Britain is preparing for a mini heatwave this weekend, with temperatures expected to hover around 30 degrees, but just seven days ago for York’s prestigious May meeting it was reminiscent of Noah’s Ark and torrential rain quickly turned the ground soft on the Knavesmire, leaving the Investec Derby and Oaks trials throwing up more questions than answers.
However, with the world’s greatest Flat race at Epsom now just 10 days away we at least know that Europe’s best three-year-old, CHURCHILL, will not be stepping out of his comfort-zone, with Tipperary’s “best kept secret” finally revealed on Monday as Aidan O’Brien confirmed his 2000 Guineas winner misses the Derby and runs instead in Saturday’s Irish Guineas at The Curragh.
O’Brien, who will also saddle his 1000 Guineas WINTER in Ireland’s first fillies classic of the season on Sunday as well as his seven times Group 1 winner MINDING in the Tattersalls Gold Cup, could be set for another bumper week-end, though the first Saturday in June promises to be an even better one as even without Churchill he plans to possibly run seven in Epsom’s Blue Riband.
Dee Stakes winner Cliffs Of Moher looks to be Coolmore’s number one and has been promoted to Derby favourite, but O’Brien may also run the first three from the Derrinstown Stud Trial at Leopardstown and also the 1-2-3 from the Chester Vase.
John Gosden might be Britain’s best hope of staving off another whitewash from O’Brien’s classic battalion, with Cracksman (Derby) and Enable and Coronet (Oaks), though the York monsoons meant he was unable to give Cracksman his dress-rehearsal in the Dante Stakes last week.
The Newmarket trainer concedes he “got away with it” with his star filly Shutter Speed in the Musidora Stakes but opted on the side of caution when pulling out Cracksman from the traditional Group 2 Epsom trial.
York’s Derby prep went to Permian, who has now won twice since he was beaten by Cracksman at Epsom last month, and, encouraged by this timely form-boost for his colt who runs in the Golden Horn colours of Anthony Oppenheimer, Gosden stressed he had no regrets about withdrawing Cracksman at the 11th hour.
He said: “Our racing calendar is governed by when Easter falls, and this year it was very late which means that all our big races are run a week later.
“However, Epsom likes to stick with the first Saturday in June whenever possible, so this year the Derby comes just 17 days after the Dante, and on the testing ground that they had on the Knavesmire we could have left our classic chance behind had we run.” Gosden had gambled with Shutter Speed 24 hours earlier because though it was hard work for the horses on the rain-softened ground, it was day one so it had not yet become cut-up.
He added: “Shutter Speed hated the ground, but it also confirmed that this trip (2500m) is her absolute maximum. It was her class that got her home, but it makes sense to head to Chantilly.
“All roads lead to the Prix Diane, with our Cheshire Oaks heroine Enabled, going for our Oaks. She is the stronger stayer, and the mile and a half (2400m) there will suit her well, as it will Coronet.”
Godolphin have made an excellent start to the season, and they mopped up the two big races at Newbury last Saturday, highlight being the success of Ribchester in the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes.
Ribchester, who had run a blinder in the Dubai Turf at the Meydan carnival in March, made all the running and powered away in the last 200m to win by 3.75 lengths, with Galileo Gold, last year’s 2000 Guineas winner, flopping badly in fifth.
John Ferguson, chief executive of Godolphin, said: “Ribchester is very exciting and seems to be getting better and better. Richard (Fahey) would love to try him over 10 furlongs (2000m) one day, but I would think he’ll stay over this mile for the time being, with the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Sussex at Goodwood his probable route.”
Ferguson was also all smiles after Hawkbill, last year’s Eclipse winner, had also made all and beaten Royal Ascot winner My Dream Boat easing down in the Group 3 Al Rayyan Stakes.
“Hawkbill has that rare trait in a racehorse in that he can quicken out of soft ground, and he will always be happiest when the mud is flying. We were positive in our tactics because we knew he stayed well, and the weather will determine his programme, though all the top 10 and 12 furlong (2400m) races will be under consideration.”
There have been plenty of other Royal Ascot clues recently, with Aidan O’Brien declaring that Caravaggio, who produced a scintillating comeback in Group 3 company at Naas on Sunday, is “the fastest horse I’ve seen”. O’Brien added: “Caravaggio has so much speed that we opted not to take the Guineas route and stay sprinting. He’ll go for the Commonwealth Cup at the Royal meeting.”
Fellow Irish trainer Jessie Harrington, better known for her jumping exploits, has her classiest Flat team ever, and she looks to have a potential superstar in Alpha Centauri, who booked her ticket for Ascot’s Albany Stakes when annihilating O’Brien’s smart filly Actress in a Listed race at Naas, while Michael Bell’s Main Desire looked very smart in similar company at York and could give Wes Ward’s American flyers something to think about in the Queen Mary.
However, there would be no bigger cheers at Royal Ascot than another success for The Queen, and, following Her Majesty’s victory with Dartmouth in the Group 2 Yorkshire Cup, racing’s biggest wish could yet be granted. Dartmouth’s target there next month is the Hardwicke Stakes.
We also have a cracking card at Sandown tomorrow, with John Gosden’s SO MI DAR, re-routed from soggy York, and expected to make a winning return in the Group 3 Brigadier Gerard Stakes, while Godolphin’s Royal Ascot-bound two-year-old SOUND AND SILENCE is the one they all have to beat in the Listed National Stakes.
Finally, Gosden is just starting to go through the gears with his youngsters – he had a second with his first runner at Newbury last week – and the stable are keen on newcomer SENSORY at Kempton this evening.