day, as they celebrate the 100th running of the Chester Vase.

Known as the Roodee, Chester is officially the oldest racecourse still in use. Resting on the banks of the River Dee, the racing dates back to the early sixteenth century. The eastern part of the course stands alongside the City’s ancient wall, where once Roman trading vessels would moor. These days’ crowds gather along the wall in order to obtain outstanding views of the racing, without parting with a single penny.

The first recorded race took place in 1539, authorised by the Mayor, Henry Gee. It’s thought that the term ‘gee-gee’ is derived from his name. The course is small with a length at little more than a mile. The left-handed circuit is taken at almost a constant turn, and it’s a tight track that doesn’t suit all equine visitors.

It should come as no surprise to hear that Aidan O’Brien has proved the dominant force in the Chester Vase. The master of Ballydoyle has won the race eight times since 2007. Treasure Beach followed victory here in 2011, with success in the Irish Derby. In 2013, Ruler of the World won this prior to glory in the Epsom Derby. And last year, though Wings of Eagles could only manage a second-place finish, he too, went on to Epsom glory in the ‘big one’.

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Going back to the early eighties, both Henbit and Shergar managed to achieve the Chester/Epsom double. The latter of course, became a Flat racing legend due to the emphatic nature of those victories.

Last year’s gathering proved something of a stellar occasion, producing a Derby winner in Wings of Eagles and an Oaks heroine in Enable – John Gosden’s filly having won the Cheshire Oaks at this meeting.

O’Brien has three runners as he looks to add to his outstanding record in the Centennial Celebration Chester Vase. It’s another competitive looking renewal, with Ryan Moore opting to ride Hunting Horn. The son of Camelot was third in Sandown’s Bet365 Classic Trial a few weeks back. He was behind Godolphin’s Ispolini that day, and the pair renew their rivalry.

Fresh from his success in the 2000 Guineas, Donnacha O’Brien has the leg-up on the suitably named Family Tree. This son of Galileo has only had the one outing and is very much an unknown quantity.

Ballydoyle also have a trio of challengers in the Cheshire Oaks. Ryan Moore is aboard the Galileo filly, Magic Wand. Her two career runs have come in testing ground, and being out of a Dansili mare, she may well improve plenty for a sounder surface. Gosden and Dettori join forces with the Dubawi filly Award winning. Impressive at Wetherby last time, this is clearly a huge step up in class, though Gosden must feel that she’s up to the task.

Ralph Beckett knows how to produce a talented filly, and runs the unbeaten Kinaesthesia. Alright, she’s only run the once, but she’s by Sea The Stars, so we must take note.

The opening day looks a cracker, though it’s the Chester Cup on Friday that often proves the highlight of the meeting. The largest crowd will be in attendance to witness the meeting’s most valuable race. Run at around two-and-a-quarter miles, the prestigious handicap usually attracts trainers from both codes. Nicky Henderson, Donald McCain and David Pipe have all been successful in recent times. Sea Pigeon landed back-to-back renewals in the late 70s.

The Alan King-trained Who Dares Wins will be a popular choice for punters, especially with Ryan Moore booked to ride. Paul Nicholls looks set to let Act Of Valour take his chance. The four-year-old was a classy juvenile hurdler, and is set to be ridden by the trainer’s daughter Megan.

The three day festival is hugely popular, and this week’s gathering should prove no different.

Super Saxon Storms to Guineas Glory

Saxon Warrior put in a mighty performance to give Aidan O’Brien his ninth 2000 Guineas.

Ridden by son Donnacha, the imposing colt travelled powerfully in midfield, with the pace set by stable companion Murillo. Fully two-furlongs out, the young jockey sent Saxon Warrior to the front. Showing a terrific burst of speed, this son of Deep Impact put clear daylight between himself and his nearest pursuer, race favourite, Masar. The huge outsider, Tip Two Win, also took up the chase, though none looked likely to catch O’Brien’s charge. He powered through the line a length-and-a-half to the good, with Tip Two Win a 50/1 runner-up. Masar was a close third, with Elarqam staying on for fourth.

A very composed winning jockey told ITV Racing: “A huge thanks to all the owners for giving me the chance to ride him and especially to dad for the faith in putting me on him in the first place. It's very special. Obviously, I'm winning this race and riding in big races because of the position I'm in. I'm just very grateful. He's a very good horse, he's a proper horse.

