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Ground Key to Hannon’s Filly

The sprinters continue to take centre-stage on Saturday, with the Group 3 Bet365 Hackwood Stakes from Newbury the main event.

It looks a tasty renewal, with around a dozen contenders battling it out over six furlongs, in an event that has produced some outstanding winners over the years.

Lake Coniston took the race in 1994 and went on to win the July Cup a year later. Invincible Spirit is one of the great names of Flat racing, thanks as much to his career as a stallion, as that on the racetrack. He took this event as a four-year-old in 2001. Somnus was another terrific sprinter to capture this prize. He won the race as a three-year-old and went on to take the Haydock Sprint Cup a couple of months later. He was just as successful at four, winning a pair of Group 1s in France.

The Hughie Morrison trained Pastoral Pursuits is another familiar name for sprint lovers. He won this as a three-year-old in 2004 and won the July Cup 12 months later. He too has had a sparkling career at stud. High Standing, Regal Parade and Deacon Blues are other high class speedsters to have captured this popular prize.

Three-year-olds have a strong record in the race, though have been less successful in recent years, with just one win in the last 10. That was last season, thanks to Charlie Hills’ Strath Burn. Three-year-old colts receive a valuable 5lbs from their elders, whilst fillies of the same age have 8lbs to play with. That age group accounts for more than half of Saturday’s field.

It’s four-year-olds that have done best in recent renewals, winning half of the last 10. The odds are stacked against that trend continuing, with just a pair of four-year-olds taking on the challenge this time round. Having said that, those two are at the head of the market.

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The favourite is the James Fanshawe trained The Tin Man. Impressive on seasonal debut at Windsor, he then disappointed somewhat at the highest level when eighth of nine in the Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot. He beat Watchable at Windsor, and the pair re-oppose tomorrow. There’s no reason why the placings should be reversed, and though The Tin Man looks just shy of top class, he may well be good enough to take this.

Second in the market is Charming Thought, trained by Charlie Appleby for the all-conquering Godolphin team. He was an outstanding juvenile back in 2014, but failed to get on the racecourse as a three-year-old due to niggling health issues. His come-back appearance was at Salisbury, when fourth to Don’t Touch; finishing a place behind Watchable. It was a pleasing return, and he ought to improve plenty for the run. By top sprint sire Oasis Dream, he looks a leading contender.

Godolphin also have Buratino looking to get his campaign back on track, after a few mediocre performances. He’s thought to need fast ground, and may well get that tomorrow. His best run this season came in the Group 2 Sandy Lane at Haydock, when fourth to Quiet Reflection. He shouldn’t need to improve much on that to be competitive here. You couldn’t back him with any amount of confidence, but should the ground ride quick, 10/1 could be a tempting price.

Charlie Hills gave a big mention to Ibn Malik in his Weekender column, and the gelding by Raven’s Pass should go close on his debut among the sprinting fraternity. He was fourth in the Jersey Stakes when last seen, and this will be his first attempt at a trip below seven furlongs. Breeding suggests the trip may be a little on the sharp side, but his running style has suggested a step back in trip should be ideal. He looked pretty ‘nifty’ when winning the European Free Handicap at Newmarket in April. This will be far tougher, but he’s clearly classy.

Mr Lupton is another progressive three-year-old who looks capable of going close. He was slightly disappointing on the all-weather at Newcastle last time, though had previously ran huge races, giving lumps of weight away in handicaps. I have a feeling he’s not quite good enough to win this, and fancy a few will have a little too much class.

One I do fancy to go close, is Richard Hannon’s filly Illuminate. She ran well in the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot when the ground would have been plenty soft enough for her. By Zoffany out of a Green Desert mare, I’m hopeful that track, trip and ground will all prove ideal. She was one of the leading fillies during a dazzling juvenile campaign.

In a competitive renewal, I’ll be having a bit on both Charming Thought and Illuminate. I fear Buratino should the ground stay quick, but I’ll resist backing a horse I cannot trust.

Johnston’s Prolific Juveniles

He’s yet to capture a major prize so far this season, but there’s no doubting that Mark Johnston’s juveniles are firing on all cylinders.

Lumiere and Buratino were juvenile stars of 2015, and were expected to take high order as three-year-olds. Unfortunately, Buratino has failed to progress from two to three, and is yet to show anything like the form of his juvenile campaign, which brought two placed finishes in Group 1 events and a victory in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot. He’s yet to get his preferred fast ground, though it would take a leap of faith to believe that even that would bring about a return to winning ways.

Lumiere also flopped on her seasonal reappearance, when trailing home last in the 1000 Guineas. However, last year’s Cheveley Park winner bounced back to form with a stunning success at Newmarket last week. She has a couple of options at the end of the month including the Group 2 Qatar Lennox Stakes at Goodwood, though Johnston appears to favour the Group 1 Prix Rothschild at Deauville on July 31.

