When the well is dry, we know the worth of water, so goes the proverb. That rule applies to racing, which we lived without from mid-March until June, but our cup runneth over this weekend, with a month’s worth of quality funnelled into two days.
With so many stars, and so much at stake, what are the key questions that will refine and define this pivot point in the season? Here are my five:
1. How to solve a problem like Ghaiyyath?
It’s not stretching it to say that Ghaiyyath was the primary reason that Enable lost last year’s Arc. He who laughed last laughed the loudest at Longchamp, and Waldgeist benefited from having his hand played so late, in a stamina-sapping race, meanwhile Enable and Frankie were drawn into the battle sooner than ideal, all because of the power of Ghaiyyath; or moreover, that day, the threat of the power of Ghaiyyath.
And that’s the riddle within a race for any opponent of Ghaiyyath, including the exceptional Enable. We know what Ghaiyyath is going to do and how he’s going to do it, and even when he doesn’t do it all the way to the end he’s still done enough to disrupt rhythms and dent reputations.
Ghaiyyath is the ultimate antagonist and, in her recurring role as protagonist, the onus is on Team Enable to come up with a pro-active plan to prevent from eclipse in the Eclipse, whereas the others (and ‘others’ in this instance means Japan) can and will be more reactive, and those tertiary characters have won half of the last dozen renewals of the race, often a case of a sneaky, snaking run outside of the game of cat and mouse between the headline acts, the most memorable being Notnowcato in the 2007 edition when Authorized and George Washington were over-indulged by strategy to beat each other.
The Eclipse is so significant because, even without the three-year-olds, it’s so many races rolled into one: the redemption race for Japan, the resumption race for Enable, the defining race for Ghaiyyath, and the tactical race between them that magnifies every moment and movement, for Sunday as well as the rest of the season.
2. Is English King too short a price for the Derby?
Ahead of Epsom, it’s the most common question, and the right question, but a rhetorical question by those who ask it. Odds are an expression of probability, but probability in racing is conditional. According to the odds, English King has approximately a 30% chance of winning the Derby. Built into that is the feasibility of his foes; the feasibility in particular of Russian Emperor’s ability, of Mogul’s readiness and of Kameko’s stamina, and a combination of all three for Vatican City.
In the immediate aftermath of his win in the Lingfield Derby Trial, I was in the fortunate position to be able to dissect English King’s performance on the Touchscreen in the Sky Sports Racing studio, in which the underlying message was that none of us should be surprised if he went onto Derby glory because all of the clues were there at Lingfield, in his qualities that act as qualifications for Epsom, chiefly the big-league blend of speed and stamina.
With that form subsequently rationalised by Berkshire Rocco and ratified by Santiago, I’m actually very comfortable with English King’s price for the Derby, believing that none of the others really warrant eating into his percentage, due to doubts about the worth of the Ballydoyle battalion for one reason or another and bigger doubts about the staying power of Kameko.
Ultimately, in punting in racing, probability makes way for preferentiality, and at 11/4 I’d prefer to be a backer than a layer of English King.
3. Love or Frankly Darling?
It’s a thin Oaks, but these two would be a weighty pair in any year, and it’s not entirely out of the question that we get a flashback to Epsom 2017 and a rare occasion when the fillies – or one filly - outshone the colts then and for the rest of the year: Wings Of Eagles upset the applecart in a bunched finish to a big-field Derby, 24 hours after Enable stood on the shoulders of Rhododendron in the Oaks.
There are some shades of Enable versus Rhododendron in the upcoming bout between Frankly Darling and Love, beyond their trainers, trainers who have shared the last six Oaks. Love, like Rhododendron, is coming the Classic route via the Guineas, whereas the avenue of approach for Frankly Darling, like Enable, is a middle-distance trial, Chester not available to Frankly Darling but Royal Ascot a rare and rewarding alternative, winning there while on a steep learning curve.
Rhododendron was 11/8-on in 2017, but Frankly Darling – and only Frankly Darling - is stopping Love from going odds-on this year. Love did a fair impression of Minding at Newmarket and that one made no mistake at Epsom, though there was nothing resembling Frankly Darling in that field. There’s no margin for error (as there was in the Ribblesdale) for Frankly Darling, but equally there’s no telling how spectacular she could be, to still be able to conjure up that turbo at Ascot despite failing to settle early on.
The Oaks won’t be won in the first quarter of the race, but it might be lost by Frankly Darling if she’s similarly feisty and fiery, though the presence in the line-up of Tiempo Vuela - trained by Gosden and part-owned by Anthony Oppenheimer – suggests Frankly and Frankie may have a faithful friend to help relax into the race, which is the biggest “if” of all, because if she settles then it’s game on and race on.
Love looks the most likely winner, because Love looks so clinical, but it’s the volatility of the Frankel-fuelled Frankly Darling that really sets light to this year’s Oaks.
4. Is Victor Ludorum too short a price for the French Derby?
Shorter price, same stall, but the question hung around the neck of English King is not yet being asked of Victor Ludorum in the French equivalent. First things first, Victor Ludorum is far more accomplished than English King, as testified by two Group 1s already on his CV, the latest of them, in the Poulains, putting him some way ahead of Sunday’s opposition on ratings, and both his means and genes suggest the extra distance won’t worry him whatsoever.
That said, he has been more workmanlike than ‘wow’ for his wins, and the best horse he has come up against so far, on Timeform figures, is the 113-rated The Summit. On Sunday, he faces some new kids on the block, some would-be 120ish horses, in the shape of Ocean Atlantique and Pao Alto. One or both of those are a potential problem for competition, on top of the potential problem for congestion, in a big field, unless he’s asked something different from stall 1, but the waiting game clearly suits him, also what he’s used to.
The known facts of Victor Ludorum, of his power and pedigree, explain his price for the Prix du Jockey Club, but it’s the unknowns of the tactics (from an inside draw) and the true nature of his main rivals that stops me swings me away from Victor Ludorum, towards the tag team of Pao Alto and Ocean Atlantique.
5. The Power to put it to Battaash?
Would Art Power have won the Commonwealth Cup? BHA ratings say no, because Art Power at Royal Ascot was 110 with them, compared to 118 for Golden Horde, but that still puts Art Power third best in that Group 1, and he was hardly all out in winning the handicap.
Whether or not he was ready and able to win the Commonwealth Cup, Art Power has all the hallmarks of a Group 1 sprinter of the future, on a collision course with Battaash later on, and the next rung up that lofty ladder comes at Naas on Saturday, in the Group 3 Lacken Stakes.
It’s his race and reputation to lose, Millisle in his way, who was only fifth in the Commonwealth Cup, albeit unflattering on her, as she made a fast-forward move out of the less-favoured group, but even so it would be a surprise if she can square up to the hot and hungry Art Power, who could already be Battaash’s stunt double, sharing the same mechanics and motion.
Naas won’t tell us everything, but it will tell us something about Art Power’s consequence on the whole season.