Steve Moran

World’s best Equinox likely to stay in Japan

For all of the highlights of the five days of Royal Ascot week, they were always likely to be upstaged in a couple of minutes on Sunday when Equinox cemented his rating as the world’s best horse with victory in the Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin.

The four-year-old, by Kitasan Black, was appearing for the first time since March when he demolished a quality line-up in the Dubai Sheema Classic.

It was that victory, in record time, which saw his rating then justifiably skyrocket and it’s a form reference which is now further enhanced following Sheema fourth-placed Mostahdaf’s commanding Prince of Wales’s Stakes win – over the best middle-distance horses in Europe – at Royal Ascot. A performance which earned the highest Racing Post Rating of the week.

Shahryar, fifth in Dubai, had won the 2022 Sheema Classic with Ascot’s Hardwicke Stakes winner Pyledriver in fourth. Add in the likes of Westover, who was second in this year’s Sheema Classic, and the Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Rebel’s Romance and the Hong Kong Vase winner Win Marilyn and it was a race of great depth.

On Sunday he did what he had to do – win, in a race which is notorious for surprise results; even if it wasn’t in the most spectacular fashion in terms of margin. He circled the field, coming widest of all after settling second last and scored without desperate urging from jockey Christophe Lemaire and despite making the home turn very awkwardly. 

The runner-up Through Seven Seas was the only horse to settle behind Equinox and rallied late after being momentarily denied clear running early in the straight. She advanced from a modest Group 3 win, which may have you question the form, but more likely it speaks to the incredible depth among the top level horses in Japan. Third placed Justin Palace had decisively won the Grade`1 Tenno Sho (Spring). Japan Cup winner Vela Azul was well astern.

Equinox’s future appears to be set for autumn targets at home with the Japan Cup the priority.

Japanese journalist Naohiro Goda tells me connections have committed to staying in Japan and points out that Equinox, via his Sheema Classic win, is eligible for a US$2 million (approx. AU$2,978,040) bonus if he wins the Japan Cup. He is then expected to go to stud early next year.

The Takarazuka Kinen race has a ‘win and you’re in’ invitation to the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley (Lys Gracieux completed the double in 2019) and to the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita in November but they are all but ruled out. He has not been nominated for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. 

Goda says this year’s edition of the Takarazuka Kinen was strong.

“I believe the field of Takarazuka Kinen this year had great depth. Seven Seas holds an entry for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and her connections had strong confidence with her given her very good training preparation for the Takarazuka Kinen,” he said.   

Australians disappoint at Ascot

It may be that Coolangatta and Cannonball simply failed to run to their best on a sodden surface in the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot and any suggestion that Coolangatta wasn’t good enough is simply a nonsense given she was a winner of the Lightning Stakes (the profile of all bar one of our previous Royal Ascot sprint winners). 

Perhaps she had not acclimatised as well as hoped. Four Australian-trained winners of the King’s Stand – in eight years from 2003 – probably fooled us into the notion that you simply had to turn up, but the reality of horses coping with international travel is very different.

We’ve had seven Royal Ascot sprint winners. Another 39 starters have failed to win. 

If there is one possible lesson from this year it may be that it is too great a task for a southern hemisphere three-year-old, especially a filly. 

Again, we were possibly fooled when the three-year-old Choisir blazed this trail, winning both the King’s Stand and the Golden Jubilee in 2003, but he was a powerhouse and extraordinarily seasoned for a horse of that age.

It’s hard to believe now that the King’s Stand Stakes was his 21st start and he’d been Group 1 placed, several times, at 1400 metres and 1600 metres. 

Our other winners were well seasoned horses. Scenic Blast and Black Caviar were five-year-olds, Miss Andretti a six-year-old, while Takeover Target and Nature Strip were seven.

True, Brazen Beau and Star Witness ran very well as three-year-olds; but didn’t win. Starspangledbanner and Merchant Navy did win, at three, but enjoyed a full training preparation with Aidan O’Brien, rather than arriving on the “eve’ of the race. 

Artorius and The Astrologist performed soundly to finish fourth and fifth in the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes. I’d argue The Astrologist ran to his level while Artorius was arguably similar, although perhaps a length (or so) below his very best. 

The margin was too great to suggest Artorius would have won with different tactics employed but I suspect he’d have been closer, and certainly third placed, had James McDonald eased right – rather than left – at the start and tracked alongside the winner and runner-up. 

Irish dominate the two-year-old races

Irish-trained horses won four of the six two-year-old races during Royal Ascot week – a remarkably good, and almost certainly unprecedented, performance especially as only one of the quartet was prepared by Aidan O’Brien who claimed the Coventry Stakes with River Tiber. 

His son Donnacha O’Brien won the Albany Stakes with Porta Fortuna; Gavin Cromwell won the Chesham Stakes with Snellen and Adrian Murray the Norfolk Stakes with 150-1 chance (488-1 on Betfair) Valiant Force. It was a second Royal Ascot win from as many runners for Cromwell whose Quick Suzy won the Queen Mary in 2021.

With American trainer George Weaver landing the Queen Mary Stakes with Crimson Advocate it was only Michael Appleby, with Big Evs in the Windsor Castle Stakes, who was able to claim a home town win. 

Irish-trained two-year-olds Pearls And Rubies, Bucanero Fuerte, Johannes Brahms and Matrika were also placed while Givemethebeatboys, His Majesty and Alabama also ran well – with the latter two on the wrong side of the track in their respective races. 

Thus there’ll be no shortage of examinable and appealing formlines when assessing the Group 2 Railway Stakes and Group 2 Airlie Stud Stakes, for two-year-olds, over this coming weekend’s Irish Derby meeting.

Ascot runners River Tiber, His Majesty, Alabama and Johannes Brahms are among O’Brien senior’s nominations for the Railway which he’s won 13 times – one shy of Vincent O’Brien’s record. He’s won the Airlie Stud Stakes on seven occasions. He last won the Railway with Van Beethoven who’d run fourth on the wrong side of the track in the Windsor Castle.

The primary focus of the Curragh weekend will, of course, be the Irish Derby in which O’Brien’s Auguste Rodin will be a short-priced favourite to become the 19th horse to complete the Epsom and Irish Classic double and the first since Harzand in 2016. 

The (Epsom) Derby form was certainly franked during Royal Ascot with the wins of King Of Steel and Waipiro. O’Brien has won the Irish Derby 14 times. 

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