Dyed in the wool racing folk have always sworn blind that the Guineas is the best trial for the Derby and Oaks, but times are changing. Colts and fillies bred to stay a mile-and-a-half would regularly turn up at Newmarket in the first weekend of May to use the Guineas as a stepping stone to Epsom, but it’s a trend on the wane.
Recent winners of the first Classic like Kameko and Magna Grecia were given a chance at Epsom but neither were suited to the longer trip and were unable to replicate the level of their Newmarket performance.
The number of horses bred to stay a mile-and-a-half or further is diminishing year on year and, if recent trends are any guide, then it is unlikely that we will be hearing much Triple Crown talk in the next few years.
So, what about the 2021 crop? Let us start with the colts. Poetic Flare has the heart of a lion and will surely stay 10 furlongs under the right circumstances, although he will need to settle better if he is to do so, but I would be amazed if he was ever sighted over a mile-and-a-half given what happened to his sire Dawn Approach in the 2013 Derby. Instead, it looks as though the wily Jim Bolger is going to rely on Mac Swiney, who is by a Derby winner, to do the business for him at Epsom.
Runner-up Master Of The Seas and Lucky Vega ran huge races but neither are bred to get much further than a mile, as is the case with the likes of Naval Crown and Chindit, who could be a big runner in a race like the St James’s Palace Stakes. Once again, he didn’t look at home on the undulations of Newmarket and Richard Hannon’s colt could easily do better again back on a more conventional course.
Seventh-placed Van Gogh couldn’t land a blow from off the pace in the Guineas but he did keep on under tender handling and is bred to flourish over further this year. He wouldn’t be an obvious Derby winner, having been beaten six times from eight runs already, but he was a Group 1 winner as a two-year-old and he’ll stay the trip so he’s got a fair bit going for him compared to his Guineas rivals.
Van Gogh is a big horse that is probably still developing physically so I expect him to progress further this season, especially as he goes up in trip, and he would have to be a Derby player if getting his favoured easy conditions, although connections look sure to have better fancied runners come the day.
Mother Earth has to be one of the most exposed 1,000 Guineas winners we’ve ever seen having had eight starts as a juvenile – seven of which ended in defeat. She clearly gets a mile well and there are one or two signs in her pedigree that she could get a mile-and-a-half but her overall profile suggests a mile/10 furlongs is likely to be her optimum.
That’s also the case for Saffron Beach, who stuck to her task well on the Rowley Mile – a track on which she is developing a fine record. She stays the mile well which may tempt connections into having a pop at the Oaks - they will only get one shot at the race after all, but her pedigree screams miler and races like the Irish Guineas and Coronation Stakes appear much more suitable mid-term targets at this stage.
The Oaks filly from this race has to be Santa Barbara, despite the fact that she couldn’t justify the hype on Sunday and didn’t look at all happy on the undulations of Newmarket.
It was always going to be a huge ask to go from a maiden win last autumn to winning a Classic on her next start, even in a weak renewal, and if it wasn’t for her market position you would have to say that she ran a big race for one so inexperienced.
Aidan O’Brien’s comments afterwards suggested that the Guineas was always going to be part of Santa Barbara’s learning curve and we are likely to see a much more streetwise version at Epsom, although her inability to handle Newmarket doesn’t bode particularly well for what awaits her there.
She will improve for that Newmarket run but will she have the balance and poise to handle Epsom and realise her potential? Only time will tell.
I can’t have been the only one to have found the utter dominance of Willie Mullins at Punchestown a little depressing?
Mullins, crowned champion trainer for a 15th time, saddled a record-breaking 19 winners across the five days – almost HALF of the 40 races staged through the week.
Chacun Pour Soi’s scintillating performance in the William Hill Champion Chase was an undoubted highlight but the Gold Cup got away (for once) despite the Closutton team being responsible for four of the six runners.
Given the Irish dominance at Cheltenham, it is probably understandable that British runners were few and far between at Punchestown but Paul Nicholls knows exactly the type of horse he needs to be successful there and he struck gold with Clan Des Obeaux and Bob And Co, the only two horses to travel over the Irish Sea from his Ditcheat base.
An on-song Clan Des Obeaux is just brilliant under the right set of circumstances but at Punchestown he was the beneficiary of a superbly-executed ride from Sam Twiston-Davies, who judged when to lift the tempo and when to drop it to a nicety.
However, the equine performance of the week surely came in the Irish Champion Hurdle where Honeysuckle extended her winning run to twelve.
Ratings suggest she probably ran to a similar level to that of her Cheltenham Champion Hurdle win, but to my eye this was an even better performance.
The way Honeysuckle sauntered clear from the second last as if she had just joined in was simply breathtaking and although she looked briefly vulnerable approaching the last, there was clearly still plenty left in the tank and she cleared away again on the run-in.
There has to be a good chance that she is still improving, which is a scary prospect for her rivals in the two-mile division, although her connections are still to confirm whether they will stick to hurdles or take the plunge and go chasing with her.
Either way, she is fast becoming a horse of a lifetime and her dominance shows no sign of waning.