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Monday Musings: Of Long Days and the Classic Generation

June 21st is upon us. The longest day was to be the freest day until the timid medical advisors to the UK government put the wind up them with fears that the D variant – the virus formerly known as Indian – would cause another surge in infections, writes Tony Stafford.

Well it has, averaging around 10,000 a day for the last week or so, but they are testing many, many more nowadays. Anyone prepared to go anywhere near a racecourse will have enjoyed the experience of things up their nose or aimed at their tonsils.

Since mine were removed in 1952, the year of the Queen’s ascent to the throne – rewarded with a nice ice cream <me, not the Queen> as I recall – I would only be eligible for the nose job, but apparently it’s very much an officialdom-rich environment.

While the infections have risen, the numbers dying most emphatically have not, an average of ten a day for the last week when the “roadmap” was hastily and negatively redrawn. With massive numbers of older people fully vaccinated you wouldn’t expect many deaths, but the silly old advisors want it both ways.

As I’ve said numerous times, I won’t go until everyone is free to go everywhere. I contented myself with a Saturday night day-early Father’s Day celebration with my three 40-plus children and a selection of their issue. Lovely it was too.

So on to the summer and of course from tonight the days will shorten inexorably by three minutes for each of the next 182 and then the semi-cycle will start again the other way round. We’ve already had Royal Ascot and ten of the 12 spring/summer European Classic races – only Ireland’s Derby and Oaks remain in that part of the calendar, and then the St Legers in their various forms and degrees of credibility.

The Irish have won eight of the ten, Jim Bolger picking up the 2,000 Guineas with Poetic Flare and his domestic version with Mac Swiney. Poetic Flare’s demolition job in the St James’s Palace Stakes certainly puts him well ahead among the mile colts this year.

The two Classics decided so far and not to have been won by the Irish have been the Poule D’Essai des Pouliches (French 1,000) won by Coeursamba, trained by Jean-Claude Rouget, and  the Derby (Adayar, Charlie Appleby).

The remaining six have all been hoovered up by Aidan O’Brien and the Ballydoyle team and each of them boasts combinations of the increasingly complex Coolmore pedigrees.

Five individual horses have been involved in those all-important Classic victories, and four of them are fillies. I contend that St Mark’s Basilica, despite his workmanlike victory in the French 2,000 (Poulains) and a more comfortable Prix Du Jockey Club success, both under Ioritz Mendizabal, is vastly under-valued in official terms. He beat a big field in Chantilly and his female stable-companion Joan Of Arc (by Galileo, <really?!, Ed?>) was similarly too good for another large field of home fillies in yesterday’s French Oaks, the Prix de Diane. This time Coeursamba finished only 11th.

On Sunday Aidan relied on a single runner in a field of 17 and the 16 home defenders were no match for another Mendizabal mount who won by just over a length from the fast-finishing Fabre-trained and Godolphin-owned Philomene, a daughter of Dubawi.

That made it single-runner O’Brien challenges in three of the four French Classic races to be run so far – unplaced Van Gogh joined St Mark’s Basilica in the Jockey Club.  Therefore three wins and a close second (Mother Earth, ridden by Christophe Soumillon) in the French 1,000. That new-found minimalist approach also extended to Epsom and the Derby where Bolshoi Ballet, the favourite, was left as their only runner having been initially one of six expected to turn out.

Three of the four fillies in question improved markedly on juvenile form, the exception being 1,000 Guineas winner and then Pouliches runner-up Mother Earth, who had already earned her 111 rating for her second place in the Juvenile Fillies’ Turf race at Keeneland last November and remains on that figure despite her Classic exploits. She ran another game race in third in much the most testing ground she has faced in Friday’s Coronation Stakes at Ascot behind Andrew Balding’s Alcohol Free.

Joan Of Arc took a rating of 105 into the Irish 1,000 and was Ryan Moore’s choice for the race but Seamie Heffernan got up on the line that day aboard Empress Josephine (101) in a private duel between two Galileo fillies. She clearly improved on that yesterday while Emperor Josephine was assessed at 109 after her win.

But the biggest eye-opener was Snowfall, the 16-length Oaks winner at Epsom who went into her prep in the Musidora at York on an official mark of 90. That was upped to 108 after her Knavesmire romp but even so she was still believed by insiders to be second-best among a more normal Oaks quintet behind lightly-raced Santa Barbara, now beaten favourite in both this year’s fillies’ classics in the UK.

It seems to me a master-stroke of fudging by the BHA to restrict Snowfall’s latest mark to 120, not merely because that is 2lb lower than Enable after her Oaks defeat of Rhododendron – what that champion did after Epsom has nothing to do with the assessment - and also 1lb less than Adayar.

