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Prepare for a Saxon raid on Newmarket

With a pair of aces at his disposal, it appears that Aidan O’Brien has a great chance of landing his ninth 2000 Guineas.

With three victories from the last six, including two from the last three, the Co Tipperary handler has last year’s Superlative Stakes winner, Gustav Klimt, and the Racing Post Trophy hero, Saxon Warrior.

GK won that Superlative by a head having incurred trouble in running. The Charlie Hills-trained Nebo was runner-up, and he’s proved himself to be a solid yardstick. Great Prospector was half-a-length further back, and I think it’s fair to say that Klimt defeated a bunch of sprinters that day (he’s by Galileo, out a six-furlong dam). That shows just how quick he is, though possibly also shows that his opponents on that occasion were not running at their optimum trip (seven furlongs). In a slowly run race, this fella certainly has the ‘zip’, but the 2000 Guineas isn’t a race for sprinters and I’d be concerned that he may be outstayed by a ‘proper’ miler.

Saxon Warrior, on the other hand, looks a strong traveller who will be doing his best work at the end of the race. He’s more stoutly bred than Gustav, being by Deep Impact out the Galileo mare, Maybe. She was third in the 1000 Guineas and fifth in the Oaks, so Saxon Warrior ought to stay further than the mile. Of course, pedigree on paper doesn’t always materialize on the track, but the Group One Racing Post success, suggested that this fella will be ideally suited by the Guineas. Roaring Lion swept passed him a furlong from home that day, but he battled back and appeared to be well in control at the line. The pair had pulled clear of the remainder, and the form looks rock solid. He comes here without a prep-run, similarly to the last two O’Brien winners, Churchill and Gleneagles.

Masar and Elarqam head the British challenge, with the latter possessing the most exciting pedigree in this year’s renewal. Trained by Mark Johnston, he’s by the mighty Frankel out of 1000 Guineas winner Attraction. If breeding guaranteed the major prizes, this fella could be crowned the Guineas winner before the stalls opened. He won both his juvenile starts, the latter success coming at Newmarket, when stretching clear late on over the seven-furlong trip. He looked a long striding leggy juvenile, and that he was able to win so well is probably testament to his class. His lack of experience is a slight concern, though Camelot and Makfi were recent winners off the back of just two runs. He certainly looks a leading contender.

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Masar blasted his way into the Guineas picture with a stunning success in the Craven Stakes. He’s by the Guineas runner-up and Epsom Derby winner New Approach, out of a Cape Cross mare. His pedigree suggests he’ll get further in time, though his Craven performance showed he should be effective at a mile. The pace that day was modest, before Buick asked his mount for maximum effort. He galloped powerfully throughout the final two-furlongs for a nine-length success. Roaring Lion was a disappointment back in third, though lacked match fitness. He’s unlikely to get the easy lead that he enjoyed last time, though that may not stop him from putting in a huge performance.

The top four in the betting are a little clear of both Expert Eye and Roaring Lion. The latter must reverse a thumping by Masar and a narrow defeat to Saxon Warrior. I’d be surprised if he can do either. The former looked a thrilling prospect when winning the Vintage Stakes last August, though has disappointed twice since. He flopped in the Dewhurst, when far too keen throughout. And a couple of weeks back could only finish second to James Garfield in the Greenham. He should improve for the run, but I’m struggling to see why he’ll win. He may actually improve by being dropped back in trip, and I can see him becoming a six-furlong specialist in time.

Of those at a bigger price, I’d give a mention to David Simcock’s Raid. He was having only his second career start when finishing an eye-catching fourth in the Greenham last time. He should improve plenty for that, and I’d fancy that he’ll prove best of those that ran at Newbury that day. Whether he can sneak into a place is questionable, though his current odds of 50s make him a tempting proposition. This race often yields treats to the each-way punter.

One I’d likely to mention, that isn’t here, is the O’Brien trained US Navy Flag. He may yet prove to be the stables leading miler, though dodges this in favour of the French Guineas. Good or quicker ground is essential for this fella and I fancy he’ll prove to be top class.

I’ve found it quite difficult to choose between Saxon Warrior and Elarqam, but am finally swayed by the O’Brien factor. I’ll take the Racing Post winner to land this year’s opening Classic and then head for a crack at the Epsom Derby. Despite thinking he’s probably not quite good enough, I’ll be having a little each-way on Raid. He may just sneak into the places. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Curtis takes the high road to Season Salvation

Joe Farrell caused a 33/1 upset when defeating Ballyoptic by a nose in a thrilling finish to the Scottish Grand National.

It’s been a challenging winter for Pembrokeshire trainer Rebecca Curtis, with the number of horses in her yard tumbling from around 50 to little more than 20. Winners have been hard to come by, so this success is a huge tonic for herself and the team.

