Declan Rix

With the final domestic Group 1 of the season run, Declan Rix looks back on the 2018 Flat campaign.

  • Sunday 28 October
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TWO GREYS SHINE BRIGHTEST

This game of ours will always be about the horse. Human elements within the sport will continue to make for great stories, but without this wonderful animal we as an industry are nothing. With that being the case, it would be remiss not to start this piece about the two equine stars of the 2018 Flat season, Alpha Centauri and Roaring Lion.

It took two greys to brighten up the campaign and both had electrifying days where they wowed race fans. There was much more to their seasons than one day however, as both the daughter of Mastercraftsman and the son of Kitten’s Joy were consistent as well as they were brilliant.

Ladies should always come first, but if connections of Alpha Centauri can excuse me, their filly has just been eclipsed by my horse of the year, Roaring Lion. After his opening run of the campaign in the Craven Stakes at Newmarket, fancy prices likely could’ve been obtained about the Qatar Racing Limited-owned colt being the star of the season.

As an 8/13 favourite, Roaring Lion would trail 9¼ lengths behind the subsequent Derby winner Masar on his seasonal debut at Newmarket, likely running near two stone below his peak juvenile effort when just touched off in last year’s Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster. It was worrying, but John Gosden blamed a difficult spring where his horse had failed to spark mentally and physically. From my point of view, the jury was out. It had to be given how poor his performance was.

From this juncture however, the now five-time Group 1 winner did nothing but get better and better. A much-improved effort in the 2000 Guineas saw him finish 2½ lengths fifth before his season burst to life in the Dante Stakes at York. Under his regular rider Oisin Murphy a wicked turn of foot was unleashed on the Knavesmire when running out a facile 4½ lengths winner. Here, he booked his ticket for the Derby.  

His Dante (10f) victory would come off slow fractions on quick ground, so heading to Epsom many wondered would a strong-run 12f contest on a stiff track eat into his stamina reserves. As it played out, that’s exactly what happened. After travelling strongly throughout, and looking a big danger early in the straight, the Lion’s roar was more of a yelp in the closing stages.

The evidence was now strong, it was clear Roaring Lion’s ideal trip was 10f, and for such a horse from the Derby on, the programme book allows ten-furlong performers to shine if good enough. In the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown, the Juddmonte International at York and the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown Roaring Lion was up to the demands, winning the trio of top-level events.

Roaring Lion winning the Irish Champion Stakes
Roaring Lion was unbeaten in his four runs over 10f

In the Eclipse and Irish Champion, he would beat an old foe in Saxon Warrior and each time by a neck, and each time Roaring Lion overcame pace and track position biases to score; a real sign of a champion. In the Juddmonte, we saw that blistering turn of foot much better illustrated visually, as Roaring Lion would go on to hammer Prince of Wales's Stakes and King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner Poet’s Word by a cool 3¼ lengths.

As discussed in last week’s piece, Roaring Lion overcame more obstacles when winning the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Early career mental fragility has also been curbed, in no doubt due to his master trainer.

Now, one more battle remains in this top-class colt’s career before heading to stud, a shot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs next weekend. It’s a brave move by connections to run him on dirt, but whatever the result I look forward to watching his progeny on the track. His class and will to win will give him every chance of being a highly-successful stallion.

Sadly, the second-half of the campaign saw a catalogue of top-class horses injured and retired. The strapping grey Alpha Centauri was one such unfortunate equine to suffer a career-ending injury. It came in the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown on Irish Champions Weekend while on a quest to win her fifth straight Group 1 of the season.

Jessica Harrington’s Flat stable star suffered a fetlock injury in the race and clearly wasn’t anywhere near her best, as we saw her buckle in the closing stages. In the end, she was beaten three-quarters-of-a-length by the tough, game and classy Laurens. We must not let recency bias cloud what an unbelievable season the daughter of Mastercraftsman was having up to that stage, though.