“He travelled beautiful and I thought we were the winner the whole way. I probably got a bit excited at the two pole, when I gave him a squeeze a bit early. He's an absolute monster of a horse so you never know, he could improve again. I was very impressed, I thought he was a very good horse even on his homework, we've made no secret of it, and I think he's very, very good.

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“If I had to put my neck on the line I would say his optimum trip would be about a mile and a quarter, he's not slow but he's bred to stay. He's very relaxed so I wouldn't be at all surprised if he got a mile and a half but it's not my decision.”

Paul Smith, son of part-owner Derrick, said of the winner. “It was really, really eye-catching. Donnacha said he travelled beautifully and when he quickened it was all over in a flash. When they have that speed and look like they will get further it is a deadly combination and all things point to June (Epsom Derby). That's 300 Group One wins for Aidan, and Donnacha's first Classic. They are an incredible family.”

Though Godolphin’s Masar could only manage third, his trainer was far from disappointed. “I’m still very pleased,” Appleby said. “Had you told me four or five weeks ago that we would be third in the Guineas, I’d have taken that quite happily. William went out with the mindset that we were going to go forward with him. He gave him a lovely ride and he came in and said he ran like a horse who needed a step up in trip. When they quickened, Will said he got caught flat-footed a bit and when they hit the rising ground, he was galloping back towards them to the line. We will take a strong consideration towards the Derby next. The chances are we will give him a break and go straight there.”

Mark Johnston felt that a lack of experience went against Elarqam. “Fourth is not bad in the Guineas,” he said. “You come here wanting to win, so it is a little bit of a downer. I’ve said all along that I was concerned that he was such an inexperienced horse. He beat the second horse three lengths last time out – and that one has had three or four runs since, while we just had a racecourse gallop. He dwelt for a bit and that’s not the mark of a true miler. That may just be inexperience, but at the same time the first impression is he’ll go further.

“We always thought that might be case and that’s one of the reasons we came to the Guineas, as the Guineas is the best trial to see if you need to go further. We will go back and see where we go next. The Dante was Angus’s first thought. I have not had a Derby winner. I’ve had a Guineas winner. But at the same time, I never like to write anything in stone, particularly with a horse that has only had three runs.”

Roaring Lion bounced back to form, finishing a close fifth, whilst Gustav Klimt was never able to land a telling blow in sixth.

After his impressive victory, Saxon Warrior has been installed as even-money favourite for the Epsom Derby, with Masar as short as 10s. His move up to middle-distance, coupled with Gustav Klimt’s less than impressive performance leaves something of a void in the Ballydoyle one-mile division. At Longchamp next Sunday, US Navy Flag will look to plug the gap, when running in the French 2000 Guineas, before heading to Royal Ascot for the St James’s Palace Stakes. The Gurkha trod a similar path in 2016. He’s currently a 12/1 shot for the Paris event and 14s for the date at Royal Ascot.

Prepare for a Saxon raid on Newmarket

With a pair of aces at his disposal, it appears that Aidan O’Brien has a great chance of landing his ninth 2000 Guineas.

With three victories from the last six, including two from the last three, the Co Tipperary handler has last year’s Superlative Stakes winner, Gustav Klimt, and the Racing Post Trophy hero, Saxon Warrior.

GK won that Superlative by a head having incurred trouble in running. The Charlie Hills-trained Nebo was runner-up, and he’s proved himself to be a solid yardstick. Great Prospector was half-a-length further back, and I think it’s fair to say that Klimt defeated a bunch of sprinters that day (he’s by Galileo, out a six-furlong dam). That shows just how quick he is, though possibly also shows that his opponents on that occasion were not running at their optimum trip (seven furlongs). In a slowly run race, this fella certainly has the ‘zip’, but the 2000 Guineas isn’t a race for sprinters and I’d be concerned that he may be outstayed by a ‘proper’ miler.

