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Monday Musings: The Middle Distance Ranks Are Massing

Until Wednesday evening in Paris it was all plain sailing for Aidan O’Brien, writes Tony Stafford. He could pick his Group 1 spots for the rest of the year with his team of Classic colts and more plentiful top fillies and wait to see what presumably ineffectual opposition Europe’s other major stables would be able to throw at them.

But then along came Hurricane Lane, only third to lesser-fancied stable-companion Adayar in the Derby at Epsom but subsequently a workmanlike winner in the face of a good late challenge by English-trained Lone Eagle (Martin Meade) in the Irish Derby at The Curragh.

Neither run could have prepared us for the Frankel colt’s storming performance on Bastille Day (14 July) as he ripped away the home team’s barricades <couldn’t help myself> beating the Prix du Jockey Club also-rans with possibly more ease than St Mark’s Basilica had managed a month earlier.

Die-hard traditionalists have already been put in their place in France. In the old days the Jockey Club was 2400 metres (12 furlongs) in line with Epsom and The Curragh and was reduced to its present distance of 2100 metres in 2005.

That move coincided with the moving up to a mile and a half of the great Fête Nationale celebration race on a movable feast of an evening card at Longchamp. The Grand Prix de Paris, until the arrival of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1920, had been the most prestigious and valuable race in France and was run over 3000 metres (15 furlongs), and even 3100 metres for a shorter intervening period.

In 1987, though, it was reduced significantly in distance to 2000 metres (1m2f) and it was at that trip that Saumarez won the 1990 race prior to his victory in the Arc that October. Previously trained to place in the Dee Stakes at Chester by Henry Cecil, Saumarez made Nicolas Clement, who had recently taken over the stable when his father Miguel died, the youngest-ever trainer to win France’s greatest race.

It works for France because, as Hurricane Lane showed so eloquently, a horse could run in and even win either or both the Epsom and Irish Derby, or indeed the Jockey Club, and there would still be time to prepare him for the Grand Prix.

That is just what Charlie Appleby did with such skill and the most notable element of it was how much he had in hand of the William Haggas colt Alenquer whose form with Adayer in the Sandown Classic Trial over ten furlongs in the spring appeared to give him a collateral edge on Hurricane Lane.

Alenquer not only beat Adayer on the Esher slopes but afterwards comfortably won the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot. But he was put in his place as Hurricane Lane stormed <that verb again!> six lengths clear of Wordsworth, first home of the O’Brien trio. It looked at first appraisal a major improvement on The Curragh but closer inspection reveals that Wordsworth had been beaten slightly further in his home Classic.

So where does that leave Adayer? Well, according to a conversation Charlie Appleby had with a friend who visited his luxurious stables in Newmarket before racing on Saturday, Adayer is fancied to run a very strong race as he faces up to last year’s O’Brien Classic superstar, Love, in Saturday’s King George.

The filly has the edge in the market after her comeback win over an inadequate ten furlongs in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot but Appleby, mindful that the weight-for-age scale favours three-year-olds, is by all accounts confident he will do so. Love concedes 8lb to the Derby hero while William Muir and Chris Grassick’s Coronation Cup hero Pyledriver gives him 11lb. Ascot is also the probable target for Lone Eagle.

Like O’Brien, Appleby is a modest man who often deflects praise to the people around him. Indeed as my friend left, Charlie said, “If you couldn’t train horses from here, where could you?”

Guesses that maybe St Mark’s Basilica might step up in distance on Saturday have been scuppered by his trainer’s single-mindedly pointing him towards the Juddmonte International. Those three days in York next month will also feature the next step towards the stars of Snowfall, following in the footprints of Love from a year ago by taking in the Yorkshire Oaks.

By the way, Jim, get my room ready! I’ll see how my first day back racing on Saturday at Ascot goes and then I might take the liberty of giving you a call. Where have I been? Too busy with all this Covid lark, mate, but I have been thinking of you!

However short a price Love was on what was to prove her last run of 2020 after the easy wins in the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks, the latter by nine lengths, 4-9 will be looking a gift if that is available about Snowfall. Could be 1-5!