Ironically, like the other grey star of the year Roaring Lion, Alpha Centauri also started her year in desperate fashion. While she was preparing for her own Classic, she would go on to be beaten 11 lengths in a Classic Trial at Leopardstown. To be fair to her, the heavy ground that day was terrain that never suited; despite her physical prowess, the ground seemingly couldn’t be quick enough.

She would get back on a much slicker surface in the Irish 1000 Guineas at the Curragh, and here was when she announced her renaissance. Despite giving the runner-up a sizable head start, Alpha Centauri would come late and fast to win by a cosy 1¾ lengths, comfortably fending off the Aidan O’Brien-trained pair of Could It Be Love and 5/4f Happily.

Having been backed from early morning prices as big as 33/1 into 12/1 when winning at the Curragh, such fancy odds were never going to be seen at Royal Ascot in the Coronation Stakes. Sent off 11/4f, Alpha Centauri would go on to win like an odds-on shot in what was one of the most breathtakingly stunning performances of the season.

In a race that featured the winner of the 1000 Guineas, along with the Irish and French equivalents, Jessica Harrington’s grey would crush her field by 6 lengths, shattering the course record in the process. It was a sublime display of galloping.

From here, obtaining odds against about the three-year-old was impossible. Just over three weeks later, another visually striking victory came in the Falmouth Stakes, when winning at 4/9, this time it would only be a 4½ length margin.

Her acid test followed a month later in France, in the Group 1 Jacques le Marois where she would take on older horses and colts for the first time. On ground potentially as soft as she’d want, Alpha Centauri put on another divine display, beating top-class older colt Recoletos by 2 ½ lengths with the pair clear of Group 1 winner With You.

Unfortunately, the star filly and mare of the season ended her career in sad circumstances in the Matron, but it shouldn’t be forgotten just how good she was in the height of summer. She was so good, should Alpha Centauri and Roaring Lion have ever had met over an intermediate trip of 9f on fast ground, I’d have made the filly slight favourite.

In what was shaping up as a poor Flat season early, these two greys brought much colour.

A SEASON OF CLASSIC FIRSTS

Several jockeys, trainers and owners registered their first Classics of their careers this Flat season. As always, we headed to Newmarket for the first Classic of the campaign, the 2000 Guineas. While Aidan O’Brien was claiming his ninth 2000, it was his son Donnacha who bagged his first aboard Saxon Warrior.

With Ryan Moore in America riding Mendelssohn in the Kentucky Derby, a 21-year-old O’Brien deputised in fine style to produce to his mount to win by a classy 1½ lengths.

A day later, former Ballydoyle rider Sean Levey would also secure his first Classic in the 1000 Guineas. A 66/1 chance, Billesdon Brook made a mockery of her starting price to go on and score in fine style from Laurens for trainer Richard Hannon. Billesdon Brook’s success was also a significant milestone for the sport, with Levey becoming the first black jockey to ride a Classic winner.

A Guineas for the fairer sex would also see trainer David Simcock land a first Classic, when his Teppal won the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches, the French 1000 Guineas, under Olivier Peslier. It was a fine training performance from Newmarket-based Simcock, who produced his filly off a 230-day break to score.

The two Classics over a mile in Britain saw two new faces break maidens, and in Ireland the same played out. In the Irish 2000 Guineas, Ken Condon’s Romanised sprung a 25/1 surprise under Shane Foley to give the trainer a memorable day.

The Irish 1000 Guineas, as we’ve already discussed, went the way of Alpha Centauri for Jessica Harrington. Harrington, as well as winning her first Classic, would also go on to train a first Royal Ascot winner with her brilliant filly.

Arguably, the most noteworthy breakthrough of the season is Godolphin, Charlie Appleby and William Buick winning their first Derby in the famous blue silks, courtesy of Masar. The trials and tribulations of Godolphin in recent seasons are well-documented, and while Sheikh Mohammed has won the Derby before, to do it in the Godolphin Blue will no doubt have been special to the ruler of Dubai.

