Declan Rix

As we approach the half-way point of the 2018 Flat campaign, Declan Rix assesses the best of three-year-old crop and how they might fair once tackling their elders later in the season.

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CENTAURI THE ALPHA ACT AMONG CLASSIC CROP

As John Gosden stated last week when suggesting Cracksman may not run in the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, “we're not even halfway through the year as yet”. We are getting to that point however, so, it seems a good time to assess how the Classic generation are stacking up after last week’s July Festival offered further clues.

There can be no debate – at the moment at least – that Alpha Centaurileads her three-year-old peers, male and female, in what has been a brilliant first-half of the season. Since starting the campaign disappointingly in the 1,000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown back in April, the strapping daughter of Mastercraftsman has manged to bag three Group 1s.

A Classic in the Irish 1000 Guineas, a course record time in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot and a latest top-level success in the Falmouth Stakes have been etched into an impressive CV. What’s more however, is the level this grey has been running to.

While the British Horseracing Authority tend to overrate horses at the top-level – I’m of the opinion we don’t make horses work hard enough to achieve big numbers -  Alpha Centauri’s official figure of 122 is a mark I can get behind. For a three-year-old filly, if you were to factor in her age and sex allowance, on fast ground, the Niarchos Family-owned star would be a match for any of the world’s best milers.

While her prohibitive odds of 4/9f suggest Friday’s victory in the Falmouth was a penalty kick, we did get to see another side to Alpha Centauri, toughness. Backing up just 21 days after running such a quick time in winning the Coronation, it may not have been the biggest surprise to see her fall over the line at Newmarket, but such is her stout constitution and class we saw nothing of the like as she won easily by four-and-a-half lengths.

Of course, she’ll need to prove herself against the three-year-old colts and older milers, but given how weak the aforementioned divisions are, on fast ground, she’ll surely start favourite against any field in Europe over eight furlongs.

We’ll get to see Jessica Harrington’s star flat inmate do so in the Prix Jacques Le Marois in France while a later season target is the Breeders' Cup Mile at Churchill Downs.

Alpha Centauri wins at Royal Ascot
Alpha Centauri showed her Royal Ascot win was no fluke in the Falmouth Stakes

Another race run over a mile, the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket is the first Classic of each season. This year’s renewal went the way of Aidan O’Brien’s Saxon Warrior who looked a potential star in the making when winning by a ready one-and-half-lengths from Tip Two Win and subsequent Derby winner Masar. Elarqam was fourth, Roaring Lion was fifth and Gustav Klimt sixth.

In terms of miling form, this race hasn’t really worked out, although there is a case to say Saxon Warrior has been poorly campaigned over trips that aren’t his optimal and he could yet prove to be best of the three-year-old colt milers. Fans of Without Parole would obviously have something to say about that and, rightly so, especially when you consider his unbeaten-in-four winning profile. For me though, on their best efforts over a mile, Saxon Warrior and Without Parole are evenly matched.  

While Masar and Roaring Lion do give some credibility to the level of the Guineas form, it’s clear they are better horses over further.

Roaring Lion looks steadily progressive and gives the impression there may well be more to come. He ran a fine race to be third in the Derby over a trip that stretched his stamina before dropping in distance to win the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown. That was without doubt just a par renewal of the Eclipse however, especially when the clash of the generations didn’t meaningly materialise.

His major test against older horses will come in the Juddmonte International at York on August 22nd. By then, John Gosden’s charge will have had a 46-day break so, it will be interesting if he’s able to step forward again as his short hiatus from the track, on top of summer weather, will give him every chance to do so.

Sadly, this year’s Derby winner Masar has since been ruled out for the remainder of the season, a knock before his scheduled Eclipse run meaning he missed another clash with Roaring Lion. His campaign end is a blow on many levels. Not least for Godolphin, Charlie Appleby and the sport as a whole, but also in terms of seeing how the Classic crop would compare to the older horses over 12f later in the year.

In terms of form, the Derby runner-up Dee Ex Bee has done little to strengthen the race, being comprehensively beaten in the Irish Derby and Grand Prix de Paris since. Roaring Lion at least holds it up, albeit over a more suitable trip while it will be interesting to see what Dermot Weld’s Hazapour can do once dropped to 10f, a distance that would appear to be his ideal.

The horse now putting his name forward to represent his peers over 12f looks to be Kew Gardens who, on Saturday, won the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris at ParisLongchamp. The son of Galileo has been a slow burner this season. Finishing second in the Lingfield Derby Trial, he was then a disappointing and well-beaten ninth in the Derby.