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Saxon Warrior, on the other hand, looks a strong traveller who will be doing his best work at the end of the race. He’s more stoutly bred than Gustav, being by Deep Impact out the Galileo mare, Maybe. She was third in the 1000 Guineas and fifth in the Oaks, so Saxon Warrior ought to stay further than the mile. Of course, pedigree on paper doesn’t always materialize on the track, but the Group One Racing Post success, suggested that this fella will be ideally suited by the Guineas. Roaring Lion swept passed him a furlong from home that day, but he battled back and appeared to be well in control at the line. The pair had pulled clear of the remainder, and the form looks rock solid. He comes here without a prep-run, similarly to the last two O’Brien winners, Churchill and Gleneagles.

Masar and Elarqam head the British challenge, with the latter possessing the most exciting pedigree in this year’s renewal. Trained by Mark Johnston, he’s by the mighty Frankel out of 1000 Guineas winner Attraction. If breeding guaranteed the major prizes, this fella could be crowned the Guineas winner before the stalls opened. He won both his juvenile starts, the latter success coming at Newmarket, when stretching clear late on over the seven-furlong trip. He looked a long striding leggy juvenile, and that he was able to win so well is probably testament to his class. His lack of experience is a slight concern, though Camelot and Makfi were recent winners off the back of just two runs. He certainly looks a leading contender.

Masar blasted his way into the Guineas picture with a stunning success in the Craven Stakes. He’s by the Guineas runner-up and Epsom Derby winner New Approach, out of a Cape Cross mare. His pedigree suggests he’ll get further in time, though his Craven performance showed he should be effective at a mile. The pace that day was modest, before Buick asked his mount for maximum effort. He galloped powerfully throughout the final two-furlongs for a nine-length success. Roaring Lion was a disappointment back in third, though lacked match fitness. He’s unlikely to get the easy lead that he enjoyed last time, though that may not stop him from putting in a huge performance.

The top four in the betting are a little clear of both Expert Eye and Roaring Lion. The latter must reverse a thumping by Masar and a narrow defeat to Saxon Warrior. I’d be surprised if he can do either. The former looked a thrilling prospect when winning the Vintage Stakes last August, though has disappointed twice since. He flopped in the Dewhurst, when far too keen throughout. And a couple of weeks back could only finish second to James Garfield in the Greenham. He should improve for the run, but I’m struggling to see why he’ll win. He may actually improve by being dropped back in trip, and I can see him becoming a six-furlong specialist in time.

Of those at a bigger price, I’d give a mention to David Simcock’s Raid. He was having only his second career start when finishing an eye-catching fourth in the Greenham last time. He should improve plenty for that, and I’d fancy that he’ll prove best of those that ran at Newbury that day. Whether he can sneak into a place is questionable, though his current odds of 50s make him a tempting proposition. This race often yields treats to the each-way punter.

One I’d likely to mention, that isn’t here, is the O’Brien trained US Navy Flag. He may yet prove to be the stables leading miler, though dodges this in favour of the French Guineas. Good or quicker ground is essential for this fella and I fancy he’ll prove to be top class.

I’ve found it quite difficult to choose between Saxon Warrior and Elarqam, but am finally swayed by the O’Brien factor. I’ll take the Racing Post winner to land this year’s opening Classic and then head for a crack at the Epsom Derby. Despite thinking he’s probably not quite good enough, I’ll be having a little each-way on Raid. He may just sneak into the places. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Newmarket Classics taking shape

We’re just days away from the opening Classics at Newmarket, and the line-ups are taking shape.

Aidan O’Brien has been dominant, winning three of the last six 1000 and 2000 Guineas. He again appears to hold the aces, with Gustav Klimt and Saxon Warrior towards the head of the market for the Colts and Happily the bookies favourite for the fillies.

Gustav K won the Superlative Stakes as a juvenile and returned to action with a win in the 2000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown. O’Brien spoke after the win, saying: “We’re very happy. Obviously, the ground was far from ideal, but it was nice to get a run into him as it’s a long time since he ran. Ryan said he was very impressed with the way he quickened in that ground. He’s a real good-ground horse. Newmarket is the plan if everything is well.”

The Superlative form has taken a few knocks, but this son of Galileo, out of a Danehill mare, appears to have the right kind of profile.

Saxon Warrior is unbeaten and was last seen winning the Group One Racing Post Trophy. He heads to Newmarket without a prep, as did previous winners Churchill and Gleneagles. A colt by Deep Impact, he looks sure to stay further having landed all three juvenile victories at a mile.