The trainer spoke of his classy filly on Monday, saying: “We'd like to go for a Group 1, and a Group 1 against fillies in France sounds ideal. She's in the Lennox Stakes at Goodwood and we'll look seriously at that.” Speaking of her long-term targets, he added: “She's not had a busy season and there's the Sun Chariot and Matron but, again, you're getting into soft-ground time. But we have our feet on the ground, last week's was a race she needed to win. Thankfully, she didn't just win it, she won it by six lengths and she won it in a very fast time that suggested she was at least back to her form of last year.”

Johnston has broken through the 200 winner barrier in six of the last seven campaigns. He currently lies on 107 and is just about on target to maintain his recent outstanding record. Big wins have yet to come his way this summer, but time is on his side, and he certainly has a group of classy youngsters, with the potential of making a mark at the highest level. He’s currently at an impressive 25% winning strike rate with his juveniles.

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One such youngster is Love Dreams, a huge colt by Dream Ahead out of a King’s Theatre mare. He romped home at Pontefract last time and has lofty entries including the Gimcrack Stakes at York in August. He certainly has scope to progress and still looked pretty green last time. He’s a nice sort with a bright future.

Johnston has a progressive young filly on his hands in the form of Miss Infinity. She ran a cracker on debut behind next year’s Guineas favourite Fair Eva, before winning her next two in fine style. Her last win at Haydock, was on soft ground, and she’s bred to be a better horse on a sounder surface. By Rock Of Gibraltar out of a High Chaparral mare, she should also improve for a step up in trip. The trainer hinted at just a ‘small step’ up in class next time, with no doubt loftier targets on the radar.

Johnston also has a nice sort in Aardwolf, a colt by Cape Cross. He’s a stocky, solid built sort, who won impressively at Chester last time. He has an interesting pedigree, with a blend of speed on the sire’s side and a splash of stamina on the dam’s. Decent ground looks essential, and he could prove a nice long-term prospect.

I mentioned a lack of high profile winners, but Johnston came mighty close in the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot, with The Last Lion looking a winner before being gunned down late on. He has since won a five furlong listed event at Sandown. He’s by the mighty Australian speedster Choisir, and looks an out and out sprinter. He holds an entry in the Gimcrack at York, though I fancy six furlongs would stretch him. Interestingly, he also holds an entry in the Nunthorpe.

There’s no doubting Mark Johnston’s ability as a trainer, and in Lumiere he may still get that ‘big win’ before the summer ends. He also has a battalion of youngsters waiting in the wings, many with the potential to compete at the highest level.

Hugo can prove the master

Only eight runners line up for tomorrow’s Group 2 Sandy Lane Stakes, but it remains a classy looking renewal with all bar one of the contenders having an official rating of 106 or above.

Open to three-year-olds, several of these are likely to use this event as a stepping stone to Royal Ascot and a crack at the Commonwealth Cup. Four from last year’s event headed to the Royal Meeting including the William Haggis trained Adaay. He won here 12 months ago, defeating Limato, with New Providence and Salt Island further back. Weeks later the four headed to Ascot, with Limato performing best, when chasing home one of the stars of 2015 Muhaarar, whilst Adaay could only finish back in seventh.

The Sandy Lane has gone to decent sorts over the years but rarely has a truly class act took the event. Slade Power was one class act that did find success here in 2012. Ed Lynam’s sprinter defeated Es Que Love and Lethal Force in a stellar renewal. He of course went on to win numerous prestigious events, having his best year in 2014 when taking the Diamond Jubilee and the July Cup. Likewise, Lethal Force went on to become one of the best, completing the same double a year earlier.

This tends to be a race won by one of the fancied runners. In the last ten renewals the longest odds winner was sent off at 6/1. The fillies have a good record in recent years having taken three of the last seven, though the last was Show Rainbow in 2011.

Of tomorrow’s contenders, Hugo Palmer’s Gifted Master looks set to go off favourite. He’s impressed in two starts this season, making all at Newmarket before winning a Group 3 at Ascot. He was beaten by Buratino as a two-year-old at Newmarket, though was held-up that day, and is undefeated since being allowed to bowl along in front.

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Buratino failed to see out the trip in the 2000 Guineas and is dropped back to six furlongs by Mark Johnston. He was one of the best juveniles, having won the Coventry Stakes at Ascot before chasing home Shalaa in the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket. If he’s trained on from two to three (tough to tell from his first run), he should go close here.

Henry Candy came second in this last year with Limato, and runs the filly Rioja this time round. Owned by Qatar Racing, she looked a class act in her last two outings as a juvenile. She won a Group 3 last time out, but this will be by far her toughest test, and she arrives here without a prep run. Though fillies have a decent record in the race, she has to take on several classy looking colts, and I’d be surprised if she is ready for such a challenge. Paul Kealy appeared keen on her when writing in his Weekender column, but she’s not for me.