The give-away for me is to suggest that Mystery Angel, rated 100 after her fourth (four lengths back) in the Musidora had only equalled her York mark. That ignored she made the running at Epsom in a much bigger field and still had the resources left to stay on and retain second 16 lengths behind the Frankie Dettori-ridden winner, finishing well ahead of a trio of considerably more highly-rated fillies.

If the medical advisors who keep us wearing masks and touching fists rather than shaking hands are timid, they have nothing on the BHA men who fear giving too high a rating to a Classic winner, even one who has set a record winning distance for any UK Classic in living memory and beyond.

Snowfall has made the first big statement that she might be a challenger to Love, her predecessor as an outstanding Oaks winner and star of the stable’s slightly disappointing Royal Ascot, as the season progresses. Love, dropping back two furlongs after a ten-month absence since the 2020 Yorkshire Oaks, made all to win the Group 1 Prince Of Wales’s Stakes.

A third female deserving of mention in that elite grouping must be the David Menuisier-trained four-year-old filly, Wonderful Tonight. She got first run on Broome to win Saturday’s Hardwicke Stakes in style despite its being her first appearance of the year. Her French-born Sussex-based trainer has the Arc, where she has a good chance of getting the soft ground she favours, as her main target.

Broome may not have won but earlier that afternoon his close relative by Australia, the two-year-old Point Lonsdale, won the Chesham Stakes, a race often reserved for the best of the earlier O’Brien juveniles. Ryan had a battle keeping him straight, first going right and as they got close home, more markedly left, but they had enough in hand to beat the Queen’s promising colt Reach For The Moon – Sea The Stars/ Gosdens / Dettori – by half a length.

We had wondered why she chose Saturday to make an appearance. That highly-encouraging performance and the good run later of her King’s Lynn in the Wokingham made it a bit more like Royal Ascot, even when viewed from Hackney Wick. Hopefully, Your Majesty, you and me (and many others besides) can be there for the whole five days in 2022.

The astonishing thing about all four female Coolmore Classic winners is that at no time did anyone at Ballydoyle, and certainly not the trainer nor the owners, believe any of them was within hailing distance of Santa Barbara. My guess from Epsom was that the favourite probably did not stay the mile and a half under the conditions and in the quirky way the race was run, up the stands side with all the direction changing that inevitably happens.

I’m looking forward to seeing her, in what still will be only her fourth race and with a highly-creditable close fourth to Mother Earth at Newmarket on her record, in a suitable race over ten furlongs. The Nassau would be nice, but maybe she won’t be the only one from her stable appearing in that Goodwood Group 1.

 

Joan Of Arc scores brave victory in Prix de Diane

Joan Of Arc repelled the late finish of Philomene to claim the Prix de Diane at Chantilly.

The filly was providing trainer Aidan O’Brien with a third French Classic victory this season, and his first ever in the Prix de Diane, after stablemate St Mark’s Basilica claimed both the French 2000 Guineas and Derby.

Ioritz Mendizabal was aboard St Mark’s Basilica for those triumphs, and he teamed up to great effect with Joan Of Arc again.

Last seen when beaten a short head in the Irish 1,000 Guineas, Joan Of Arc was prominent throughout in the 10-furlong heat as Rumi and Sibila Spain vied for the early lead.

The latter was in front turning for home, and it briefly looked as though Joan Of Arc might get run out of it, but when she hit top gear she grabbed the lead and set sail for home.

Philomene made late ground from the back of the field, but Joan Of Arc had flown and she hung on by three-quarters of a length at the line.

Burgarita was another to make late gains to grab third from Sibila Spain, meaning Andre Fabre saddled the two placed runners.

Aidan O'Brien was winning his first French Oaks
Aidan O’Brien was winning his first French Oaks (PA)

O’Brien said: “I’m absolutely delighted. I’m so delighted for everyone. Ioritz gave her a great ride. She’s a homebred filly, so it’s incredible really.

“Obviously we’ve tried to win the race lots of times – but it’s a very difficult race to win, very competitive. I’m absolutely over the moon.

“We thought she was very good from her first run in Ireland when she got beat by a very good filly of (son) Donnacha’s – then she won her maiden very easily and she went to a Guineas trial next time, and all the leaders went a little bit too fast, and it didn’t really suit her.

“Her next run after that she won a Group Three at Leopardstown and was then just beaten in the Guineas.

“That’s why Sue (Magnier, part-owner) named her Joan Of Arc, (because) she was obviously always very special.

“She has progressed with every run – (and) she’s a lovely mind, very well-balanced and a big, long stride.

