Eye On Europe
The curtain came down on the British Flat season at Doncaster on Saturday and while 2018 will probably be best remembered as a campaign which started slowly and required some vigorous pushing-along at the half-way stage, there can be little doubt the year ended with a real flourish and gave more than enough optimism for a much more explosive start to proceedings in 2019.
Such optimism primarily stems from one of the most exciting crops of juvenile colts in recent times, spearheaded by the unbeaten Dewhurst Stakes (Gr 1, 7f) winner Too Darn Hot (Dubawi), while the supporting cast includes National Stakes (Gr 1, 7f) scorer Quorto (Dubawi), Middle Park Stakes (Gr 1, 6f) winner Ten Sovereigns (No Nay Never) and imperious Coventry Stakes (Gr 2, 6f) victor Calyx (Kingman), who has been side-lined through injury since triumphing at Royal Ascot in June. With peak Racing Post Ratings of 126, 122, 121 and 116 respectively, these four colts have the world at their feet in what promises to be a vintage year for the Classic generation next summer.
The cast of older horses has perhaps been headlined best by Roaring Lion (Kitten’s Joy), who retires to stand at owner Sheikh Fahad Al Thani’s Tweenhills Stud as the winner of four Group 1 races, including the Juddmonte International Stakes (Gr 1, 1m2f) at York and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot (Gr 1, 1m), a feat which seemed most unlikely when he was well-held in the Craven Stakes (Gr 3, 1m) on his seasonal reappearance at Newmarket.
The winner on that occasion was subsequent Derby (Gr 1, 1m4f) hero Masar (New Approach), who reportedly stays in training as a four-year-old having sustained an injury following his exploits at Epsom, while the magnificent Alpha Centauri (Mastercraftsman) captured the imagination of this columnist best of all as a four-time top-flight winner who spat out her own sex before brushing aside the boys in the Prix Jacques le Marois (Gr 1, 1600m) at Deauville in August.
Trained by the irrepressible Jessica Harrington, who undoubtedly holds the mantle of being the best dual-purpose license holder in Europe, Alpha Centauri was masculine in frame but feminine in grace and she sets a very high bar when it comes to representing the archetypal physical specimen for the ultimate racing filly.
A better understanding of handicapping and ratings is essential
In truth, the season essentially draws to a close on British Champions Day at Ascot and the interim three-week gap between the celebratory nature of proceedings on October 20 and the rather low-key official closure on November 10 is similar to an awkward gymnastics routine in an Olympic Games closing ceremony at a time whereby everyone is knackered and just wants to go home.
However, the dying embers of the campaign-proper were neatly symbolic in capturing the sea-tide of the season as a whole, with John Gosden saddling the highly-progressive Royal Line (Dubawi) to win the November Handicap (1m4f) in the colours of Sheikha Al Jalila, daughter of Sheikh Mohammed.
This has been a year of domination for Gosden, who was crowned Champion Trainer for the third time in his career having amassed over £8,000,000 in prize money in Britain alone, notwithstanding a hugely-successful international campaign fronted by dual Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Gr 1, 2400m) winner Enable (Nathaniel), who became the first horse to supplement her success in Paris with victory at the Breeders’ Cup meeting when bravely denying Magical (Galileo) in a thrilling renewal of the Breeders’ Cup Turf (Gr 1, 1m4f).
However, despite such a fruitful autumn – one that fired Enable to the top of the all-time list of British-trained racehorses by prize-money earned – there was much consternation over her position within the latest publication of the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, at least on social media and on the barstools of various watering holes across this part of the world.
A mark of 125 left Enable lying ninth in the table, 5lb below stable companion Cracksman (Frankel), who retained his crown in the Champion Stakes (Gr 1, 1m2f) with an eased-down, six-length rout in soft ground, and an older mare named Winx (Street Cry), who readers may or may not be familiar with.
The stirring of debate over the assessment of racehorse form is no bad thing – for all we do not need another Chapman-gate episode anytime soon – but what really strikes home in the midst of such discussions is how ill-informed so much of the content is and how, at least in Britain, a basic understanding of the principles of handicapping is quite severely lacking amongst many observers who would otherwise be clued-up enthusiasts of the sport as a whole.
