Spring carnival puzzle begins to take shape
Is Withhold a worthy favourite?
In short, no. Roger Charlton’s five-year-old was hugely impressive when winning the Northumberland Plate (2m) in June, but he was gifted an easy lead on an artificial surface at Newcastle and he will face a very different test tackling stakes company for the first time at Flemington. Although his brace of wide-margin wins in heritage handicaps suggest he has the necessary toolkit to make a successful transition to racing in a higher grade, he still needs to prove that on the track, while his racecourse demeanour suggests he might not be the most straightforward customer either. In perhaps the strongest-ever renewal of the Melbourne Cup, Withhold (Champs Elysees) has enough questions marks by his name to be considered a false market leader.
Can former fires be re-lit?
A number of familiar names to European racing fans appeared next to local trainers when the entries were published and they include Dal Harraild (Champs Elysees), who was a high-class stayer for William Haggas when trained in Britain but has since transferred to the care of Ciaron Maher and David Eustace. A winner of the Grand Cup Stakes (Listed, 1m6f) at York last season, the five-year-old has not been quite at his best this term, finishing last behind Hamada (Cape Cross) in the Geoffrey Freer Stakes (Gr 3, 1m5.5f) at Newbury in August, but he was at one stage touted as a Melbourne Cup prospect by Haggas and he certainly possesses enough ability to be considered a live contender if his new training duo can recapture the old enthusiasm.
Can the smaller training outfits strike a blow?
As would be expected, the major training powerhouses are well represented in the entry list, with Aidan O’Brien responsible for twelve additions and Godolphin a cumulative ten. However, a number of lesser-known operators have thrown their hats into the ring, with Iain Jardine once again priming Nakeeta (Sixties Icon) for the race following his fine run in fifth last year. Also included amongst the entries are six-year-old Sir Chauvelin (Authorized), who is trained by Scottish stalwart Jim Goldie, and Prince Of Arran (Shirocco), who is under the care of emerging Newmarket trainer Charlie Fellowes. The five-year-old enjoyed a productive spring in Dubai prior to finishing runner-up to Withhold in the Northumberland Plate and while he would have something to find from a form perspective, he warrants respect for a trainer who is quickly making a name for himself in Britain.
What are the implications if Europe dominate again?
Five of the first six home last year where trained in Europe, while European representatives occupy five of the first six berths in the ante-post market this time around. If overseas raiders once again dominate one of Australia’s most significant sporting and cultural institutions, can we expect a change in focus twelve months down the line, with perhaps more stringent ballot criteria for those arriving outside of Australia and a specific number of slots saved for domestic starters? Although a British-trained runner has yet to plunder the famous prize, the gradual erosion of Australian supremacy on the Melbourne Cup will surely ask questions of the regulatory bodies as to whether an open-door policy for foreign challengers is as desirable now as it might once have been.
Duretto puts himself in Melbourne Cup picture
On a relatively quiet week of stakes action in Britain, Melbourne Cup entry Duretto (Manduro) enhanced his fine course record at Chester with a smooth success in the Chester Stakes (Listed, 1m6.5f) on Saturday and his connections reported an Australian spring campaign to be at the forefront of their planning in the post-race debrief.
Trained by Andrew Balding, the six-year-old travelled kindly racing off a sedate early tempo and he picked up well when asked the question by jockey David Probert, reeling in long-time leader Hochfeld (Cape Cross) inside the final furlong to win by a comfortable neck. The exposed Top Tug (Halling), a seven-year-old with an official rating of 103, finished a length and a quarter adrift in third, which holds this form down to a degree, and Duretto did not need to replicate his handicap mark of 114 to land the spoils here. While his lofty official rating will assist with his chances of lining up in the Flemington showpiece, he does not appeal as the sort who will be as attractively handicapped as some and he reportedly heads to the Caulfield Cup (Gr 1, 2400m) first, which will surely prove a test on the sharp side given his overall balance of form.
The Ralph Beckett-trained Here And Now (Dansili), who was mooted as a contender for next year’s Melbourne Cup following a wide-margin success in handicap company (2m) at York’s Ebor Meeting, finished fourth behind Duretto, running creditably on his first outing in stakes company and ultimately shaping like he will be well suited by the prospect of a stronger gallop when stepped back up in trip. Although he holds a Flemington entry this year, Here And Now is virtually guaranteed to miss out on a place in the final line-up and he does not look quite ready from a mental perspective for such an arduous test just yet.
Solution puts his best foot forward in Germany
Duretto had previously finished third, beaten three quarters of a length, behind Best Solution (Kodiac) in the Princess of Wales’s Stakes at Newmarket’s July Meeting and the Saeed bin Suroor-trained winner has thrived since, notching his second consecutive top-tier success in the Grosser Preis von Baden (Gr 1, 1m4f) at Baden-Baden on Sunday.
While his victory in last month’s Grosser Preis von Berlin (Gr 1, 1m4f) at Hoppergarten did not require an improvement on his Newmarket form, proving a substandard renewal for the grade, his latest effort was undoubtedly a career-best performance, seeing off the attentions of Jockey Club Stakes (Gr 2, 1m4f) winner Defoe (Dalakhani) by a neck having challenged down the centre of the course under Pat Cosgrave.
The four-year-old was awarded a Racing Post Rating of 117 for the success and he heads to the Caulfield Cup in peak form having won all three of his European starts since returning from Dubai in the spring.
Ten Sovereigns an exciting prospect for Coolmore shuttler No Nay Never
Finally, two of the most exciting juvenile prospects to have graced the racecourse this season lined up within ten minutes of each other on Saturday and neither disappointed on their first start in Pattern company, with Ten Sovereigns (No Nay Never) landing the Round Tower Stakes (G 3, 6f) at the Curragh shortly before Too Darn Hot (Dubawi) strode clear in the Solario Stakes (Gr 3, 7f) at Sandown.
While neither are likely to meet this season, both look destined to etch their mark at Group 1 level before the campaign draws to a close – RPRs of 113 and 118 awarded respectively are exalted for juvenile colts making just their second career starts – and a potential match-up in next season’s 2,000 Guineas (Gr 1, 1m) is already a tantalising proposition. Furthermore, the success of Ten Sovereigns was another boost to an already exemplary first season for Coolmore shuttler No Nay Never (Scat Daddy), who is quickly announcing himself as an obvious heir to his late sire, with this his fourth individual stakes winner from his first crop.