With the gates at Longchamp now closed for racing for the next two years whilst the course undergoes a massive redevelopment project, this year’s renewal of the Prix Royal Oak migrates up the road to the Hippodrome de Val d’Or, more commonly known the Saint Cloud racecourse, writes Nigel Howard.
Home of the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, won famously by the wonder mare Trêve at the end of June, the future of the racecourse is ironically under threat of closure as a result of the huge investment in the ‘new’ Longchamp which requires that one Parisian track closes to offset the cost.
Run over 3100 metres (1m7f), this Group 1 contest, known across La Manche as the French St Leger, has seen some classy winners over the years, most notably Yeats in 2008, and the wonderfully versatile Westerner, who lifted this prize in 2003 and 2004. He then prevailed in The Gold Cup at York in 2005 yet also had the speed to finish second in the Arc that year behind Hurricane Run!
An impressive field of thirteen line up for this year’s event, headed by the evergreen CIRRUS DES AIGLES who, at the ripe old age of nine, attempts this distance for the very first time. With Trêve retired, the gelding is possibly the best known thoroughbred still racing having run all over the world capturing Group 1 victories in Dubai, England and of course his native France over an amazing seven- year period. He achieved his latest Group 1 victory at Longchamp in May, taking the Prix Ganay over 1m2f on his favoured soft ground beating Al Kazeem.
Although he has failed to reproduce that form since, his adoring trainer Corine Barande-Barbe was far from disheartened by his most recent effort when finishing fifth of eight behind Free Port Lux in the Prix Dollar (Group2) over an extended 1m1f on the Saturday of Arc weekend. The underfoot conditions were not to his liking and he was shouldering a Group 1 penalty. He has won over 1m5f in the past and with the ground on Sunday likely to suit, this race could present the ‘old boy’ with a great chance to get back to winning ways. The booking of Frankie Dettori is most eye-catching too.
Also going to post, however, are some very talented stayers with the Aga Khan potentially holding the ace in the pack in the form of the three-year-old gelding VAZIRABAD. He also ran on Arc weekend, running out the easy winner of the Prix Chaudenay (1m7f Group 2) against his own age group. PILANSBERG, who again opposes, was four and half lengths back in third. That was his fourth win on the bounce and this son of Manduro looks to be improving and has the advantage of an eight pound weight for age allowance against the older horses. Trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre is reportedly very happy with his charge, his only concern being that very soft ground would not be ideal.
SILJAN´S SAGA together with KICKY BLUE and SAHRAWI represent the girls. The former has the able assistance of in-form jockey, Pierre-Charles Boudot, and his mount has shown that she is in good heart having finished a solid eighth in the Arc on her latest outing. Before that, the daughter of Sagamix put in a really game performance when winning the Grand Prix de Deauville (Group 2, 1m4½f) in the Normandy mud back in August. Assuming her recent exploits in the Arc haven’t left their mark, she has very solid claims, with further rain enhancing her chances.
Soft ground is also the key to German contender, ALEX MY BOY. This beautifully bred son of Dalakhani out of the 2006 English and Irish Oaks winner Alexandrova was last seen at Deauville, running out the comfortable winner of the Group 2 Prix Kergorlay over 1m7f in August. Fellow German contender WALZERTAKT was five lengths back in third that day and although he has since run with credit it is difficult to see him reversing the form with Andreas Wohler’s improving stayer.
Of much more interest is the five-year-old grey, FLY WITH ME. He turns up on the back of a solid win at Longchamp in September in the Group 3 Prix Gladiateur over 1m7½f. Prior to that effort he finished three lengths second to ALEX MY BOY at Longchamp over today’s trip giving the winner four pounds. His trainer, Eric Libaud, reports his charge in fine form and believes the son of Beat Hollow runs better fresh and for that reason skipped a possible run in the Prix Cadran.
Rarely does a Gaelic Group 1 go to post without a representative from the Andre Fabre stable and Sunday’s contest is no exception. The Godolphin owned MANATEE ran a creditable fourth to Trève in the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud back in June, on ground firmer than ideal, but recently finished nearer last than first behind Golden Horn in the Arc. He was not strongly fancied for that race and after a three-month layoff, he was entitled to that run to get back to race fitness. By Monsun, sire of many staying types, he is sure to improve for this step up in trip and is another who will appreciate the anticipated soft ground. He should not be overlooked and is yet another to add to the every-growing ‘short list’.
MILLE ET MILLE attempts to join the likes of Gentoo (2010) and Westerner (2004) in completing the Cadran/Royal Oak double in the same year. His pillar-to-post victory in the Cadran on Arc day came at the expense of three of Sunday’s opponents; KICKY BLUE, second, FUN MAC, third and WALZERTAKT, sixth. Run over 2m4f, MILLE ET MILLE ran out a convincing winner and it was surely the enterprising front running tactics employed by his jockey, Thierry Thulliez, which proved decisive on the day. His team is very bullish about his chances and the horse is obviously in top form but he looks an out and out stayer and this shorter trip is a concern. Of the beaten horses in the Cadran, it is difficult to see them troubling the judge come race day.
With the prospect of soft ground and Frankie booked to do the steering, CIRRUS DES AIGLES seems to have everything in his favour. He would be a hugely popular winner. However, with his generous weight allowance and his ability to quicken, VAZIRABAD looks to be the one to beat. SILJAN´S SAGA might prefer the ground even softer and in the event of rain she would get the nod with ALEX MY BOY close behind.