Declan Rix

Recent impressive Group 2 Great Voltigeur Stakes winner Pyledriver is the topic of Declan Rix's blog this week, Declan firmly of the opinion William Muir's stable star has earned himself a crack at the 2020 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

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Top-class Pyledriver has earned a shot at Paris glory

That’s another York Ebor Festival over, meaning flat racing is now heading for its usual brilliant autumn climax. There was plenty of quality action on the Knavesmire last week and it left much to chew over ahead of Irish Champions Weekend, the two-day Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe meeting and British Champions Day. We also have high-class international racing at the Breeders’ Cup and the Spring Carnival down in Australia on the way.

There is still plenty to look forward to, but it’s a huge shame we seemingly won’t be seeing last week’s impressive Group 2 Great Voltigeur Stakes winner Pyledriver (121+) take a trip to France for the 2020 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (12f); instead, his connections appear to be looking at running in the St Leger (14.5f) at Doncaster.

On the back of his 3½ length hammering of Royal Ascot winner and Group 3 Gordon Stakes runner-up Highland Chief, with the Gordon Stakes winner Mogul back in third, there is no doubt in my mind that William Muir’s stable star should be heading to Paris on the first Sunday of October; a race he would need to be supplemented for.

Under a 3lb Group 2 penalty for winning the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot, this son of Harbour Watch put up one of the performances of the week at York; travelling through his race like a class act and quickening up to beat some nice horses in devastating fashion, hitting the line well, all while idling in front and appearing to have more up his sleeve.

Pyledriver was good at Royal Ascot, but at York, we saw a significantly better horse; and who’s to say he won’t take another step forward next time out, in what has been a difficult year (Covid-19 affected) for 3yos to progress as normal? At the moment, he looks on a steep upward curve and who knows where he will plateau at?

Much has already been made of his unfashionable sire Harbour Watch, but his two-time-winning dam, La Pyle (by Le Harve), is from an immediately classy family. She is a half-sister to Group 1 winner Helene Charisma and a full-sister to Group 3/Listed winner, Normandel. Pyledriver’s grand dam is also a half-sister to Group 1 winner Linngari.

After York, with more cards now on the table, everything about Pyledriver is suggesting he is a top-class colt, but plenty refuse to believe it, no doubt due to his unsexy connections. Strangely enough, with William Muir apparently calling the shots on where his stable star will run next, even his own trainer appears to not fully believe in how good this three-year-old is?

For context on this, Timeform has the current Arc favourite Love (9/4) rated 126p with Pyledriver on 123 after the pair’s exploits at York last week. OK, the ‘p’ attached to Love suggests she can climb the ratings higher, an opinion I would agree with given she has steam-rolled all (weak) competition this season, but that potential to go higher with Love maybe goes out the window if the ground at ParisLongchamp comes up soft.

Aidan O’Brien’s 3yo star is an extremely fluent mover and although she is clearly a better horse this season, there is enough evidence from 2019 – in the Debutante Stakes and Fillies’ Mile – to suggest her performance levels drop on rain affected going. Pyledriver on the other hand, would appear to have no issues with soft ground.

With his ability, Pyledriver has plenty of options and will be a force wherever he goes from here on out, but of all the potential targets available to connections this autumn, the St Leger on September 12th over an extended 14f would be the last race I would personally choose.

I’m a big believer in putting horses in the right races, races that play to their strengths and I just don’t see the St Leger bringing out the best in Pyledriver. That of course, doesn’t mean he still can’t win the race, and of course, I could be wrong, but ducking perceived stronger competition over perceived weaker races - in this instance the Arc vs St Leger - when weaker races don’t play to a horse’s strengths, doesn’t always work out as well as the implied betting odds suggest.

Given Pyledriver’s strong-travelling traits and his aptitude to pick up and quicken, on top of his top-class ability, there is no doubt in my mind he would add to the 2020 Arc field; and dare I say it, add more to the race than a Stradivarius, who will be running over his wrong trip, but will likely get a higher billing pre-race than most, given his sexy profile.

