Kevin Blake

    Kevin Blake has reflections on the Dewhurst Stakes won by U S Navy Flag, who lead home a 1-2-3-4 for Aidan O’Brien.
  • Monday 16 October 2017
  • Blog

Dewhurst reflections

The Dewhurst promised to be the stage on which Expert Eye was unveiled as the next star of Flat racing, but what transpired was another show of dominance from Aidan O’Brien and the Coolmore team, with them being responsible for the first four home led by U S Navy Flag and Ryan Moore.

With it being US Navy Flag’s 10th start of the season, he has predictably failed to inspire excitement in everyone. Such is the nature of top-level Flat racing, we are conditioned to overstate the significance of defeat. If a Group 1 winner doesn’t have a “sexy” profile, people just don’t seem to get behind them.

This was the case after US Navy Flag’s victories in both the Middle Park Stakes and the Dewhurst Stakes, with a common view being along the lines of “well he can’t be THAT good when he’s been beaten six times this year.”

However, such a view perhaps doesn’t take enough account of how Aidan O’Brien’s juveniles have been faring this year. While he has undoubtedly been bringing his juveniles along more steadily in recent years, this year has seen a particular emphasis on that trend.

U S Navy Flag may well be an extreme example of this trend given that it took him until his fifth start to win and his eighth start to put up a high-class effort, but this shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat him with. He has showed admirable toughness to progress as the season has gone on, culminating in an excellent performance on Saturday that marks him down as one of the best juveniles around.

While he might not jump out as an obvious candidate to find improvement as a three-year-old given he has done so much as a juvenile and isn’t blessed with a huge amount of physical scope, the same was said about his full-sister Roly Poly last year, yet that hasn’t held her back from advancing her form to win three Group 1 races over a mile this season.

As much as anything, the Dewhurst once again hammered home the greatness of Aidan O’Brien. As impressive as his handling of the winner has been, that he saddled a 1-2-3-4 in one of the most prestigious two-year-old races in the world having gone into the race without a really high-profile candidate was the icing on the cake.

U S Navy Flag on route to his Dewhurst success

We’ve all heard the old “yeah but he gets all the best horses to train” line of response in this discussion, but for me, there is no one approaching him past or present in terms of the consistency with which he maximises the raw material he is provided with.

As highlighted by U S Navy Flag, he has a remarkable talent for knowing when to push and when to pull with each of his horses. He seems to know which ones will thrive for heavy campaigning and which ones won’t, very seldom getting it wrong.

When he campaigns a juvenile in the aggressive manner that U S Navy Flag has, they generally progress with racing rather than taper off. The same applies to his training of fillies, a prime example of this being his campaigning of Music Box this year.

Reportedly a buzzy filly that isn’t easy to train, she didn’t debut until a three-year-old in late-March this year. He has run her an almost unthinkable 16 times since then, yet she produced a career-best effort to win a Group 3 on her latest start last month.

There is simply no other trainer that I am aware that achieves such feats with the regularity that O’Brien does. Indeed, perhaps it is the consistency with which he does it that makes it seem unremarkable to outside observers, but you’ll have to travel a long way to find someone with experience at the coal face of training horses that will downplay what he does.

If one doesn’t already realise it, the fullness of time will reveal that we are witnessing the prime of the career of what will be eventually universally heralded as the greatest racehorse trainer to ever live.

Don’t give up on Expert Eye

Of course, the big disappointment of the Dewhurst was the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Expert Eye. The son of Acclamation had created a sensational impression when absolutely bolting up in the Vintage Stakes at Goodwood in August and while he had since missed the National Stakes due to a minor setback, the market kept the faith in him by sending him off the 4/7 favourite on Saturday.

Unfortunately for his supporters, it was soon clear that things were not going to plan. While he had settled quite well after being dropped in at Goodwood, Atzeni’s efforts to drop him in here failed, as Expert Eye got a real run on him out of the gates and quickly pulled his way into a prominent position with no cover.

From there, he essentially ran his race upside down, doing far too much in the first half of the race and having no more to offer from quite a long way out. Following the race, he was found to be lame on his off-hind leg. It was an exceptionally disappointing effort given the promise of what he had done at Goodwood, but it might offer an insight into where his long-term future lies.

Being by a pure sprinter in Acclamation and having shown such tremendous pace when winning at Goodwood, perhaps it may prove to be the case that Expert Eye will be best at six furlongs? While Sir Michael Stoute hasn’t trained too many top-class sprinters in recent years, he did train the likes of Green Desert, Marwell, Blue Cashmere and Ajdal to win Group 1 sprints in the 1970s and 80s.

Indeed, Ajdal was a very interesting case being a Dewhurst winner that was beaten in the 2000 Guineas, the Irish 2000 Guineas and the Derby prior to winning the July Cup, Nunthorpe and Haydock Sprint Cup later in his three-year-old season.

Three-year-old sprinters now have a far more attractive racing programme than they did back in those days, with there being a full series of races culminating in the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot, so if Expert Eye’s connections elect to send him down that route, he will be well catered for.

Regardless of which route they send him down, it would be ill-advised to write off Expert Eye based on this readily-excusable effort. He remains a top-class prospect.

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