Many felt the exaggerated superiority, indeed a UK Classic record-winning margin of 16 lengths, could in part be ascribed to the very testing ground at Epsom. Just as many were predicting that on faster ground in Saturday’s Irish Oaks she might go for economy.

Leading two furlongs out under Ryan Moore, delighted to be riding her for only the second time – he was on board for the shock Musidora win at York on May 12 three weeks before Epsom and that Frankie Dettori benefit – she drew away by eight-and-a-half lengths in majestic style.

As we know, the Coolmore boys like all the boxes ticked and the opportunities covered, but I can categorically tell you that they did not expect her to win at York. Even when she did, the beaten horses’ connections were dreaming up reasons why you could not trust the result.

After all she was rated only a modest 90 on the back of her juvenile exploits, the most memorable apart from winning a small maiden race was the mix up when she wore the wrong colour hat when well behind in the Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket last autumn.

After the Epsom and Curragh regal processions there is only one place you would consider for a soft-ground loving but equally comfortable on quicker turf three-year-old filly of her status - the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. It took me a while – having discarded my European Pattern Races 2021 book with hundreds of others in advance of a hoped-for downsizing move – to work out why she had not been one of the dozen O’Brien horses entered for the Arc.

Six older male horses – Mogul, Broome, Armory, Serpentine, Japan and Inisfree (where’s he been for 20 months?) – are supplemented by Love. The five three-year-olds are the colts St Mark’s Basilica, along with domestic Classic flops Bolshoi Ballet, High Definition and hard-working Van Gogh whose dance in four Classics (the UK and Irish Guineas, when third behind Mac Swiney, and French and Irish Derby) brought that one positive result.

That left room for one filly and, considering Santa Barbara took until last week to gain Grade 1 winning honours in the New York Oaks while four of her supposedly inferior female counterparts beat her to it, the evidence is there. They did indeed think she was far and away the best.

At least that was the case until 3.15 p.m. on the afternoon of May 12. The Arc closed at France Galop’s HQ around four-and-three-quarter hours earlier.  Now they have to wait until September 27 to get her in and pay a heavy penalty to do so.

In all, 101 horses made it. I am sure that date is writ large on the Racing Office wall and, if she enjoys another exhibition round back at the Yorkshire track she first consented to tell her trainer and owners how good she is, the supplementary entry will be made. Chances to win the race do not come along very often.

For all his and his owners’ successes in big races around Europe and in the US, the Arc has proved elusive. Two victories, with four-year-olds Dylan Thomas in 2007 and the brilliant filly Found five years ago, leave him still with a blank to fill. No Ballydoyle three-year-old has won the race since the days of Vincent O’Brien, who took the first of his two Arcs with Alleged in 1977. His second win, doubling up for Lester Piggott the year after followed Ballymoss in 1958, showed once again just how tough a race it is to win.

As mentioned, two O’Brien fillies are entered, Love and Santa Barbara. The latter might continue to make up for her earlier limitations in the Nassau Stakes next week but, as we know, a trio of Classic-winning alternatives, Joan Of Arc, Mother Earth and Empress Josephine, are equally qualified to step in and possibly pick up the Goodwood fillies’ Group 1.

Meanwhile Kevin Ryan has been exploiting the early juvenile Group contests in France with Atomic Force. Beaten first time out and gelded before a win in a small race at Hamilton, Ryan took him to Longchamp last month and he won Group 3 Prix du Bois nicely.

Returning yesterday for the Group 2 Prix Robert Papin, he started 2-1 on and bolted up. He will probably return for the Prix Morny at Deauville next month. Having watched that win the Sky Sports Racing team suggested the Nunthorpe might be an option given how much weight juveniles get from their elders. This year though that could be a hot race if newcomers on the Group 1 sprinting scene like Ed Walker’s Starman and Tim Easterby’s flying filly Winter Power turn up.

- TS

St Mark’s Basilica unstoppable in Prix du Jockey Club

St Mark’s Basilica gave Aidan O’Brien a first victory in the Qatar Prix du Jockey Club with a brilliant effort at Chantilly.

The son of Siyouni was confidently ridden by Ioritz Mendizabal to run away from the opposition in the closing stages and join an elite band of horses to complete the French 2000 Guineas/Derby double.