France has been a happy hunting ground for foreign raiders in general this season, and it again played host to another trio winning a first Classic. The mighty mare Laurens would give owner John Dance, trainer Karl Burke and jockey PJ McDonald a special day in Chantilly when winning the Prix de Diane Longines.

Without doubt one of the highlights and stars of the season, this would be Laurens’ third Group 1 of her career before going on to bag another two.

A second Classic win for Donnacha O’Brien came in the Oaks at Epsom under Forever Together, and a third would follow – when it rains it pours, hey – with Latrobe winning the Irish Derby. This was significant for trainer Joseph O’Brien who landed his first Classic, beating his father Aidan’s Rostropovich. Despite losing, you suspected Aidan couldn’t have been happier. It’s hard to know if Aidan was more delighted losing last season’s Melbourne Cup to Joseph or this season’s Irish Derby.

Latrobe wins the Irish Derby
Joseph and Donnacha O’Brien embrace after winning the Irish Derby

However, normal service would resume in the final two Classics of the season, the St Leger at Doncaster and the Irish St Leger at the Curragh, with Aidan O’Brien winning the former with Kew Gardens and the latter with Flag Of Honour.

QUICK BITES

Discussing a whole season could be quite lengthy, but here are a few other highlights, disappointments and talking points from the 2018 campaign.

Clemmie – This is a filly I got very wrong this year. After her brilliant juvenile campaign, which culminated in the daughter of Galileo winning the Cheveley Park Stakes, I was sure she was set for a big Classic season. A full-sister to Churchill and trained by Aidan O’Brien there was surely more to come? In the end, she failed to win in five starts in 2018. Disappointing. 

Haggas – trainer William Haggas deserves great credit in the stellar season Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe runner-up Sea Of Class had. In the early part of her career, she looked temperamental, and there was always a suspicion there was something potentially bubbling under with her mentally. Haggas’s decision to skip the Oaks at Epsom was significant in her progress and a call that allowed her to slowly develop into a top-level performer.

Juveniles – there are several exciting juveniles this season, especially among the colts. By now, they need no introduction, but we can only hope Calyx, Quorto, Ten Sovereigns and Too Darn Hot get through the winter unscathed.

Kingman – first-season sire and exceptional racehorse, Kingman looks an exciting prospect to the stallion ranks. In his first crop, the son of Invincible Spirit has produced the likes of Calyx, French runner Persian King and the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Sangarius. One horse that I look forward to seeing next season is King Of Comedy, a Sandown Novice Stakes winner for John Gosden. He hasn’t been seen since July, but I’m hoping that may be a blessing in disguise down the line.

Murphy – 2018 has been a breakthrough season for jockey Oisin Murphy. Last year, he rode his first Group 1 winner aboard Acclaim in the Prix de la Foret on Arc day at Chantilly. In March, the Kerry native won his second top-level race in Dubai on Benbatl, but coming into the 2018 British season, the 22-year-old had yet to win a domestic Group 1. Now the season is done, Murphy, thanks to the exploits of Roaring Lion, Lightning Spear and The Tin Man has got that domestic monkey off his back. And in some style. The Qatar Racing Limited retained rider is now a ten-time Group 1-winning jockey. Kudos. 

Saxon Warrior – there is still a sense of what could’ve been with this year’s 2000 Guineas winner. Having looked a superstar in the first Classic of the year, it all went pear-shaped for the son of Deep Impact after. In his next five starts, Aidan O’Brien’s three-year-old would fail to win another race as his owners’ quest for British racing’s Triple Crown likely scuppered his progress. The Coolmore partners had a dream, it didn’t work, and Saxon Warrior was caught in the middle. If kept to a mile, I suspect his season would’ve been a lot more successful. 

Stradivarius - as we discussed last week, the season of Europe's leading stayer was impressive. Five times he raced, five times he won with connections picking up a £1m bonus on the way.

Declan Rix
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