INTERNATIONAL CLASSIC WEEKEND

It’s been a while since our last meet and greet but this is international classics weekend and so we must break bread together once more.

There are 3 great Classic races on the weekend menu beginning with the U.K. 2000 Guineas at Newmarket tomorrow (Saturday) at 9:05 a.m. Jamaica time (CDT).  This race has been all about Aidan O’Brien’s St. Nicholas Abbey ever since he decimated a strong Racing Post Trophy field last October, defeating Elusive Pimpernel by 3 3/4l.  He has become all the rage now that Elusive Pimpernel’’s reappearance run in April resulted in his slaughtering of a decent Craven Stakes field winning by 4l on a common canter. As usual for Ballydoyle classic contenders, St Nicholas Abbey will go directly to the Guineas without a prep and it’s here that the nagging doubts surface about taking the very skinny 11/8 odds currently available.

Every Aidan O’Brien inmate improves for its seasonal reappearance so that’s not so much the trouble since the likes of Rock of Gibraltar (2002); Footsteps inthesand (2005); and George Washington (2006) all won the Guineas on their reappearances before improving markedly during the season but the problem is that, this year, all the Ballydoyle first time runners have been some distance below their best and not one has won.  So, at 11/8, it’s a tremendous leap of faith to expect St. Nicholas Abbey to be fit and well enough to win a Classic first up.  The second niggle involves the fact that he won the Racing Post Trophy over a mile which is more of a Derby than Guineas pointer over the years.  It’s the 7f Dewhurst Stakes that has been more of a Guineas guide in recent times.  The Racing Post Trophy has been won by subsequent Derby heroes High Chapparal (2001); Motivator (2004); and Authorized (2006) and 2002 winner Brian Boru went on to win the 14f St Leger so there’s a deepening suspicion that St. Nicholas Abbey may well be best as a 3yo at beyond a mile and may well be a better Derby candidate than a 2000 Guineas one.  And finally, as a son of Montjeu who has only ever run on an easy surface, it’s still up in the air how the expected quick underfoot conditions at Newmarket will suit.

In any event, you know me and 11/8 favourites so, with the question marks, we’ll give the favourite a swerve thank you very much.

The Dewhurst has been a far superior guide recently and last September’s renewal has been slammed by all the critics mainly because the first four past the post finished in a heap and could have been covered by a thin blanket.  The hypesters were predisposed to rubbish the Dewhurst as fancied types Awzaam, Canford Cliffs, Arcano and Kingsfort all declined to face the starter.  But, in the end, the race was run in a time 0.32 of a second quicker than the earlier Group 2 Challenge Stakes; most importantly, was run on good to firm ground as will be the 2000 Guineas; and it’s far more likely that all of the top 4 will prove to be high class types than otherwise.  The winner Beethoven had looked exposed beforehand but was fitted with the visor for the first time and showed marked improvement so, once again, the form may well prove better than it first appeared.  Punters’ life is made easier tomorrow as Beethoven is out of the Guineas through injury as is Steinbeck (4th) so we must look at second and third, Fencing Master (another O’Brien inmate) and Xtension.

Fencing Master is a most interesting customer who was only running for the second time having won on debut in a polytrack maiden and he ran green for the entire way off the bridle from the word “go”, gradually getting the idea when switched very wide and staying on determinedly at the end only just run out of it by Beethoven’s turn of foot.  He will be better for the winter’s growth; better over a mile (even better over further) and is a real outsider to note.  However, the same form query that hangs over all from Ballydoyle hangs over him and, reluctantly, he is not the final pick.  The most informative horse in the race is Xtension who is perfectly bred for this race by 1997 Champion 2yo Xaar (4th in the 1998 Guineas) out of the Grand Lodge mare, Great Joy and who looked certain in the Dewhurst to be suited by the step up to a mile.  But the reason that Xtension is so interesting as the best Guineas prospect coming out of the Dewhurst is that he had won 2 of his previous 3 starts including an impressive win in the Group 2 Vintage Stakes at Goodwood from a bad draw.  Just before that, he suffered his only defeat (before the Dewhurst) at Royal Ascot in the Group 2 Coventry Stakes (6f) where he was slammed by all of 6l by Richard Hannon’s CANFORD CLIFFS, described by the two time Guineas winning trainer as “the best horse I have ever trained.”  Pundits are wary of the Coventry winner’s chances as he is suspect at a mile (they say).  He was turned over by Arcano in France in the Group 1 Prix Morny in August (Deauville) at long odds-on and swerved very badly left and was grabbed close home in his reappearance (Newbury; Group 3 Greenham Stakes; 7f) by stable companion Dick Turpin.  Both of these races were on softish ground and, if Richard Hannon is to be believed regarding this horse’s ability, Dick Turpin is no part of this horse who has now had the benefit of the run at Newbury and will be coming to Newmarket tomorrow blazing from all barrels.  The reported plan is to cover him up in midfield (there’s going to be a suicidally fast early pace) and produce him leaving the bushes where his remarkable turn of foot can prove decisive.  His sire Tagula stayed 7f at 3yo and is mostly an influence for sprinting but his dam, Mrs Marsh (by Marju) is very much a stamina mare so I see no reason why this one won’t get the Guineas trip.

At likely double digit odds for me it’s CANFORD CLIFFS (nap) to lead home Elusive Pimpernel and Xtension.

Later on in the afternoon, it’s the 136th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs where the dreadfully unlucky Todd Fletcher was forced to scratch ante post favourite Eskendereya on Monday morning.  He still has a gaggle of entries including the filly Devil May Care (John Velasquez); Mission Impazible (Rajiv Maragh); Discreetly Mine (Jorge Castellano) and Super Saver (Calvin Borel).  Calvin has won 2 of the last 3 Derbies and is drawn low where he loves it but Super Saver, likely to be Fletcher’s most fancied entrant, seems a shade below the class required and his style of running (up with the pace) will make this a gruelling test for him.

The two to concentrate on are LOOKIN AT LUCKY, and ICE BOX drawn one and two respectively and working brilliantly at Churchill Downs.  Both have won Grade 1 races but Ice Box, the winner of the Florida Derby, won a Grade 1 race for 3yos and showed marked improvement with a strong early pace for the first time on last and with regular 2yo partner Jose Lezcano recalled.  There’s little to choose between these two so the value here lies with ICE BOX at double digit odds.  The reverse forecast (exacta box) bet is a must.

Finally, on Sunday morning, the classic weekend closes with the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket.  I have long loved SETA for this race ever since her impressive maiden win at Newmarket last August and I’ve not been put off by her subsequent defeat to Oaks candidate Pollenator in the May Hill as she was clearly still very weak and is one most likely to improve for a winter’s growth.  She has been the subject of all sorts of spring rumours as to her wellbeing but Keiren Fallon had no hesitation in accepting the ride and the stable has been firing in the winners recently.  She is a soup!!  Her biggest danger is Nell Gwyn winner Music Show but only Speciosa in the last 24 years has won both races.

Good Luck!

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