Future Champions Festival
The weekend just gone is one of my favourites of the flat season; Future Champions Festival at Newmarket. The two-day meet at HQ, as its name suggests, puts emphasis on two-year-olds and finding next season’s stars.
With the Group 1 Fillies Mile (8f) and Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes (7f) going to post; these were two races that would have a significant bearing on the 2021 Classics. The former went the way of the Joseph 0’Brein-trained Pretty Gorgeous; the latter, to Aidan O’Brien and St Mark's Basilica.
O’Brien getting to grips with Ballydoyle two-year-olds
By his own admission, Aidan O’Brien feels he hasn’t trained his juveniles as well as he could have this season. This, no doubt, due to Covid-19 forcing all handlers to adapt in a truncated year, a year like no other. Some have done well, some haven’t. Some horses have coped, some haven’t, but, few trainers are under the scrutiny O’Brien receives, not least from himself.
The Master of Ballydoyle is on record as saying, mid-season, he had to back off his two-year-olds in a bid to help them come right; the team’s rookies having not adjusted to his early campaign programme, a programme that was not the norm, in a far from normal year.
I can’t help but feel in last Saturday’s Dewhurst, we saw exactly what O’Brien had been candidly telling us months ago, as the trainer sent out a one-two in Europe’s premier juvenile contest. Come the line at Newmarket, it was the well-backed St Mark's Basilica (10/1) beating stablemate – and also nibbled at in the market – Wembley (15/2) by ¾ of a length.
It goes some way to saying how poor most of the Ballydoyle juveniles have performed this season – in the realms of their usual high standards – looking at the starting prices of the above pair, odds that were much bigger in the run-up to the race.
For context, over the last decade, including Saturday, Ballydoyle have won five Dewhursts at SPs of 10/11f (War Command, 2013), 4/6f (Air Force Blue, 2015), 8/11f (Churchill, 2016) and 5/1 (US Navy Flag, 2017).
In a normal year, the likes of St Mark’s Basilica and Wembley would maybe have started much shorter in the betting. Possibly. This hasn’t been a normal year however, and as far back as only mid-September – just a month ago – pre-Vincent O'Brien National Stakes, I couldn’t have this pair on my mind in finishing first and second in Europe’s top juvenile race or, potentially being a Champion Juvenile. But that is the genius of Aidan O’Brien.
From where I’m standing, it looks like O’Brien’s patience with his juveniles has finally paid off; at least concerning these two colts. Unable to turn the screw in the middle of the season, the hard work needed to get these horses to Group 1 level down the line couldn’t be done.
Only in the last 4-6 weeks, it appears O’Brien has been able to push the Dewhurst one-two at home, given their progress has come in that same time period.
The recent on-track experience gained by the two colts would also have played a significant part in their development, of course, but the ratings trajectory of St Mark’s Basilica and Wembley certainly points to the last four weeks – likely a bit longer – as being a window where both have taken giant steps forward.
Of course, I know we are dealing with young horses who are likely improving anyway, horses with top-class pedigrees, in the care of a top-class trainer. All the above likely rings truer more so with Wembley than St Mark’s Basilica, but I can’t help but feel O’Brien’s self-reflection in “getting it wrong” half-way through this season, has finally allowed these horses to come right, at the right time.
Maybe I am overthinking it all, but either way, O’Brien finally has two colts who can now be spoken about in the same breath as early season juvenile star, Battleground, who, at this time, in truth, needs to improve to get passed this pair – he is no longer has top 2yo bragging rights.
Not only did St Mark’s Basilica and Wembley finish one-two in the Dewhurst, but they dominated the race at the line from impressive National Stakes winner, Thunder Moon, 1¾ lengths back in third; the same Thunder Moon who comfortably had their measure at the Curragh around four weeks earlier, albeit on better ground.
I had the first two running to 117, with Wembley getting an upgrade given he came from an awful long way back having raced further away from the rail. This equals what Pinatubo did in last season’s Dewhurst; betters Too Darn Hot’s 115 and is Ballydoyle’s second best Dewhurst winner this decade behind the brilliant Air Force Blue. I suspect Timeform - and others - will disagree with some of the above, mind!
In terms of form, the time of the Dewhurst would worry you a touch, especially when compared to an earlier nursery run on the card over the same course and distance won by a 73-rated juvenile, but the Ballydoyle pair beat the right horse in Thunder Moon and beat him well.