Since those efforts however, wins at Royal Ascot and in France have seen his stock rise significantly. In winning the Group 2 Queen's Vase (14f) and the Grand Prix de Paris (12f), you’d have to be really impressed with how he’s seeing his races out. Kew Gardens is on the improve and with Masar no more in 2018, he’s probably the top 12f+ three-year-old colt. The King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes in two weeks’ time is said to be next where I would have Poet’s Word favourite.

Nominating the top 12f+ three-year-old filly is a little tougher, not least because of Forever Together’s recent disappointing effort in the Group 1 Pretty Polly Stakes over 10f. Before that however, she had looked a genuine top-class filly in winning the Oaks by four-and-half lengths, hitting the line like a top-class performer.

Her recent flop at The Curragh may well be down to a number of issues. Maybe the race came too soon after a big effort on soft ground in the Oaks or the combination of the inadequate trip on fast terrain found her out? Was she potentially in season? 

Either way, she’s not a filly to give up on just yet especially when you consider she had barely turned three before winning the Oaks. Over 12f+ on soft ground, she could well mix it with the older horses later in the campaign. It would be no real surprise to see her in St Leger at Doncaster or the Arc at ParisLongchamp.

Magic Wand, Together Forever’s stable companion, sits just behind the Oaks winner. Having comprehensively beaten her in the Cheshire Oaks, she was 11 lengths adrift at Epsom before bouncing back on fast sod to win the Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot. The ground may well be what shows these fillies off at their best. On soft, take the Oaks winner. On quick, take the Ribblesdale heroine.

Going conditions don’t appear to faze the top 10f three-year-old filly around, the Karl Burke-trained Laurens. Since finishing second in the 1000 Guineas behind Billesdon Brook, where she looked in need of the run, and when the Burke yard weren’t firing on all cylinders, the daughter of Siyouni has improved stepping up in distance.

Two trips to France have seen Group 1s landed in the Prix Saint-Alary and Prix de Diane Longines and she looks good enough to mix it with the top older fillies and mares. The Yorkshire Oaks – where a clash with Enable could materialise – and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe are said to be her main end of season targets. The combination of a step up in trip and slower ground may well see her developing into a leading Arc contender as the year progresses.  

Laurens winning the Prix Diane
Laurens is another three-year-old filly having a fine season

A positive mention in this division also goes to the Andre Fabre-trained Musis Amicawho finished second to Laurens in the Diane. In doing so, she ran a remarkable race having dropped herself out last of the field before making up an enormous amount of ground late in the race. The Godolphin-owned daughter of Dawn Approach has a habit of this, but should her trainer find a way of curbing the issue, she can almost certainly run to a higher figure.

The Diane fourth, Happily, did let down the form when fifth in the Eclipse behind Roaring Lion, but I’m sure she was below her best that day. Aidan O’Brien’s three-year-old filly looks a bit of a grinder and may do well on slower ground over 10f+.

While Happily will be suited by softening conditions and going out in distance, the exact opposite scenario saw U S Navy Flag win Saturday’s July Cup as a classic generation horse. Last season’s Champion Juvenile – which saw him win the Middle Park Stakes and Dewhurst Stakes – found the drop to 6f ideal as he beat off his elders at Newmarket.

On paper, it looks a fantastic achievement for a three-year-old, but it’s not form to get carried away with just yet, for a number of reasons. Firstly, so many of the main protagonists performed below par; these include race-favourite Blue Point (6th), Commonwealth Cup winner Eqtidaar (9th) and Commonwealth runner-up Sands Of Mali (12th).

The presence of the 108-rated Fleet Review in third, combined with the winner having total run of the race in front, further muddies the waters. While a positive case can be made for beating Group 1 winner Brando well, Kevin Ryan’s inmate had nothing like the charmed run the winner had, having to be switched nearly the entire width of the track. Like his run in the 2017 renewal behind Harry Angel, this is another effort to mark up.

This is also the case of Sioux Nation who manged to finish fifth despite giving the winner a sizable head start. It was good to see him bounce back after a poor Commonwealth Cup run where he was sent off favourite and it’s something to build on.

That said, he, and many other three-year-olds won’t be giving the older sprinters of Battaash, Blue Point and Harry Angel any sleepless nights. A favourable mention must go to runaway Jersey Stakes winner Expert Eye however - and it's almost a sin to be mentioning him this late - who has the raw ability to tackle the older six-furlong and miling horses. 

His apparent ideal trip of seven-furlongs may well stop his progress however, meaning at this stage, the only horse giving the elders nightmares is Alpha Centauri.

Declan Rix
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