The 15mm of rain which fell at Epsom on Sunday night was “much needed” according to clerk of the course Andrew Cooper, who admitted that he was “getting twitchy” as the historic Surrey Downs, where the Investec Derby will be run on Saturday, were getting somewhat parched following’s Britain’s mini heatwave.
Cooper changed the official going report to “good to soft” but a predominately dry week could bring underfoot conditions back to near-perfect come Friday, when the Investec-sponsored Oaks and Coronation Cup provide the perfect hors d’oeuvres for the greatest Flat race on the planet.
Indeed, it’s as an impressive a starter as that which I witnessed at Lords on Monday when South Africa’s bowlers played skittles with England’s batsmen in the one-day cricket international.
We’ll preview the Derby later in the week, but Aidan O’Brien has the favourite for both the first-day Group 1s and following the runaway success of Winter in Sunday’s Irish 1000 Guineas, the claims of stablemate Rhododendron, who was an arguably unlucky runner-up at Newmarket, could not be stronger in the fillies’ classic.
Ryan Moore admits that if he could ride the race again he would have chosen a different route on Rhododendron on the Rowley Mile, and last year’s Group 1 Fillies Mile heroine is bred to be even better now stepping up in trip.
However, I was really taken by John Gosden’s ENABLE in the Cheshire Oaks – the filly looked to have the perfect blend of speed and stamina – and her nimbleness could mean that she is tailor-made for this helter-skelter course. Horseplay might be an Eachway alternative.
O’Brien won the Coronation Playing Cup four years off the spin at the start of the decade and has a worthy favourite in the globetrotting Highland Reel, last year’s Breeders Cup Turf hero.
Nevertheless, Highland Reel faded away disappointingly on his comeback in the Sheema Classic in Dubai in March, so I’ll take him on with Gosden’s quirky but fast-improving mare JOURNEY, on whom Frankie Dettori rode a canny race from the front to beat O’Brien’s Irish and Yorkshire Oaks winner Seventh Heaven in the big race for fillies at Ascot on Champions Day last year.
O’Brien could not be going to Epsom in better form, having emulated the feat he achieved at Newmarket when his Rowley Mile duo Churchill and Winter completed the classic double in the Irish equivalent on The Curragh.
The “exceptional” Churchill, who had quickened up on the lightning fast ground at HQ, showed he was equally effective in a mud bath when giving O’Brien an 11th Irish 2000 Guineas.
Clocking up his seventh straight win, Churchill will never be as spectacular as Frankel, but he is a professional with a temperament to match his ability.
The Ballydoyle trainer, who made it 37 Irish classic wins when Winter hosed up 24 hours later, said: “Nothing fazes Churchill and he cruised through the race. He’ll stay at a mile for the time being, with the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Sussex at Goodwood on the menu, but there is every chance that we’ll step him up to 10 furlongs (2000m) in the second half of the season.
“It was a wonderful two days with Winter topping up our celebrations 20 years after Desert King set the classic ball rolling for us in the Irish 2000 of 1997.”
Ryan Moore was as impressed with the performance of Winter as he was with Churchill, declaring: “She is a very good filly and I had the race won at half-way,” and O’Brien confirmed that she, too, is bound for Royal Ascot with the Group 1 Coronation Stakes the target, though he stressed that Winter could also later go up in distance, possibly in the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood.
Last Friday evening at Leopardstown, Coolmore’s Ascot Gold Cup hero Order Of St George prepped for Ascot with a facile success in the Listed Saval Beg Stakes, and, though Frankie Dettori was “hugely impressed” with Big Orange’s Sandown victory earlier in the week, I doubt whether Michael Bell’s evergreen globetrotter has the gears to take the staying crown on 22 June.
O’Brien seems to again have all the angles covered this year as at the other end of the spectrum he has superstars such as Caravaggio and Acapulco lined up for the big sprint races at Ascot.
However, Lambourn trainer Clive Cox also has an embarrassment of riches in that department, with Harry Angel enhancing his Group 1 Commonwealth Cup prospects when smashing the 20-year-old Haydock track record for 1200m in the Group 2 Sandy Lane Stakes at Haydock, after which jockey Adam Kirby insisted “he’s a machine, and he could go all the way”.
Cox, who described Harry Angel as “awesome and very exciting”, also had a week-end to remember and produced a second live contender for the King’s Stand Stakes on day one of the Royal meeting in Group 2 Temple Stakes winner Priceless. Cox already has last year’s winner Profitable going for a repeat in that 1000m dash.
The Priceless celebration eased the pain of Chelsea’s FA Cup Final defeat by Arsenal at Wembley for the filly’s owner Alan Spence, who is vice president of the new Premier League champions.
Meanwhile, South African jockey Gavin Lerena, who rode a double at Ascot’s Shergar Cup meeting last year, kick-started his three-month British stint with a win on Zzoro on the famous Rowley Mile at Newmarket.
Lerena, who is based with Charlie Hills in Lambourn, is hoping to get a ride or two at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood during his stay and even perhaps a late call for Epsom this week-end.
Another South African starlet in the headlines last week was former champion apprentice Callan Murray, who has snapped up a contract to ride in Hong Kong until 16 July and rode his first winner when Tony Millard’s Master Viking held on in a driving finish for the sprint handicap at Sha Tin.
“It’s so different out here but I am learning a lot and it is a privilege to be invited, said 20-year-old Murray, who has four Group 1 successes at home on his CV and is following in the footsteps of fellow Springboks Douglas Whyte, Felix Coetzee and Basil and Anton Marcus in carving a niche for himself at Sha Tin and Happy Valley.