HILLS AND SPENCER TEAM UP FOR MORE CURRAGH CLASSIC GLORY
The Curragh was once again a happy hunting ground for British trainer Charlie Hills and jockey Jamie Spencer on Saturday, as Phoenix Of Spain ran out a convincing winner of the Irish 2000 Guineas.
It’s six years since Hills and Spencer teamed up with Just The Judge to win another Irish Classic, the 1000 Guineas, and this victory must go down as one of Hills’s greatest training performances. Having missed the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket with a dirty scope and not having a run in 210 days, Hills and his team deserve huge plaudits for producing Phoenix Of Spain in such rude health.
Such was his physical and mental well-being, the son of Lope De Vega ran out a ready three-length winner from Too Darn Hot with Decrypt, Skardu and the disappointing Magna Grecia chasing him home. Under a fine front-running Jamie Spencer ride, the Irish native returned home and made-all to win the fourth Irish Classic of his career, and a first Irish 2000 Guineas.
That’s not a phrase we use too often with Spencer, given his now famous patient – and often frustrating – style, but the Tipperary man can be lethal when on the frontend of a race, as we saw again on Saturday, and it would be great to see more positive tactics employed across the board, after all, it’s common knowledge he is a fine horseman and quality rider.
The now highly experienced Spencer, who not too long ago retired from race-riding, only to rethink, now has a horse who may well take him on many a big dance for the remainder of the campaign, with the next stop said to be the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.
At the time of writing, Phoenix Of Spain is a best-priced 9/4 shot for that contest and based on what we saw on Saturday he is the right favourite, when you consider he has taken a significant step forward from his juvenile days.
When you factor in the strapping son of Lope De Vega’s potential scope for further physical progression, he may be in for an exciting season. While it’s hard to say exactly how much he could improve from his first run of the campaign given how good he was at the Curragh, you’d like to think he can step forward again, especially as the miling division - older and three-year-old - is looking for a star.
That star we thought, was going to be Too Darn Hot, but the invincibility cloak he wore heading into last winter is now starting to look like a Poncho at a rain-sodden music festival. That of course is not the horse’s fault, as he was unfairly put on a pedestal he didn’t deserve to be on.
In finishing 2018, his rating matched that of Frankel at the end of their respective juvenile careers, and when the official handicapper rates you that high, the hype generated is natural. But the truth with Too Darn Hot is he was never that good, not 126-rated good, for all he was in no doubt an outstanding juvenile and the best among his peers.
Considering the interrupted preparation the son of Dubawi has had this season, if you didn’t believe he was ever a 126-rated juvenile – and more likely a 115-rated performer – he has run quite well in his two 2019 starts, and marginally improved from his Dante second to his Irish 2000 Guineas runner-up spot.
I wouldn’t be one to suggest his recent Dante run left a mark at The Curragh, especially when you see how well he travelled, for all his finishing effort was possibly a little disappointing. He has come forward from his Dante run though, marginally, but it now looks like we are dealing with a run-of-the-mill Group 1 performer.
That sounds harsh and the words of a man who has bred and owned many Group 1 horses (I haven’t, just in case you thought), but the superstar allure with Too Darn Hot is fading fast and is now maybe gone. Does this mean he can’t win another Group 1? Of course not, but as the season goes on, horses may well start to develop passed this diminutive type.
In finishing a well-held and disappointing fifth, beaten just under six lengths, Magna Grecia couldn’t do the Guineas double. He came to The Curragh on the back of a slightly suspicious Newmarket victory, where he benefited from a pace bias in betting a 66/1 shot, but he quite simply didn’t run his race here, for whatever reason.
Maybe the race came too soon, or maybe he didn’t let himself down on the quick ground, which wouldn’t be the biggest surprise for a big, strong son of Invincible Spirit.
Guineas third at Newmarket, Skardu couldn’t build on that effort here and his steep upward trajectory came to a standstill, but things didn’t go right for him or James Doyle and he’s not a horse to give up on. The switch to more prominent tactics when not getting any good cover early saw him run his race a little bit back to front.
A doff of the cap must also go to young Irish trainer Paddy Twomey, whose Decrypt ran a fine race to finish third under Billy Lee. The pair also teamed up to finish third in the Irish 1000 Guineas on Sunday, where like Decrypt, Foxtrot Liv outran market expectations.