“It’s amazing,” said Curtis, speaking to ITV Racing just after the result of the photo-finish was announced. “We’ve had a difficult season and to end it like that is just brilliant for us. I thought it was a big ask, he’s just a novice but he stays all day. It’s my first time in Scotland. I own a quarter of him, and thankfully it’s paid off. I’m drawing a line under this campaign, though this is a great way to finish.”

Adam Wedge was the victorious jockey and was clearly thrilled to have held-on in a pulsating finish. He’d kicked on with three fences to go and looked likely to win by some distance. But Tom Bellamy got a hell of a tune out of Ballyoptic late-on.

“He’s stuck his neck out,” said a thrilled and relieved jockey. “I could feel Tom Bellamy getting to me all the way, but he's tried his heart out. To come here today not knowing whether he would stay, it’s fantastic.”

Nigel Twiston-Davies will surely have Aintree in his sights for the runner-up. Ballyoptic remains on a workable handicap mark, though may have to be campaigned accordingly next winter. A temporary switch to hurdles would not be a surprise. Vintage Clouds had led for much of the race but had to settle for third. Doing Fine arrived late on the scene to snatch a fourth-place finish. Vicente had been looking to make it three in-a-row, and ran another cracker at the track, finishing a fine fifth.

As the Jump season draws to a close, action on the Flat stepped up a gear, with informative meetings at Newmarket and Newbury.

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Roaring Lion was all the rage in the Craven Stakes last Thursday, having proved himself to be one of the leading juveniles last summer. But it was Godolphin blue that shone brightest, as the Charlie Appleby-trained Masar romped to an impressive nine-length success. William Buick set the fractions and kicked for home almost three furlongs out. The chasing pack were left toiling with the winner instantly cut to single figures for the 2000 Guineas in a fortnight.

Appleby said of the winner: “William said he quickened twice, before the Dip and then up the hill. He’s got quicker but he’s also got stronger. People asked why we gave him a run in Dubai, but that was just to take the gas out of him and put some manners on him. He was always going to be a three-year-old and he looks to be a nice horse. We were confident coming into this race that we were a player and that he’d either win or finish second to Roaring Lion. The Guineas route will be foremost in our sights now.”

Just 24 hours after the Masar romp, we witnessed another stunning performance, this time at Newbury, when John Gosden’s Lah Ti Dar crushed a field of fillies over 1m2f. Stunningly bred, by Dubawi out of Dar Re Mi, this filly could be special. Apparently weak at two, this was her debut on the track and Frankie Dettori was impressed with the performance. She’s now third-favourite, behind a pair of O’Brien fillies, for the Oaks at Epsom.

Saturday at Newbury was supposed to revolve around a resurgent Expert Eye in the Greenham Stakes. Sir Michael Stoute’s colt had looked a future star when winning the Vintage Stakes at Goodwood last August, but then flopped on his final juvenile outing in the Dewhurst. Sadly, he again fluffed his lines, though ran with more promise, finishing runner-up to James Garfield. Keen from the off, he came under pressure two furlongs out, and though gaining late-on, he never looked likely to get to the winner. He may well improve for fast ground, though it’s likely that he is not the star many believed him to be. The winner is undoubtedly good, though looks shy of top-class.

Raid was something of an eye-catcher back in fourth. Trained by David Simcock and owned by Qatar Racing, this was only his second career start and having been outpaced mid-race, he stayed on strongly in the latter stages. He should improve a bundle for this.

A little more than six exciting months lie ahead in this latest Flat campaign, and at its conclusion, many of the season’s best will head to America for the 35th Breeders’ Cup World Championships. This year’s glittering season finale comes from Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. A few days ago, organisers announced details of qualifying races to be run around the globe.

“As international participation increases for Thoroughbred racing on a global scale, the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series continues to support horsemen and racing stables with important incentives, such as automatic starting positions and free entry fees, to qualify for the World Championships,” said Craig Fravel, Breeders’ Cup President and CEO. “We also recognize the outstanding work by our 28 racetrack and racing association partners around the world who conduct these Challenge races and thank them for their support and commitment to the series.”

There will be 11 such races held in the UK, five in Ireland and a further four in France. Four qualifiers take place at Royal Ascot, including the Queen Anne Stakes and the Diamond Jubilee. The Irish Champion Stakes is another notable entry on the list, along with elite juvenile events at Longchamp, the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere and the Prix Marcel Boussac. The winner of the Darley Yorkshire Oaks from York, for example, would automatically qualify for the Filly and Mare Turf at Churchill Downs.

It’s a laudable effort by the Breeders’ Cup guys to promote the valuable and prestigious event across the globe, and may well tempt some to renew those passports for an early winter jaunt across the pond.