Be it in broadcasting or in print, such a deficiency needs to be addressed with a matter of urgency and while a recent review of our handicapping produces, led by journalist Lydia Hislop, recommended better communication from a number of key players, it will require a concerted effort from the major media outlets to ensure we do more to explain this crucial element of the sport to a far broader audience than is currently the case.
Bin Suroor resurgent as Cumani bows out
The success of Royal Line was also a further reminder of just how potent Dubawi (Dubai Millennium) has become as a truly world-class sire and the gap between himself and global phenomenon Galileo (Sadler’s Wells) appears to be closing.
In the case of 2018, the same can be said of the differential in fortunes between the Godolphin and Coolmore powerhouses, with the former proving resurgent across all jurisdictions while the latter experienced a quieter campaign by their exceptionally-high standards, for all a midsummer virus in Ballydoyle proved particularly irksome to trainer Aidan O’Brien.
Indeed, 2018 has proven to be an annus mirabilis for trainer Charlie Appleby, who capped his meteoric rise through the Godolphin ranks by achieving both of his long-held ambitions within the space of five months, the Derby success of Masar being supplemented by the magnificent last-to-first heroics of Cross Counter (Teofilo) in the Melbourne Cup (Gr 1, 3200m) last week.
By keeping the race within the grasp of the Classic generation, Cross Counter once again reignited the debate over the merits of the weight-for-age scale in its current guise – a topic of repeated discussion in relation to races run over staying trips in Europe – while fellow Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor resurfaced into the limelight with a number of excellent training performances, fronted by the three top-flight victories of the hardy Best Solution (Kodiac), who received a remarkable ride by Pat Cosgrave when winning the Caulfield Cup (Gr 1, 2400m) in October.
In the shape of Prix Jean-Luc Lagadere (Gr 1, 1600m) winner Royal Marine (Raven’s Pass), bin Suroor looks to have another gem to go to war with for next season, although there will be no such winter musings for the unmistakable figure of Luca Cumani, who is set to retire at the end of November having amassed 50 Group 1 winners across 11 countries in an irrepressible career spanning 43 seasons.
Cumani famously came within a nose of breaking the British-trained hoodoo on the Melbourne Cup when Bauer (Halling) was agonisingly denied in 2008, twelve months on from Purple Moon (Galileo) occupying the same runner-up spot behind Efficient (Zabeel), and he will be leave a major void within the ranks of the Newmarket training community when he bows out in a fortnight’s time.
At the contrasting stage of his career is Champion Apprentice Jason Watson, who produced a ride belying his relative inexperience when guiding the Cumani-trained God Given (Nathaniel) to success in the Premio Lydia Tesio (Gr 1, 2000m) at Rome earlier in November, providing the trainer with the most fitting of retirement gifts in the shape of the final Group 1 contest of the European season.
It is highly unlikely that Watson is a familiar name to racing fans in the southern hemisphere, although it is highly likely that will change sooner rather than later. He is an exceptional prospect for the future.
Henderson’s jumps mare could have Flemington in her sights
Finally, National Hunt racing is very much the primary focus in Britain for the next four months but the all-encompassing lure of the Melbourne Cup continues to weave its way into the psyche of those who otherwise would be predisposed to jump racing.
Indeed, Champion National Hunt Trainer Nicky Henderson could be represented at Flemington next year if the post-race thoughts of owner Charlie Parker are to be interpreted literally as he nominated an audacious tilt at the 2019 Spring Carnival for progressive mare Verdana Blue (Getaway), who won the Elite Hurdle (Gr 2, 2m) at Wincanton on Saturday having opened her account on the Flat at Chelmsford in September.
Irish Champion Trainer Willie Mullins has boldly led the crowd in this sphere, coming within half a length of glory when Max Dynamite (Great Journey) finished runner-up in the 2015 renewal of the great race, and it would be a marvellous sight if the usually tweed-clad Henderson swapped his flat cap for a baseball cap and joined the pre-race parade for 2019.
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