Intriguing Gordon Richards Stakes in store at Sandown

Dante one-two Thunderous and Highest Ground renew rivalry in the bet365 Gordon Richards Stakes at Sandown on Friday.

Usually one of the key trials for the Derby at Epsom, last season’s Dante Stakes was not run until early July due to the outbreak of coronavirus in the spring.

The York feature nevertheless threw up a stirring finish, with the Mark Johnston-trained Thunderous getting the better of Sir Michael Stoute’s odds-on favourite Highest Ground by a neck.

Thunderous will make his first competitive appearance since that triumph in the Group Three contest.

Charlie Johnston, assistant to his father, said: “We’re really looking forward to getting him back out.

“Obviously he’s a horse who still has a huge amount of potential and we’ve only managed to get to the track with him five times in his first two seasons, so we’re just pleased to be back and looking forward to it really.

“We’re 100 per cent happy in terms of the injuries – there’s no concerns there whatsoever. He’s been back in full work since before Christmas and I would fully expect him to improve for the run.

“He’s not run any further than the Dante trip at this stage, so we thought this ticks a lot of boxes as a comeback race and then we can learn a bit from this and hopefully build and go forward to even bigger and better things down the line.”

Highest Ground remains a colt of potential
Highest Ground remains a colt of potential (Steve Davies/PA)

Highest Ground was impressive in winning his first two starts, before coming up narrowly short in his hat-trick bid on the Knavesmire last summer.

The Frankel colt subsequently disappointed on his final start of 2020 in the Darley Stakes at Newmarket, but connections feel rain-softened ground was to blame for that below-par performance.

Alan Cooper, racing manager for owners the Niarchos family, said: “It’s very exciting to get him back on the track. He’s wintered very well and has been pleasing Sir Michael and Ryan (Moore).

“We felt he didn’t handle the soft ground at all at Newmarket the last time he ran. The weather forecast is good, so we should have perfect ground on Friday.

“It’s his first run for a long time and we’ll see what happens. Hopefully he’ll run a very good race.

“He’s a lightly-raced horse who missed part of last year. It’s a very nice race to start off the season in, so let’s hope it’s a nice introduction to get his season going.”

The father-son team of John and Thady Gosden is represented by Waldkonig – a half-brother to Arc winner Waldgeist.

Runner-up to Highest Ground at Haydock last summer, the son of Kingman made a successful return from 10 months off the track when landing a Pontefract handicap on his recent reappearance.

Thady Gosden said: “It was good to get him off to a good start this season at Pontefract as it can be a difficult track to handle. It was good to get his career back on track and give him some confidence.

“We have always thought plenty of him as he is a half-brother to an Arc winner by Kingman, so he has got the right sort of pedigree and hopefully things will start coming right on track for him.

“He was always a horse we hoped would improve from three to four, but at the same time it was a bit of a frustrating season last year as things didn’t go to plan – hopefully this year they will.

“This is a completely different challenge to the one at Pontefract and though it is a bit of a task, he is doing well at home.”

Hukum is an interesting contender for trainer Owen Burrows and late owner Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Shadwell operation.

Hukum winning the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury
Hukum winning the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Last season’s Geoffrey Freer Stakes winner drops half a mile in trip on his first start since finishing a creditable fifth in the St Leger at Doncaster in September.

Shadwell racing manager, Angus Gold, said: “He’s been in good form at home and was obviously a progressive horse last year. He always looked like he’d be a better four-year-old, so let’s hope that’s correct.

“I know Owen and his team have been very happy with the horse and I would have thought coming back in trip is in his favour, to be honest – I don’t think he’s an out-and-out stayer.

Extra Elusive is the mount of Hollie Doyle
Extra Elusive is the mount of Hollie Doyle (Tim Goode/PA)

“He’s got enough speed to be a mile and a half horse certainly, and there was this question mark over whether he’d stay the Leger trip.

“I don’t think it will be trip that beats him.”

Roger Charlton’s Extra Elusive returns to turf action after finishing well beaten but on dirt in February’s Saudi Cup.

Desert Encounter (Simcock) and Winter Reprise (David Menuisier) are the other hopefuls.