The home challenge is led by Godolphin’s impressive Craven winner Masar, who is trained by the in-form Charlie Appleby. Despite having a fitness edge over his rivals, it’s hard to imagine any of the Craven victims reversing the placings. Roaring Lion was almost 10-lengths back in third, giving the form a particularly strong look.

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The Mark Johnston-trained Elarqam is also fancied to go well. Unbeaten in just two juvenile starts, he is the product of two Guineas winners, in the mighty Frankel and the brilliant Attraction. Johnston knows all about the latter, having trained her to that famous 1000 Guineas success back in 2004.

The handler took the colt for a racecourse gallop at Newmarket during the Craven Meeting and was reportedly pleased with the build-up to Saturday’s Classic. “It wasn’t exactly a hard piece of work,” Johnston said, “and he hardly ended up seeing the other two horses, but he needed the experience of a day out and it’s a concern for me going into the QIPCO 2000 Guineas with only two runs under his belt.

“Elarqam has to improve but I have a lot of faith in his ability. And in a lot of ways it’s more exciting than it was with Attraction as being by Frankel out of Attraction, he’s the best-bred horse I’ve ever trained, the best-bred horse by a country mile that I have ever taken to a Classic. The implications of what sort of stallion he would be, or how popular he might be as a stallion, if he won the 2000 Guineas don’t bear thinking about.”

James Garfield recently captured the Greenham Stakes at Newbury, and it looked likely that Silvestre de Sousa would pick up the ride, but a bruised foot saw the withdrawal of Without Parole, meaning that Frankie Dettori will now be onboard. The Italian said: “He has won a Greenham, which is one of the main Guineas trials. George is very happy with him and we've got to give it a go. He is a bonny little horse and he really tries. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he should give it his best.”

Scott is thrilled to have Dettori back aboard, saying: “I feel for the connections of Without Parole, who clearly has a massive future regardless of missing the Guineas. I felt it was hugely important to have Frankie on board. He knows the horse so well and he has a lot of confidence in the horse. He is the magic man and if anyone can pull it out the bag he will.”

Assessing the 2000 Guineas, Scott added: “Although it looks a more open race this year, there is plenty of depth to it. I think Masar goes there with the best recent form. He is a course and distance winner and he was an emphatic winner of the Craven. Charlie's (Appleby) horses are flying and if we didn't win, I'd love to see Masar win as Charlie is a good friend of mine.”

Qatar Racing has a pair engaged, with the Craven disappointment Roaring Lion joined by the Greenham Stakes fourth Raid. The latter shaped as if Newmarket’s Rowley Mile would suit, and he may prove an interesting longshot. Of Roaring Lion, Gosden said: “We are going to do a little breeze (on Wednesday) and then make our minds up. I think he has come on a lot for his last race.” He’ll certainly need to, if he’s to trouble Masar.

Aiden O’Brien’s Happily is one of 18 fillies confirmed for the QIPCO 1000 Guineas on Sunday. She’s an experienced filly, having won four of her seven juvenile starts, including successive Group One triumphs in the Moyglare at the Curragh and the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Chantilly. That latter success saw her defeating the boys, including Godolphin’s Masar. She disappointed on her most recent appearance at the Breeders’ Cup, though that did come at the end of a hectic two-year-old campaign.

The Ballydoyle maestro is set to send five fillies to Newmarket, including the highly touted I Can Fly. September is a notable absentee.

Charlie Appleby also holds a strong hand in the fillies Classic. He has the Group One-winning filly Wild Illusion and has supplemented impressive Nell Gwyn heroine Soliloquy at a cost of £30,000. The latter is a daughter of Dubawi and proved mightily impressive when accounting for Altyn Orda. Wild Illusion is another by Dubawi and was last seen winning the Group One Prix Marcel Boussac at Chantilly.

Karl Burke’s Laurens is also fancied to go well. She won the Fillies’ Mile at the end of her juvenile campaign, defeating the talented Ballydoyle filly September, by a nose. That looks a strong piece of form, and Burke has been happy with her progress, recently saying: “She did a little bit of work and did it very well. If she runs in the Guineas, she'll go straight there.” She now looks sure to take her chance.