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Breeders’ Cup – The Players

Just when you thought we’d done with the Flat and could now focus on the Jumps, along comes the Breeders’ Cup from Del Mar in California.

America’s two-day end of season jamboree has again attracted a wealth of talent from Europe, with Aidan O’Brien sending a battalion across the Atlantic in search of further Grade One success.

Our own Matt Bisogno (The Boss) set off in his private jet earlier in the week, and is no doubt working tirelessly from a sunbed on the Corona Del Mar Beach. It’s a meeting that Matt loves and Geegeez covers extensively.

For today’s piece I’ve decided to highlight the major players, both human and equine, in the hope of unearthing potential winners. It’s a tough gig, as we know very little about the American horses, and experience tells us that despite such a sizeable European raiding party, it will be the home team that remain dominant.

One of the most successful trainer’s in Breeders’ Cup history, is Californian handler Bob Baffert. He landed a pair at last year’s meet, including the outstanding Arrogate in the showpiece Breeders’ Cup Classic. That made it three on the trot in the Classic, and he has three leading contenders for Saturday’s renewal. Arrogate returns in hope of defending his crown, but Baffert also saddles the vastly improved Collected and the outstanding three-year-old West Coast.

Baffert said of the younger challenger: “He’s a horse that’s on the improve, he likes a mile-and-a-quarter, he deserves a shot. We know how tough these three-year-olds can be this time of the year.” The trainer’s trio of Classic winners were all aged three.

Baffert also has a tremendous record in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (dirt). With five victories over the years, he has another returning champ in Drefong. The four-year-old colt is a short-priced favourite to repeat the success of 12 months ago. He’s unbeaten in completed starts and will be ably assisted by the most successful jockey in Breeders’ Cup history, Mike Smith.

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Smith landed a hat-trick at last year’s meeting, equalling his best haul from the 2013 event. He’s a jockey that is always in demand, and the horses he rides need a closer inspection from prospective punters. One that looks to have a great chance is Unique Bella in the Filly & Mare Sprint. This enormous three-year-old is by leading American stallion Tapit, out of an Unbridled’s Song mare, and is unbeaten this term. She truly is a huge beast and clearly immensely talented. The track may be a slight concern, though when she gets rolling she’s a sight to behold.

Aidan O’Brien lies third in the table of all-time most successful Breeders’ Cup trainers. He’s certainly not travelling light this year and will be hopeful of adding to his tally of 11 winners. He could get off to a great start with the Juvenile Fillies Turf on Friday. Happily and September are a talented duo, with the former a winner of the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Chantilly last time. Personally, I fancy the latter to run a huge race on ground that she will love. I also believe that her physique (diminutive) will be better suited to the tight turns of the Del Mar track.

Rhododendron must have a great chance of landing the Filly & Mare Turf for Team Ballydoyle. Her victory at Chantilly last time, shows that she is back to something near her best, and this 1m1f trip ought to be ideal. It looks a cracking renewal with Chad Brown’s Lady Eli a serious challenger.

Roly Poly is one of the unsung heroes of the squad and looks sure to run well in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Whilst Highland Reel aims to win back-to-back Turf’s with Ulysses and stablemate Seventh Heaven amongst the main rivals.

The aforementioned Chad Brown tends to get his fair share of winners. Just the one last year, followed on from a pair in 2015 and a treble in 2014. Lady Eli was chinned on the line in last year’s Filly & Mare, but has a furlong less to travel this time round. He also has Dacita and Grand Jete in the race, with both having claims at decent prices. I favour the latter, who is beautifully bred, and should be suited by both track and trip.

He also has a leading contender in the Juvenile Fillies Turf in Rushing Fall. Unbeaten in two starts, she was impressive last time at Keeneland, though will need to improve again if she is to defeat the Ballydoyle duo.
Wes Ward is well known to UK racefans, and though not prolific at the Breeders’ Cup, he does have the outstanding sprinter Lady Aurelia, entered in the Turf Sprint. The five-furlong trip around Del Mar should prove ideal and she’ll take some beating.

He also has interesting contenders in the Fillies Juvenile Turf and the Juvenile Turf. The filly is Ultima D, who at 25/1 is a relatively unconsidered challenger. Yet this daughter of Scat Daddy improved for a step-up in trip last time and has the speed to make her presence felt on this ‘trappy’ track. He saddles Hemp Hemp Hurray in the Juvenile Turf, a race he won in 2014 with Hootenanny. This fella also has plenty of speed and looks capable of out-running his odds of 20/1. Four European horses stand at the head of the betting, though I’d be keen to take them on.