Richard Fahey runs Donjuan Triumphant, with Ryan Moore taking the ride. He’s by Dream Ahead, and will probably need soft ground to be seen at his best. He won a Group 2 in France by more than five lengths last October in testing ground. Prior to that he had won the Rockingham Stakes at York, beating Gracious John by almost four lengths. The drying ground at Haydock may be against him, but he remains a horse with huge potential. Like La Rioja, this will be his seasonal debut, so he also has to prove that he has trained on from two to three.

William Haggas attempts to repeat last year’s win with a nice looking colt Ajaya. A son of Invincible Spirit, this fella had a profitable juvenile campaign, most notably when winning the Group 2 Gimcrack Stakes at York. He was behind Buratino in the Middle Park, but that was at the end of a busy campaign. Yet another making his seasonal debut, he has to have a chance.

It’s a really tough race to call. Juvenile form doesn’t always hold true for obvious reasons. Gifted Master is a justified favourite on what we’ve seen thus far, but several of these arrive without a run and are therefore unknown quantities. I think the favourite will take some catching on this particular track, though I’m a fan of Buratino.

Monday Musings: Aintree to Newmarket…

Monday Musings

By Tony Stafford

You analyse a race like the Grand National, you look to previous form over the track, recent well-being and all the other sub- and semi-conscious considerations and make your choice.

Then the jockey goes off in front. Anyone who cares to seek out my opinion will know l thought Saint Are had a great chance and listening to his trainer Tom George beforehand, it was obvious last year’s runner-up was going there with maximum confidence. So then, on ground which probably was softer than ideal, Paddy Brennan decides to go off in the front group and was dead in the water by halfway.

Not that there was any suggestion that Rule the World was anything other than a deserving winner especially for his trainer Mouse Morris. My friend Wendy Normile from Coolmore used to work for Mouse and maybe still rides out there occasionally, so it’s a bit embarrassing that when she asked me what I liked for Saturday I said Saint Are rather than: “Why don’t you back your man?” Hopefully she was on both of them.

Wendy’s had some tragedy in her family’s life so it would be easy for her to sympathise, as everyone in Ireland has with Mouse’s loss of his son, Tiffer, at the ridiculously young age of 30 last year to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mouse has been one of the top big-race trainers for many years. Michael O’Leary, owner of the winner, said after the race that Mouse doesn’t have many horses – unlike Gordon Elliott for example – but does so well with those he has. Maybe the boss of Ryanair should divert a few more of the drinks and snacks revenues on his planes Mouse’s way?

The Willie Mullins/ Paul Nicholls match-up is in danger of totally fizzling out, with Mullins more than £200k ahead, even though he had the odd reverse, for instance Vautour, last week.

My favourite winner – Douvan it’s true was spectacular – was Apple’s Jade in the top four-year-old race. I liked her for the Triumph at Cheltenham after her brave win first time after her importation from France when she won her only race at 21-1. She was 12’s at Leopardstown and the same price in the Triumph and it was noticeable then that she kept on just as well as Ivanovich Gorbatov after the last once the O’Brien horse had swept past.

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The pair drew well clear, but this time on softer ground, Apple’s Jade sprinted away to win by 41 lengths. I’d be running in the Champion Hurdle if she was mine whatever anyone else thought or the claims of anything else, such was the metronomic nature of her galloping and jumping.

Her sire, Saddler Maker, has had literally no impact as a Flat sire, but extremely good results with his jumpers. This one to me is as exciting as Annie Power and more so than any of the other Mullins mares such as Vroum Vroum Mag.

We’ve got Ayr coming up on Friday and Saturday and Sandown the following weekend to bring down the curtain until the new jump season starts on Sunday week, but today with the Craven Breeze-Up horses going through their galloping motions on Racecourse Side and the three days’ racing and two after-racing portions of sales, the new Flat season will finally be under way.

With the going on most tracks still resembling a ploughed field, it will be good to gain the benefit of Newmarket’s legendary drainage properties for the early Classic trials. The Nell Gwyn, Craven and to a lesser extent the Free Handicap and later in the week the Greenham and Dubai Duty Free (Fred Darling) at Newbury will get those horses which may not yet be at the required level on the track with a fortnight or so to the two Guineas races.

Meanwhile, the O’Brien stable seems to be a little more forward than hitherto and when it is considered they are labouring on very unfavourable ground at home in Ireland, the prognoses for Air Force Blue and Minding appear to be excellent.

Both won their end-of-season engagements in emphatic style over the same track, and Minding’s four-and-a-half length win in the Fillies’ Mile, nowadays run over the Guineas course and distance rather than Ascot, was exceptional.