“She looks very exciting. What was very exciting about her today, I think she won a length, so she went to the line very strong.

“When you can ride them that handy and find that much for pressure – as the distance was going on, she was really opening up – she’s really exciting.”

Love was a winner at Royal Ascot on Wednesday
Love was a winner at Royal Ascot on Wednesday (David Davies/PA)

Ladbrokes offer 20-1 about Joan Of Arc for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at ParisLongchamp in the autumn, and O’Brien thinks switching up in distance to 12 furlongs would not be an issue – although he has an embarrassment of riches, with the likes of multiple Group One winner Love and Oaks winner Snowfall among others in the middle-distance division.

He added: “Speaking to Ioritz, he was really impressed with her and thought a mile and a half would be no problem. He said she really only got going a furlong out – he was saying she would love stepping up, so I think it (Arc) has to be a big possibility.

“It’s an amazing race, and we’re just very lucky to have some very good three-year-olds at the moment – and Love as well.

“I suppose it’s a good position to be in. We’ll try to space out their races and give them a little rest in between and head that way then for the autumn.”

Snowfall impressed with a wide-margin win at Epsom
Snowfall impressed with a wide-margin win at Epsom (John Walton/PA)

Asked to compare his English and French Oaks winners, O’Brien said: “I suppose they’ve come from different routes really.

“We thought both were very high-class two-year-olds.

“Obviously this filly came from the Guineas route – whereas we started Snowfall at a mile and a quarter and then went up to a mile and a half.

“We know Snowfall gets a mile and a half very well, and obviously this filly hasn’t run over it yet – but she has progressed with every run.

“They’re very exciting fillies.”

Ioritz Mendizabal and O'Brien have been in fine form in 2021
Ioritz Mendizabal and O’Brien have been in fine form in 2021 (Clint Hughes/PA)

O’Brien is delighted to have struck up a fruitful partnership with Mendizabal this term as coronavirus restrictions continue to impact on jockeys’ ability to travel to France.

He said: “We are just so thrilled Ioritz agreed to ride for us, he’s very intelligent, a brilliant horseman and has great experience. We were obviously very confident after speaking to him – he’s a world-class rider, and we’re just so grateful that he agreed to ride our horses. It’s a real privilege.

“When we talk to him we feel so confident. He’s very intelligent – he works out what he wants to do and what could happen, and all the different options.

“We leave it to him really. We feel so privileged that he’s riding for us really. He’s a very special rider, very special.”

Ioritz Mendizabal celebrates aboard Joan Of Arc
Ioritz Mendizabal celebrates aboard Joan Of Arc (Scoopdyga)

Medizabal added: “Aidan O’Brien is my Santa Claus! He has given me two superb horses to ride in recent weeks.

“I want to thank him very much. He gave me some simple instructions, but when the horses are as good as that, it’s easy.”

“All this success is a direct result of the hard work put in at home and for me to be working with the Aidan O’Brien team is just incredible!

“I can imagine that my two daughters and my mother were shouting at the television. Throughout the race I was just getting ready to accelerate. I wasn’t pushing her, I was simply just going with her in her stride.

“As of 400 metres (two furlongs) out I wasn’t fully sure we were going to win because Sibila Spain is a good filly, but Joan Of Arc fought hard and got there for me.”

Christopher Head to aim Sibila Spain at French Oaks

Christopher Head will be out to add his name to his family’s dynasty of big-race winners with Sibila Spain in the Prix de Diane next weekend.

Head’s great grandfather William trained at Maisons-Laffitte in the 1920s – while his grandfather Alec is still one of the best known trainers in France at the age of 96, having trained 84 Group One winners in his career.

Christoper’s father Freddy has enjoyed two stellar careers – first in the saddle, winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe four times, his first at 19 on Bon Mot, before turning his attentions to training and handling such stars as Goldikova, Moonlight Cloud and Marchand D’Or.

Freddy’s sister Criquette also won the Arc three times – with Three Troikas and Treve (twice). She remains the only female to have trained the winner of the great race.

The latest Head in the training ranks has made a good start, with Sibila Spain already going close in Group One company when beaten just a length in the Prix Saint-Alary.

“Sibila Spain will be supplemented for the Diane (a week on Sunday), that’s for sure,” he said.

“I think she will have a leading chance. The filly is really good. The only question mark against her would be the (possible) good to firm ground.

“Her race at Lyon-Parilly (odds-on victory in a conditions race) was the only time that she had raced on anything nearing good ground, and we might not have seen the best of her.

“I can’t think of any reason why she wouldn’t handle this type of ground, however.”