Finally, a mention for World Approval who appears to be one of the home team’s ‘certainty’ of the gathering. He’s favourite for the Breeders’ Cup Mile and was impressive last time when thumping Lancaster Bomber in the Woodbine Mile Stakes. Ribchester and Roly Poly should give him more to think about, though both have had hectic campaigns. Suedois could be interesting having won his last two starts at the trip. The ex-sprinter has the gears to trouble these, with O’Meara and Tudhope loving these foreign jaunts.

It’s sure to be a cracking spectacle at the end of a thoroughly enjoyable Flat racing season. Let’s hope that the European contingent land a few telling blows. And let’s all hope that Matt has a wonderful time on his ‘working vacation’ in California. Yeah, enjoy yourself Boss!

O’Brien Four-midable in Dewhurst Romp

Aidan O’Brien landed the Dewhurst at Newmarket on Saturday, as he closes in on Bobby Frankel’s world record Group One haul.

Just one more top-level success is required for O’Brien to reach 25 in a season, and match Frankel’s amazing achievement. After an unsuccessful trip to Canada last night, Team Ballydoyle will now head to Ascot for Champions Day next Saturday in search of the history making victories.

U S Navy Flag proved a stunning winner of the Dewhurst, which saw O’Brien colts filling the first four places. You need to bring your ‘A’ game to stand any chance of wrestling Group Ones from the clutches of Aidan and the boys. Sadly for favourite backers, Expert Eye was some way short and ultimately hugely disappointing. Sweating profusely, then restless in the stalls, Sir Michael Stoute’s exciting prospect did himself no favours by running with the choke out. He was one of the first beat before being eased down in the latter stages.

The winner could not have been more impressive. Drawn wide, Ryan Moore switched to the rail and controlled the race from start to finish. He kicked clear just inside the two-pole, comfortably holding off a battalion of stablemates. The outsider of O’Brien’s quintet, Mendelssohn, finished a surprise runner-up, followed by Seahenge, with Threeandfourpence completing the Ballydoyle Blitz.

Moore appeared impressed with the much-improved U S Navy Flag, when saying: “He’s got better through the year. He’s a very honest horse who keeps finding a bit more each time he comes to the track. It’s a credit to Aidan to do what he’s done today, the first four home, and they’re all nice horses that should be better next year.”

O’Brien was, as ever, humble in victory, saying: “It’s a big team effort all the way along, from the people that are involved very early with those horses as foals, and before they are even born, all the way to the people directly involved today. It’s great satisfaction for everybody, a massive team effort with lots of cogs in the wheel.”

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When asked about Bobby Frankel’s record, the trainer added: “It would be massive for everyone but we don't think about it really. We take one race at a time but it would obviously be a massive achievement for our team. We would be very honoured, but we will take one day at a time.”

That magic 25 could have been landed at Newmarket, had September had a clearer path in the Fillies’ Mile. When a gap finally appeared inside the final furlong, Seamie Heffernan was unable to make up the ground on Karl Burke’s gutsy filly Laurens. An ever-diminishing nose was all that separated the pair at the line, much to the delight of winning jockey PJ McDonald.

It was a first Group One success for the talented jock, and he was clearly thrilled when speaking to ITV after the win: “It’s absolutely amazing, all those years, I’m 35-years-of-age now, and all that hard work. The relief when that number got called out, it’s amazing. I was praying I had it, but I hadn’t got a clue.”

PJ then praised the handler, who was moved to tears: “All credit goes to Lucy, she rides this filly every day, and has done since she came in. You know, it’s a massive team effort and everybody has played their part.” When asked by Rishi Persad for a quick word on what the success meant, the tearful handler said: “Just everything, I can’t even speak.”

There’s little doubt that the winner is both talented and tough. She also has the physical scope for further improvement, and the pedigree to stay further as a three-year-old.

The runner-up is a much smaller filly and improved considerably for the return to a sounder surface. She’s also bred to get further, being by Japanese Stallion Deep Impact out of the Irish Oaks winner Peeping Fawn. It’s an exciting pedigree, though connections will be hoping for a growth spurt or two over the winter.

Aidan O’Brien’s Magical had been sent-off favourite, but ran a little flat in finishing fourth. This race may have come a little soon after her exertions in Chantilly, when filling the same spot in the Prix Marcel Boussac.
Magic Lily ran a cracker in third on only her second career start. She’s another with the physique to progress as a three-year-old, giving Godolphin hope of breaking the Ballydoyle stranglehold on the one-mile filly division.

For now, it’s onwards and upwards for O’Brien and his team. Attention turns to Ascot and a re-writing of those record books.

Monday Musings: Baffert and O’Brien United in Cushioned Defeat

You’d be hard pushed to stand Bob Baffert alongside Aidan O’Brien and suggest they have too much in common, apart from the obvious knack of winning major races around the planet, writes Tony Stafford. Baffert, 64, is the white-haired extrovert who specialises in the big-money pots – Arrogate, for instance collecting both last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup in March this year.

