Hardwicke on horizon for Thunderous

Mark Johnston’s Thunderous may target the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot after finishing second behind Al Aasy in the Group Three Al Rayyan at Newbury.

The 2020 Dante winner was four lengths behind the impressive Al Aasy, who is set for the Coronation Cup next after following  up with ease for William Haggas on Saturday – having also comfortably taken the John Porter Stakes over course and distance on his seasonal debut.

Thunderous made much of the running and was left to race alone by the rail as his rivals stuck to the centre of the track.

Harry Herbert, managing director of ownership group Highclere Racing, reports the four-year-old in good form since – and already has his eyes on the Group Two Hardwicke next month.

“He’s come out of Newbury very well – that was a really good run, although he was obviously no match for the winner,” said Herbert.

Thunderous ridden by jockey Franny Norton (left) on their way to winning The Al Basti Equiworld Dubai Dante Stakes at York Racecourse
Thunderous and Franny Norton (left) on their way to winning the Al Basti Equiworld Dubai Dante Stakes at York (Jeremy Phillips/PA)

“We’re really pleased with him, because he had to race alone on what was maybe the worst ground as the others came up the middle.

“He was passed by the (2019) Leger winner (Logician) and a couple of others – and then he came back.

“We were very happy with the run and we’re toying with the idea of running him next in the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot.”

Also pencilled in for the Royal meeting is Spycatcher, who was another Highclere runner to finish second at Newbury on Saturday – behind Creative Force in the Listed Carnarvon Stakes.

Trained by Karl Burke, the three-year-old could now step up in trip for the Group Three Jersey Stakes on the second day of Royal Ascot.

“That was really good run at Newbury from Spycatcher,” said Herbert.

“We think he’d probably be better over seven (furlongs), and having something to race. We had to make the running – which wasn’t ideal.

“We will be looking closely at the Jersey – that’s the likely scenario for him.

“I’ve seen him (since), and he looks really well. They’ve both (Spycatcher and Thunderous) taken their races really well and look a picture of health.”

After Highclere hit the crossbar twice at Newbury, Ascension recorded a 14-1 victory for them in the closing BetVictor Handicap.

Herbert confirmed the Roger Varian-trained grey is now likely to head to Royal Ascot too.

“Ascension will go to the Royal Hunt Cup,” he said.

“He’s in great form. He’s taken the race really well, and that race looks to be the right spot for him – so hopefully we’ll get a bit of luck, he’ll stay in one piece and we’ll be lining a few up for the Royal meeting.”

Another member of that Royal Ascot squad could be Ed Walker’s Parachute, last seen taking a mile-and-a-half handicap at Newmarket on May 2.

Herbert hopes the Sea The Stars colt will make the cut for the King George V Stakes, a contest Highclere have already won four times.

“That was a really good effort,” Herbert said of Parachute’s Newmarket performance.

Parachute, ridden by Tom Marquand ,wins the Betfair Weighed In Podcast Handicap ahead of Echo Point ridden by William Buick during 1000 Guineas Day at Newmarket
Parachute (left) wins the Betfair Weighed In Podcast Handicap at Newmarket (Mike Egerton/PA)

“He is rated 88 – so we will be heading to the King George V, the handicap at the Royal meeting, with him.

“We’ve been hoping we can get in. I think we will be right on the cusp, but hopefully we will.”

Parachute indicated he may have plenty of stamina with his all-the-way win at Newmarket, and Herbert added: “We’ll also take a look at the Queen’s Vase.

“He’s a really nice horse and hopefully one that will go on progressing.

“I think off that mark for the King George V, which is a race we’ve been fortunate enough to win four times, he certainly rings all the right bells.

“All that collateral form is good, and we’re hopeful that he will go on progressing and have an improving profile.”

Intriguing Gordon Richards Stakes in store at Sandown

Dante one-two Thunderous and Highest Ground renew rivalry in the bet365 Gordon Richards Stakes at Sandown on Friday.

