As Royal Ascot looms, writes Tony Stafford, what could be better for the boys from Coolmore Stud as they ponder their prospects across another important week than that a brilliant dual Classic winner comes along to advertise their operation?
When the horse in question, by their UK and Irish 2,000 Guineas winner Churchill, is owned and trained elsewhere, it must be almost more satisfying. Chances are that when the Christopher Head-trained Blue Rose Cen beat their filly Never Ending Story, trained by Aidan O’Brien, by four effortless lengths in the Prix De Diane at Chantilly yesterday, it will not have bothered them a jot. There, she was supplementing her triumph in the French 1000 Guineas from a month ago.
Fixing stallion fees is one of the primary skills of this operation. A dual Guineas winner by Galileo, so one of his speedier Classic horses, Churchill might have been earmarked from the outset to get to the top. In that context the initial fee of €35k was more an enticement than a reflection of their faith in their horse.
That was in 2018 and, the following year, he was introduced to Queen Blossom, a filly that had started out as a €15k graduate of the Goffs Sportsman yearling sale (3rd division stuff really) but who did well for P J Prendergast with a win on debut and a one-mile Group 3 success on her third start. Later she was exported to the US.
It took a while for her to match that first stakes success and reach her peak over there. But she found it in the unusually severe stamina test (for the US) of the Santa Barbara Stakes at Santa Anita, a 1m4f Grade 3 for older fillies and mares, which fell right into her wheelhouse. By then a five-year-old, she was the lesser fancied of two Richard Balthas entries but won nicely and was soon on the way back to Europe, after a $220k sale.
A few months later, she was through a sale ring once more, but this time the late John Hassett had identified the daughter of smart but ill-fated dual-purpose sire Jeremy, as a prospect and acquired her through Ted Durcan for 110,000gns. She was sent to be one of Churchill’s second crop harem. Three and a half years on, her daughter Blue Rose Cen stands with a record of seven wins in nine starts, her only defeats at two on debut and when a close second to Aidan’s subsequent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Victoria Road, who has yet to appear following a training injury at the start of the season.
Those two impressive Classic victories will be the impetus for Churchill to move into the next level as a stallion. The fee was down to €30k for the present covering season, but we can expect something more akin to €50k or more when the numbers get crunched by the back-room experts in Co Tipperary come the late autumn.
Blue Rose Cen had hitherto been the second-top-rated horse in the stable of relative newcomer Christopher Head, but no longer. Head, 36, could hardly have a better heritage if he wanted to operate within any branch of thoroughbred racing as he is a fifth-generation member of the revered Head dynasty.
Originally from the UK, his great-grandfather William moved to France early in the 20th Century and soon became a leading National Hunt rider and later trainer, winning four jumps championships either side of World War I during which he fought with the British army.
Son Alec initially started riding over jumps and won successive runnings of the Grande Course de Haies, the second time on Le Paillon (1947) on which he finished runner-up to National Spirit in the 1948 Champion Hurdle.
Le Paillon went on to win the Arc but, after some falls and increasing weight, Alec’s wife Ghislaine encouraged him to retire and to set up as a trainer which he did as a 23-year-old. For half a century he won a series of major races including four Arcs which he also won three times later as a breeder and another as an owner.
When he retired to give full attention to his Haras Du Quesnay, which he ran with outstanding success with wife Ghislaine, his daughter Christiane (Criquette) took over as trainer while younger brother Freddy had a stellar riding career on the flat, before also proving a top-class trainer.
Christopher is Freddy’s son, and when I spoke to Ted Durcan last night, he said the sophomore handler has really been shaking up the established order and practice of training in France. In some ways his methods make him French flat racing’s equivalent to Ben Stokes and Brendan McCullum in England cricket.
Blue Rose Cen, following that record of four from six as a juvenile, the last of which a five length romp in the G1 Prix Marcel Boussac, has now won a Guineas trial, the French 1,000 and the French Oaks in 2023 by increasingly easy margins.
I mentioned that she only moved ahead of stable-companion Big Rock because of yesterday’s success. Big Rock had run three races in maidens before the turn of the year with another trainer before his owners moved him to Head.
Starting in a minor handicap at Longchamp three weeks after that fifth place for his previous trainer he won off 37 (81 UK equivalent) by five and a half lengths. Raised in grade the following month, Big Rock won a Listed by 4 ½ lengths; then two Group 3 races, the La Force by 2 ½ and the Guiche by five lengths.
By the time he turned out for the Prix du Jockey Club as the 17/10 favourite this month, his mark had been elevated from to 115. Even though beaten into second in the Jockey Club, by the unbeaten Ace Impact trained by Jean-Claude Rouget, he went up another 1lb.
It will be interesting to see whether Big Rock will continue running with the regularity he has so far, with some smart entries already including the Arc; and no doubt his trainer would love to follow the family tradition in that race. At this stage Blue Rose Cen might seem the more likely to be there on the first Sunday of October.
Christopher will have been aware of the many brilliant Head family fillies all his life, such as Three Troikas and dual Arc winner Treve for Criquette. While not an Arc heroine, the remarkable Goldikova, winner of the Queen Anne Stakes on the opening day of Royal Ascot in 2010, was trained by Freddy. She went on to win three consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile races and was a close third as a six-year-old when attempting the four-timer.
Tomorrow’s Queen Anne field is nowhere near the level of last year, when Baaeed enjoyed his exhibition. Neither is there anything within a stone and then some of Frankel, winner two years after Goldikova. Thoughts of his grandfather will also be at the forefront of the emerging young handler as it was a year ago this Thursday that the great Alec Head died aged 97.
But on the opening day I’m most looking forward to the clash between Chaldean, the 2000 Guineas winner, and Irish 2000 victor Paddington, who stepped into the void left by vanquished Ballydoyle 2000 flops but subsequent Derby (Auguste Rodin) and Haydock sprint (Little Big Bear) winners.
Royal Scotsman, Galeron and Charyn all try for a third time having run in both colts’ Guineas, but I’ll be cheering for Isaac Shelby to keep Brian Meehan’s spirits up after his near miss in the French 2000.
My bet of the week, however, is Zinc White in the Ascot Stakes. There’s only an 8lb range between the 100-rated top-weight Tritonic and Ian Williams’ Chester Plate winner on his first run for ages. The 8lb he was raised was just enough to get him in here on the bottom at number 20 and Ian is entitled to say it’s just as important to be lucky as to be talented.
For those of you that might have been confused having read the various versions of last week’s effort, I can only hold my hands up, especially to Conrad Allen, whom I misquoted several times, making a pig’s ear of getting his amazing story in some order. Writing in the middle of the night has its potential downside, not least eliminating the possibility to re-check, or be corrected by the subject once he has read what has been attributed to him.
Fortunately, Conrad was able to point out where I’d gone wrong in transcribing my notes and the final effort, I trust, was acceptable to him. Many thanks to the Editor too for his forbearance. Meanwhile Conrad’s filly Princess Chizara is jocked up to run in Wednesday’s Queen Mary Stakes in the colours of owner Izy Manueke and I hope she gives them a bold showing after her speed-laden debut win at Brighton.