He also ended US racing’s 37-year wait for a Triple Crown winner two years ago when American Pharaoh added the Belmont Stakes in June to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes triumphs, the first since Affirmed and Steve Cauthen won all three races in tight finishes with Alydar back in 1977.

I had a fleeting and slight connection with Baffert during his two earlier Triple Crown near-misses, both with horses he trained for Prince Ahmed Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation, with which I had a much closer association. He was already approaching 50 years of age when Point Given, a disappointing Kentucky Derby favourite in 2001, atoned with triumphs in the Preakness and Belmont that spring/early summer.

Then the native Arizonan sourced War Emblem, winner of the 2002 Illinois Derby, securing a 90% share for the Prince, with original owner Russell Reineman retaining 10%. He immediately won the Kentucky Derby, from the front, and followed on in the Preakness. That made four successive Triple Crown race victories for trainer and owner, but a bad stumble at the start and an early bump meant the intended New York coronation was never to be. Baffert had to wait another 13 years for his place in US Turf history.

It is with some element of disbelief that we realise Aidan O’Brien has yet to win an English Triple Crown. The quietly-spoken Irishman, busy founding a family dynasty set to dominate his country’s racing industry for many years – wish I could look into that particular future, or else live to 110! – did go agonisingly close, though. Still a few years younger than Baffert was when I first encountered him, Aidan would appear to have plenty of time to find the right horse to complete that elusive treble.

In 2012, Camelot shrugged off French Fifteen to win the 2,000 Guineas before an odds-on five-length romp at Epsom preceded another simple task (if such a thing is possible in a Classic) at The Curragh. All that remained for the champion and his young rider Joseph O’Brien was the St Leger, but despite getting the trip well enough, he could not peg back Encke.

The subsequent involvement of that horse in the Godolphin steroids scandal which cost Mahmood Al Zarooni his job must leave O’Brien feeling cheated out of the right to have prepared a 16th Triple Crown winner, and the first since Nijinsky, handled by Ballydoyle predecessor, but unrelated Vincent O’Brien in 1970.

The only other dual 2,000 Guineas and Derby winner of the present millennium was Sea The Stars, in 2009. In a sequence of unbroken success following a debut fourth place, the John Oxx-trained colt was guided to shorter-distance races after Epsom, and won successively the Eclipse, the Juddmonte International and Irish Champion before ending his stellar career back at a mile and a half in the Arc. He never won by more than two and a half lengths, but always looked far superior to his opponents.

As a stallion he has already produced Taghrooda (Oaks and King George) and Harzand (Derby and Irish Derby), while three of his late-developing sons, Stradivarius, Crystal Ocean and Raheen House are among the strongest candidates for this year’s St Leger.

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But to come back to my point about the similarity between the two disparate characters, it is their ability to shrug off defeat for a star inmate, even when the star is beaten by a stablemate.

It happened to each of them over the weekend. On Saturday night in Del Mar, Arrogate, officially and also by popular vote, the Best Horse in the World, suffered a second successive defeat in the Pacific Classic, following an earlier inexplicable fourth at 1-20 in the San Diego handicap, his first run since Dubai in March.

Baffert had been at a loss to explain that “out with the washing” run, but had a more optimistic reaction to the half-length reverse behind his Collected on Saturday. Here he was again sluggish, but rallied to good effect behind the all-the-way winner, who now has an identical seven wins from ten starts career tally to Arrogate. Where they differ is that Collected, whose only defeat in his last six runs was in the 2016 Preakness when he was distanced, has yet to make the £1 million mark, while Arrogate has amassed more than £13 million.

While clearly disappointed, saying it was like his younger son beating his elder son, Baffert managed a similar philosophical reaction to O’Brien’s yesterday when Magical and Donnacha O’Brien, his younger son, beat Happily, ridden by Ryan Moore (successor as stable jockey to elder son, Joseph), with September (Seamie Heffernan) fourth in the Group 2 Debutante Stakes at the Curragh.

“I expect they’ll all go to the Moyglare”, said the trainer, confident in the knowledge that victory for one of these Team Coolmore fillies represents shared success for them all. Once again it was the Galileos to the fore with Rhododendron’s full-sister coming home ahead of Gleneagles’ and Marvellous’s full-sibling.

The Camelots have been a little slow to get going, as did the Nathaniels last year, but with Enable, in line for yet another win this week in the Yorkshire Oaks, leading the way, Nathaniel’s owners, headed by Lady Rothschild and Newsells Park, have been enjoying watching a flurry of winners, generally at a mile and a half.