She has stamina in abundance and will not mind it if the ground remains on the slower side, but Air Force Blue would probably prefer a faster surface. Buratino, the one horse to beat the “2,000” favourite in 2015 was warming up last week for his imminent assignment at Haydock as part of a Johnston reconnaissance team, and there might well be more of the same on the Rowley Mile.

The ground at Kingsley Park on the grass has been very testing and far from ideal for horses with Classic pretensions, but no doubt Johnston will test impressive debut juvenile winner Sutter County from his forward and already talented two-year-old team in Wednesday’s novice stakes. The first of them to run, Sutter County won by nine lengths at Wolverhampton and faces eight opponents at HQ on his first turf run.

The innovation, replacing many of the maiden races in 2016 by novice events in which winners under penalty can run, will be a big help in educating horses before they lock horns with the best early sorts from the other major stables at the Royal meeting.

In the past, very few races were suitable for good winners – Ascot’s Garter (now Ascot) Stakes and Sandown’s National Stakes were the most obvious routes to take – but now trainers can be selective and if they happen to win first time in lowly company, penalties for winners can be relatively light.

I’m hoping the ground dries out a little for Ayr on Friday when Notnowsam is being aimed at the novice handicap chase for which only nine horses have been entered. His chase record reads 12222, the last of them a nice effort at Kempton after a mid-season break. Still only five, he is doing well at Dan Skelton’s and hopefully can end that run of near- and not-so-near misses since his win at Warwick on debut for the stable back in May.

Ray Tooth, fresh from a nice week in Antigua, lucky devil, also has Adrakhan set up for Stratford on Sunday on what would be his last chance in a novice handicap hurdle, but the trainer is worried that the ground will be a bog! Who’d have thought it, midwinter ground on a summer-jumps track in mid-April?

Shalaa the Star as Gosden’s Dominance Continues

Exciting Speedster Shalaa

Exciting Speedster Shalaa

John Gosden’s dominant campaign continued on Saturday and the signs are that next season could prove just as fruitful.

Foundation opened the show when running out an impressive winner of the Group 2 Juddmonte Royal Lodge Stakes. The Highclere-owned juvenile is another classy son of Zoffany, a stallion that continues to have an outstanding season with his first crop of two-year-olds. A big strapping colt, he saw off Aidan O’Brien’s Deauville to maintain his unbeaten record. Sent for home by Dettori at the furlong marker, he stayed on well and looks a decent Derby prospect.

A horse with a huge stride, he does however look lean and gangly at present, and is sure to flourish once strengthening into his frame. Back in the winners’ enclosure Gosden said: “He's a grand horse and he's still learning. He handled it well as he's quite a big, gangly horse and he was still doing quite a bit of looking about when he hit the front with a furlong to go.”

Gosden hinted that he could head for the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster as a season finale; a renowned pointer for the following year’s Derby.

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It proved to be quite a day for Gosden and Dettori, when Shalaa confirmed himself as the summer’s leading juvenile. He took the Middle Park Stakes with the minimum of fuss. Leading from the off, the result never looked in doubt with only Buratino from Mark Johnston’s yard getting within sniffing distance.

The winner looks sure to become a high-class sprinter, and is likely to be aimed at the Commonwealth Cup next summer. His sire, Invincible Spirit, was also a classy sprinter, winning the Haydock Sprint Cup as a five-year-old. An outstanding stallion, his most successful offspring include Fleeting Spirit, Kingman and Moonlight Cloud.

The F-word appeared prominently in Gosden’s post-race assessment, when he said: “He's gone very, very fast and Ryan Moore (on board fifth-placed Rouleau) said he had never been so fast over four furlongs up the Rowley Mile. I said this would be the last race of the year for him and he's not put a foot wrong. He's very, very fast - the fastest two-year-old I've trained. He's incredibly fast and we are lucky to have him.”

The trainer then likened his colt to one of his previous sprinting sensations, when saying: “He has so much speed and has that sprinters build, so he reminds us all of Oasis Dream who probably broke the juvenile record here and was not only champion two-year-old but also champion sprinter at three. He's of that mould. He looks like a pure fast two-year-old and is not crying out for a mile.”

Mark Johnston may have just missed out in the Middle Park with the classy Buratino, but his stunning filly Lumiere proved unstoppable in a thrilling Cheveley Park Stakes. The imposing grey held off Hannon’s Illuminate and the Haggas trained Besharah to take the prestigious Group 1. After the win Johnston said: “We always thought there was no shortage of stamina but we also know she's very fast and has a tremendous cruising speed. I'm very, very hopeful she can stay a mile.”

The trainer fought hard to supress his excitement but clearly sees her as a major Classic hope. The bookies were taking no chances with Paddy Power and William Hill making her an 8-1 shot for next year’s 1,000 Guineas.