St Mark’s Basilica (11-4 favourite) broke away from the stalls well and was always in a good position, close to the pace set by Normandy Bridge.

The latter led into the straight, but was quickly tackled by El Drama, who did his best to set sail for home.

Mendizabal had the move covered, however, and St Mark’s Basilica was soon in command – putting the race to bed in a matter of strides.

Sealiway (66-1) was second just ahead of the fast-finishing Millebosc in third.

Mendizabal – who performed a Frankie Dettori-style flying dismount -said: “This morning I spoke with Aidan, and he asked me not to go to the front too early, so I waited as long as I could. He was going so well that I had to go to the front a little bit further out than I wanted.

Ioritz Mendizabal leaps with joy from St Mark's Basilica
Ioritz Mendizabal leaps with joy from St Mark’s Basilica (PA)

“But he has won like a horse that would stay the full Classic distance (mile and a half) and any question of him getting the (extended 10-furlong) trip today, he proved.

“He’s a very good horse. He could be an Arc de Triomphe horse in two or three months. The distance is no problem.

“I had a perfect run on the inside, and the gaps opened up very nicely for me.”

Ioritz Mendizabal with the presentation party for the Prix du Jockey Club
Ioritz Mendizabal with the presentation party for the Prix du Jockey Club (PA)

St Mark’s Basilica’s third consecutive Group One victory, and successful move up in trip, points towards a further series of possible high-profile assignments this season.

O’Brien said: “He has a lot of options, and obviously we’ll wait and see how he is when he comes back and see where we go.

“The Eclipse, the Champion Stakes – all those types of races – would be very strong possibles for him. It will depend on how he is and see what the lads (owners Coolmore) want to do.”

Reflecting on the emphatic victory, he added: “We’re delighted. Ioritz gave him a brilliant ride.

“Ioritz is a great rider and rode for us in Deauville last year – and we were very impressed.

“He’s a world-class rider, and we’re so delighted to get him.”

A jubilant Iortiz Mendizabal
A jubilant Iortiz Mendizabal (PA)

Soft ground has prevailed in all of St Mark’s Basilica’s four career victories to date, but O’Brien stressed he has nothing to fear on a quicker surface.

“We think he doesn’t mind (any type of) ground,” he said.

“We were a little bit worried about the distance, because he’s a horse with so much speed – (so) we weren’t sure about that.

“But everybody was confident he would get the trip – (and) he has form with easy ground as well. We think he’s very versatile really.

“Initially, we were worried about him running on soft ground – and it’s just the way it’s worked out.

“He moves like a very good ground horse, but obviously he has worked on the soft ground – but it’s just because the races he’s run in have come up that way really.

“You would imagine with his action he should be more effective on good ground. He’s a lovely-moving horse – he doesn’t bend his knee much. He puts his legs straight out in front of him – that all suggests good ground should suit him better.”

O’Brien senses a move further up in trip is more open to question.

He said: “Frankie (Dettori), who rode him in the Dewhurst last year, (and all the staff at home) always felt that a mile and a quarter was within his compass – even though he is a horse that has a lot of speed and, as you can see, he quickens very well and always has done.

“I think it’s very possible (he could stay a mile and a half). But he obviously has a lot of speed, and you couldn’t be sure until he’s run that far.

“You definitely couldn’t be sure – but obviously it is possible, because he relaxes and quickens so well.”

On stablemate Van Gogh, who finished 10th, O’Brien said: “He ran well. We were very happy with the run.

“We felt he was a horse who was going to stay well and there is a chance the step up to a mile and half will suit him.

“Colin (Keane) was very happy to go up in trip again with him.”

Enable’s brother Derab going for French Derby gold

Derab and Megallan give John Gosden a strong hand in his bid for back-to-back victories in the Qatar Prix du Jockey Club on Sunday.

The Clarehaven handler, who now trains in partnership with son Thady, secured his first success in the French Derby last season with the brilliant Mishriff, who has since won the Saudi Cup and the Dubai Sheema Classic.

Both Derab and Megallan have some way to go scale those heights, but head to Chantilly with strong claims – albeit neither has fared particularly well in the draw.