Since the King George, where Enable joined Winter as the best of a top–class generation of fillies, products of Nathaniel have won nine more domestic races with five in a row from August 11-16 and a Newbury double on Saturday.

The only potential opponent for Enable from Ballydoyle is Alluringly, who ended a losing run with a strong-finishing win in a Gowran Listed race over just short of ten furlongs, but whether connections fancy a third go at Enable after progressively emphatic beatings from the Gosden filly at Chester and in the Oaks is questionable.

Wednesday’s Juddmonte International at York throws up the tantalising prospect of Churchill stretching out to a mile and a quarter (and a bit) after his St James’s Palace reverse, and an encounter with Cliffs of Moher, second to now-retired Wings of Eagles in the Derby and hampered when fourth behind Ulysses in the Eclipse last time out. It would help Churchill’s stud prospects if he could get that Group 1 win at the longer distance, but stablemate Cliffs of Moher could easily give him a run for his money, never mind the others.

I hope Raheen House takes his chance in the Great Voltigeur, a race I’ve loved ever since Hethersett won it in 1962 and helped me collect a vast sum – possibly £50 – after a small stakes patent copped, with Sostenuto (Ebor) and Persian Wonder the other legs, as a 16-year-old. That a Bournemouth betting shop manager would allow my bet and then pay me out after my round of pitch-and-putt at Tuckton Bridge remains a source of wonder 55 years on – we were on holiday and mum and dad went shopping! – but he did and I followed up with a nice bet on Hethersett, my favourite horse of all time, in the St Leger. For the record, my favourite jumper ever was L’Escargot.

Years later, Hitman, in whom I had a share, broke down in the Voltigeur, but I still look forward to it as the best guide to the Classic. Let him run there Brian, please.

An eye on a Juvenile – Fillies

During this rather quiet period, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on the juvenile division, especially after witnessing several promising performances at Newmarket’s July Festival.

I’m starting with the female of the species, and arguably the most impressive two-year-old display of the weekend. The rapidly improving Clemmie, trained by Aidan O’Brien, powered clear in the latter stages to win the Group Two Duchess Of Cambridge Stakes. Still looking a little green at times, it took her a while to get into top gear. She looks a relentless galloper, rather than a filly with gears, and the stiff final furlong at Newmarket certainly suited. She’s currently second favourite for next year’s 1000 Guineas despite being beaten by more than four lengths at Royal Ascot just a few weeks back. She’s clearly a classy sort, and looks the type to continue improving with racing. Though I fancy she’ll become next season’s Roly Poly, rather than a Ballydoyle Winter or Rhododendron.

Her stoutly bred stable companion September, heads the Guineas market after her romp in the Chesham Stakes at Royal Ascot. By Japan’s outstanding stallion Deep Impact, out of Irish Oaks winner Peeping Fawn, her pedigree is exceptional, though points to stamina rather than speed. It’s no surprise to also see her heading the market for next year’s Epsom Oaks, and that sort of trip looks likely to prove her optimum. Unbeaten in just two career starts, her next outing is eagerly anticipated.

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Another exciting Irish filly is the Jess Harrington trained Alpha Centauri. She was runner-up to the French filly Different League in the Albany Stakes at Royal Ascot, with Clemmie further back in seventh. The front pair were some way clear that day, and possibly had something of an edge on the maturity front. Both are physically imposing, and that advantage in stature is sure to change as the season unfolds. A clash in Ireland with Clemmie or September is highly likely for Harrington’s filly, and would further help assess the progression of these two-year-olds. I fancy that Alpha Centauri’s early season advantage may well evaporate.

Different League is trained in France by Matthieu Palussiere, who was formerly an assistant in Ireland to Mick Halford. The filly is by French stallion Dabirsim, himself an exceptional juvenile who captured the Prix Morny and the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere. It’s impossible to say whether we’ll see her back on our shores, though she is priced up for next season’s 1000 Guineas. The Prix Morny was touted as a possible short-term target.

Clive Cox is having another season to remember, and has an exciting filly, in Royal Ascot winner Heartache. She’s a sprinter, and looked exceptional when thrashing 22 others in the Group Two Queen Mary. Likely to head for the Lowther at York, Cox will be hoping she can progress in a similar fashion to his outstanding sprinter Harry Angel. She’s a way to go to become that good, though the initial signs are promising.

Other classy fillies are sure to be unearthed during the summer, with Ballydoyle more than likely to add to their classy pair of Clemmie and September. It would also come as a surprise should Godolphin not have several potential stars in their midst. Charlie Appleby has plenty of juveniles set to make their debuts in the coming weeks, including smartly bred fillies Piccola Collina, Lunar Maria and Dubhe.