Usually one of the key trials for the Derby at Epsom, last season’s Dante Stakes was not run until early July due to the outbreak of coronavirus in the spring.

The York feature nevertheless threw up a stirring finish, with the Mark Johnston-trained Thunderous getting the better of Sir Michael Stoute’s odds-on favourite Highest Ground by a neck.

Thunderous will make his first competitive appearance since that triumph in the Group Three contest.

Charlie Johnston, assistant to his father, said: “We’re really looking forward to getting him back out.

“Obviously he’s a horse who still has a huge amount of potential and we’ve only managed to get to the track with him five times in his first two seasons, so we’re just pleased to be back and looking forward to it really.

“We’re 100 per cent happy in terms of the injuries – there’s no concerns there whatsoever. He’s been back in full work since before Christmas and I would fully expect him to improve for the run.

“He’s not run any further than the Dante trip at this stage, so we thought this ticks a lot of boxes as a comeback race and then we can learn a bit from this and hopefully build and go forward to even bigger and better things down the line.”

Highest Ground remains a colt of potential
Highest Ground remains a colt of potential (Steve Davies/PA)

Highest Ground was impressive in winning his first two starts, before coming up narrowly short in his hat-trick bid on the Knavesmire last summer.

The Frankel colt subsequently disappointed on his final start of 2020 in the Darley Stakes at Newmarket, but connections feel rain-softened ground was to blame for that below-par performance.

Alan Cooper, racing manager for owners the Niarchos family, said: “It’s very exciting to get him back on the track. He’s wintered very well and has been pleasing Sir Michael and Ryan (Moore).

“We felt he didn’t handle the soft ground at all at Newmarket the last time he ran. The weather forecast is good, so we should have perfect ground on Friday.

“It’s his first run for a long time and we’ll see what happens. Hopefully he’ll run a very good race.

“He’s a lightly-raced horse who missed part of last year. It’s a very nice race to start off the season in, so let’s hope it’s a nice introduction to get his season going.”

The father-son team of John and Thady Gosden is represented by Waldkonig – a half-brother to Arc winner Waldgeist.

Runner-up to Highest Ground at Haydock last summer, the son of Kingman made a successful return from 10 months off the track when landing a Pontefract handicap on his recent reappearance.

Thady Gosden said: “It was good to get him off to a good start this season at Pontefract as it can be a difficult track to handle. It was good to get his career back on track and give him some confidence.

“We have always thought plenty of him as he is a half-brother to an Arc winner by Kingman, so he has got the right sort of pedigree and hopefully things will start coming right on track for him.

“He was always a horse we hoped would improve from three to four, but at the same time it was a bit of a frustrating season last year as things didn’t go to plan – hopefully this year they will.

“This is a completely different challenge to the one at Pontefract and though it is a bit of a task, he is doing well at home.”

Hukum is an interesting contender for trainer Owen Burrows and late owner Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Shadwell operation.

Hukum winning the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury
Hukum winning the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Last season’s Geoffrey Freer Stakes winner drops half a mile in trip on his first start since finishing a creditable fifth in the St Leger at Doncaster in September.

Shadwell racing manager, Angus Gold, said: “He’s been in good form at home and was obviously a progressive horse last year. He always looked like he’d be a better four-year-old, so let’s hope that’s correct.

“I know Owen and his team have been very happy with the horse and I would have thought coming back in trip is in his favour, to be honest – I don’t think he’s an out-and-out stayer.

Extra Elusive is the mount of Hollie Doyle
Extra Elusive is the mount of Hollie Doyle (Tim Goode/PA)

“He’s got enough speed to be a mile and a half horse certainly, and there was this question mark over whether he’d stay the Leger trip.

“I don’t think it will be trip that beats him.”

Roger Charlton’s Extra Elusive returns to turf action after finishing well beaten but on dirt in February’s Saudi Cup.

Desert Encounter (Simcock) and Winter Reprise (David Menuisier) are the other hopefuls.