The presence of the officially 104-rated Devilwala in fourth (beaten 2¾ lengths) is also a touch of a concern, but he did race against the rail – which is never a bad place to be at Newmarket - with a bit of a reported tailwind carrying him.
While there are elements of the Dewhurst that would concern you, overall, I am willing to stand up for this form, especially where the front three are concerned.
Mentally, St Mark's Basilica looks in the zone now, and given the season Aidan O’Brien has had with his 2yos – and this horse’s top-class pedigree – who says there isn’t more to come, especially with how green he still looked in the National Stakes when third?
This son of the brilliant sire Siyouni, who is a half-brother to 2019 Guineas winner Magna Grecia, has looked incredibly backward at the stalls this season; having a bad habit of being slow away and slow into stride, but on Saturday, under Frankie Dettori, it all clicked better, and who knows where he will now plateau at.
Wembley is another horse who, mentally, has been a slow learner at the starting gates this year, and while he jumped better on Saturday, he was seemingly either slow to get going or was reined back by Ryan Moore. It was hard to see via TV pictures. Either way, he was given a mountain to climb while racing wide from a poor draw and under the circumstances, has run a tremendous race.
As a son of Galileo who is bred to get much further and will improve with time, when Aidan O’Brien can unlock him fully from a mental perspective, the sky may be the limit for this colt next season. Three runs back he didn’t even look a Listed-class horse on the track and here, he is finishing second – an unlucky second – in a Dewhurst.
Although readily held and losing his unbeaten record, Thunder Moon has run a brilliant race, getting into contention easily, going through his race like a class horse, from a poor draw. He will be better on a quicker surface and over a mile - although he isn’t short of pace - given how he moves and looking at his pedigree, respectively.
There were plenty of disappointments in behind who you can forgive. The gambled on Cadillac found the ground too soft. A shame for him as he looks a real 2yo.
Albasheer actually ran quite well from a poor draw to be sixth on ground much too soft for him, while his Champagne Stakes conqueror, Chindit, was another who likely hated underfoot conditions. It’s too early to be giving up on both.
With the 2000 Guineas in mind, while we learned plenty from last week's Dewhurst, we are no closer to finding a standout juvenile colt. The likes of Battleground (10/1), St Mark's Basilica (10/1), Thunder Moon (12/1) and Wembley (12/1) cannot really be separated by the betting markets, but as per, Ballydoyle look to hold plenty of aces.
While no standout may disappoint some, at the moment, I am going to take a positive outlook and say it's great to have some strength-in-depth.
Keep an ear to the ground for Van Gogh
The contest previous to the Dewhurst was the Group 3 Autumn Stakes, a race with a recent envious role of honour of its own. Kingston Hill (2013), Ghaiyyath (2017) and Persian King (2018) are just some of the names to have taken the mile event in the more immediate past but it was this year’s runner-up, Van Gogh, who really caught my eye.
The strapping son of American Pharoah was no match for the Charlie Appleby-trained winner One Ruler (109+), who was a convincing 1¾ lengths victor. He in his own right is a nice horse, but looking to next year, I think Van Gogh (106p) is now starting to come right – like other Ballydoyle juveniles – and when he goes up in trip next year, he will be a more potent force.
Even though he never looked like winning here, under the circumstances, Van Gogh ran an incredible race. For a horse who appeared quite happy making the running or being prominent in recent performances, I have no idea why Ryan Moore chose to settle such a big horse in behind.
OK, he wasn’t the quickest away and maybe this day was all about education – job done if so - and apologies to Moore if so – but this horse looks a middle-distance performer in the making and getting behind on a track like Newmarket against fundamentally quicker horses was never going to bring out the best in Van Gogh.
Either was the soft ground, and all things considered, I feel he has run a tremendous race. So much so, I have had my first ante-post bet in next year’s Derby at 40/1. He is by a stallion in the early part of his career in American Pharoah, who sired recent Group 2 Park Hill Fillies' Stakes (1m6½f) winner Pista.
Van Gogh is the 12th foal out of Imagine; a former Irish 1000 Guineas and Oaks (Epsom) heroine who has already produced quality horses like Horatio Nelson (by Danehill), Red Rock Canyon (by Rock Of Gibraltar) and Viscount Nelson (by Giant’s Causeway).
On pedigree, there looks to be a sound chance of Van Gogh staying and while there are other horses in Ballydoyle with sexier profiles and pedigrees, I have swung the bat early with the Derby in mind.