Derab, a son of Sea The Stars and a half-brother to Gosden’s wonder mare Enable, opened his account at the third attempt with a runaway success in a Newmarket novice event last month. He is drawn wider than ideal in stall 14.

Megallan was last seen contesting the Dante Stakes at York – running a fine race in defeat to fill the runner-up spot behind Epsom contender Hurricane Lane. He will break next to his stable companion in stall 15.

Thady Gosden said: “Both horses cantered on Friday morning and seem in good form.

“Derab has taken his Newmarket race well and Megallan ran very well in the Dante and has been in good form since.

“Chantilly is a hard enough track to ride without being drawn out on a wing, but it could have been worse. Martin Harley (rides Derab) has ridden there a couple of times and Olivier Peslier (rides Megallan) could go round there in his sleep, I’d imagine.

“They’re forecast quite a bit of rain. Hopefully the ground doesn’t get too soft.”

St Mark's Basilica on his way to ParisLongchamp glory
St Mark’s Basilica on his way to ParisLongchamp glory (Scoopdyga/France Galop)

St Mark’s Basilica bids to join an elite list by notching up a French Classic double, having won the Poule d’Essai des Poulains – the French 2000 Guineas – last time out.

Shamardal doubled up in 2005, the year the race switched distance to 10 furlongs, while Lope De Vega (2010) and Brametot (2017) have also lifted both races in recent years.

St Mark’s Basilica, who also landed the Dewhurst last year, was partnered by Ioritz Mendizabal to Classic glory at ParisLongchamp last month, and he will be in the plate again on Sunday.

Trainer Aidan O’Brien told Sky Sports Racing: “He’s been lovely since the Guineas and it was always the plan to go back to France for the French Derby, so that’s where he is.

“We’re very happy with him since and looking forward to seeing him run. He hasn’t run over that trip, but we’re looking forward to seeing it.”

Van Gogh is Aidan O'Brien's second string
Van Gogh is Aidan O’Brien’s second string (PA)

O’Brien also runs Van Gogh, a Group One winner as a juvenile in France and last seen finishing third behind Mac Swiney in the Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh. Colin Keane takes the ride.

The Ballydoyle handler added: “Van Gogh is a quality horse that won a Group One at the back end of last year and he had a very good run in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. For him to run that well, as we took our time on him in not a strongly-run race, we were very happy with him.

“He always works like a horse with plenty of class and with that type of horse you can never be sure (of the trip) until they go there. You would think there is a really good chance he will get a mile and a quarter.

“I don’t think (he needs soft ground) as he had some very nice runs here on nice ground.”

Jean Claude-Rouget fields three, headed by Makaloun, who relinquished his unbeaten juvenile record when only third to Gear Up in the Criterium de Saint-Cloud in October but returned with a cosy success in the Prix de Guiche last month.

Rouget said: “We made a conscious decision to keep Makaloun under wraps for a considerable period during the winter, as he had run late in the season and on a track that was very demanding on the body. So he went late into training, but quite quickly came to himself in the mornings.

“In the Prix de Guiche, which the colt won, he wasn’t 100 per cent. I don’t think I can have him in any better condition than he is now.”

Rouget also has two unbeaten colts in Saiydabad and Cheshire Academy, who won the Group Three Prix Noailles in the stewards’ room on his only outing so far this term.

Both Makaloun and Cheshire Academy will have to contend with high draws though, in 18 and 19 respectively in a 19-runner field.

Freddy Head expects Adhamo to handle testing conditions
Freddy Head expects Adhamo to handle testing conditions (Steve Parsons/PA)

Adhamo won the Prix La Force in April for Freddy Head, but had to settle for fourth behind Makaloun at Chantilly last time out.

Head expects the 10-furlong trip to suit and is unconcerned by conditions, which were described as very soft on Friday following 32 millimetres of rain.

He said: “The colt is doing very well and I’m very happy with him. The 2,100-metres trip is not a problem and, if it rains it won’t be a problem either.”

Three colts who finished behind St Mark’s Basilica in the Poulains take him on again – Policy Of Truth (fourth), Normandy Bridge (seventh) and Sealiway (eighth).