People will continue to get hung up on Pyledriver’s own profile however; his trainer, his owners, his sire etc, and talk him down, failing to look at his form objectively, but if this horse was trained by Aidan O’Brien or John Gosden and by Galileo or Frankel, people would be speaking about Pyledriver in a much better light.

The “if horse ‘x’ was trained by ‘y’” line is not one I like using generally, because trainers play a hugely important role in a horse’s life, and are a significant variable at the top table, but it (assessing a horse’s profile) can ring true in terms of betting markets. For example, we consistently see horses trained by the likes of O’Brien over-bet, simply on profile, when form should always be king.

On form, at least in my own mind, and seemingly so with Timeform, too, Pyledriver is good enough to run in this year’s Arc. Not only that, but given the high probability of a good pace to run at, which Pyledriver hasn’t got this season (The crazy Derby aside where so many horse didn’t get a fair crack), I could see this scenario really bringing out the best in him.

Sure, he has class and is far from a slow horse, but an end-to-end gallop over 12f on ground with juice in it, looks like a test that would see him shine brightest to my eye. Whether a St Leger, which is likely to have many Ballydoyle runners in, will see Pyledriver show his truth worth over 14.5f, is debatable on current evidence.

Pyledriver and Martin Dwyer
Declan feels Pyledriver has earned himself a crack at this year's Arc

Furthermore, Ballydoyle will likely set the pace scenario they feel will best turn over Pyledriver (4/1) while teeing up the race nicely for their own horses, of which Santiago (5/2) appears to be the stable’s number one at the moment. I would suggest the betting between this duo should be flip-flopped on what we saw last week.

Come St Leger day, Ballydoyle could maybe go an end-to-end gallop and really see if there is any stamina chink in the Great Voltigeur winner; or maybe, set a (sedate) pace trap, which sees Pyledriver potentially out of his ground early with Martin Dwyer trying to settle his mount, while Ballydoyle horses dawdle on the front end and are in a stronger tactical position.

The tactical element, as always, will fascinate, and these are scenarios connections of Pyledriver will need to consider in the St Leger, as will the horse’s regular rider, Martin Dwyer. Some of William Muir's recent comments about his inmate are also interesting; Muir saying Pyledriver is "getting stronger all the time". Strength can mean muscle, and muscle lends itself to speed, not stamina.

As a fan, what I hate seeing in these big races is horses not getting a fair crack, not running up to their potential, and I would hate to see Pyledriver over-race in a St Leger and running on empty late, when he could’ve got a much more suitable test in the Arc, especially on ground with cut in it.

To me, that would be like a golfer leaving an important putt short, but I do concede this year’s Arc is more akin to The Masters at Augusta while the Leger is more the PGA Championship; still a major, but with respect, not the more coveted of the two.

Of course the Arc would be tougher to win, and the race looks more competitive than the St Leger, but some racing fans are making this year’s ParisLongchamp renewal a two-horse race – Enable and Love – and horse racing often doesn’t play out like that. In this game, anything can happen and with connections of Ghaiyyath suggesting he may swerve the race, Love vulnerable on (potentially) soft ground and Enable beaten in the race at 1/2 last year (which was a one-horse race to some), and now a 6yo,; under the right conditions, Pyledriver can absolutely run a big race in the Arc.

In my own mind, looking at the current ante-post betting on the race, I would have Pyledriver fourth favourite on the back of his York demolition job, and make him a strong each-way player in the race. These, of course, are only my views as a racing fan and I will obviously respect whatever race connections point Pyledriver at.

I do wish them the best and while I’m not one to get caught up with “stories”, Pyledriver has already been one of the highlights of the 2020 flat season and his run isn’t over yet, not by a longshot based on what we saw at York.

It is because of this, Pyledriver’s strong level of form and progressive nature, why I feel so passionately about him running in one of the world’s greatest races; the horse has earned it. Pyledriver looks a 12f performer, and the Arc is a 12f race – that’s what it boils down to for me.

Such is his level of ability, he may get away with running over the St Leger trip, but I’d dearly love to see him utilise that once-in-a-lifetime 3yo allowance in October.

Whatever happens, good luck to all associated with him.

Declan Rix
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