Royal Ascot alone doesn’t make or break a season, but it marks the mid-point, the end of one game and the start of another, the generation game, when the three-year-olds set about the older horses. It begins, on the big stage, in Britain on Saturday in the Coral-Eclipse, but the game got underway in Ireland last weekend, when there was three all-aged Group races, two of which went the way of the three-year-olds, both O’Brien but Joseph rather than Aidan: Buckhurst won the ten-furlong International Stakes in a 1-2-3-4 for the generation, though the betting suggested as much, and, more meaningfully, Iridessa took down Magic Wand and Wild Illusion in the Pretty Polly.
Three of the last four editions of the Eclipse have gone to the classic generation, though they had numbers on their side the years Roaring Lion and Hawkbill won it, and one three-year-old was all that was needed in 2015, because that one was the Derby winner, Golden Horn. The generational clash is the single most important factor in the Flat season from this point onwards, at least at the top end, as it defines and refines what the best look like, pushing up the standard by pushing together the age groups, making the major races sing.
And if you can’t get an all-singing, all-dancing, all-aged supergroup, then a top-tier race needs a pitch-perfect solo artist, which is the case with this year’s Eclipse. Whether Enable is pitch-perfect on her first start for 245 days is uncertain, but what’s certain is the class that has made her the most important and influential horse in Europe for the past two years, despite her 2018 campaign comprising just two months and three races, still making history.
There’s just the one three-year-old going against her in the Eclipse, namely Telecaster, who was only 5/1 for the Derby but trailed in last, finding it either too much or too soon: the race too soon after the Dante or the test too much after a positive ride. It’s unreasonable to expect Telecaster to square up to Enable at this stage, but his style – exuberant by nature – makes him a prominent piece on the tactical chessboard, magnified by twin troubles for Enable: a shorter trip than she’s used to and the widest draw in 8.
Though the last time she ran over as little as ten furlongs was more than two years ago, Enable definitely has the skill-set and speed for it, thinking back over various wins in her streak, where her third-quarter power is what has set her apart, as well as the forensic fact that she covered the last 3f of the Irish Oaks in a sprinter’s speed, at just over 33 seconds. That was then and this is now, returning aged five in a high-intensity race where any ring-rustiness will be exposed by the trip, and by six rivals rated 120 or higher by Timeform, all intent on pressuring and pestering her, perhaps in tandem.
One of the more understated magic acts that Frankie Dettori conjured up at Royal Ascot was in the Prince of Wales, aboard Crystal Ocean, when, mid-race, he scuppered the strategy of Ballydoyle by effectively hijacking Magical’s pacemaker, Hunting Horn, and pressing home the advantage at a point/pace that made it virtually mission impossible for Magical. A subtle stroke of genius.
The O’Brien pair are together again, one serving the other, with lessons learnt, presumably, that means Dettori won’t get so easy a ride, literally and figuratively. Talking tactics, the Eclipse at Sandown was the scene of arguably the greatest Ballydoyle blueprint of them all, in 2007, when Derby winner Authorized took on top miler George Washington. It was a case, for Authorized, of the stiffer the test the better, back down in trip, but his pacemaker was completely neutralized by George Washington’s team-mates who initially hurried Champery along before suddenly reining back, leaving him marooned and utterly disconnected from Authorized. But Ryan Moore, then retained only by Stoute, cooked up his own plan and won the day having come stand side in the straight.
No pacemaker is employed for Enable, not thought necessary, itself a statement of faith, and, to that end, if the enemy of my enemy really is my friend, then we’re back to the only three-year-old, Telecaster, as a potential, unintentional ally for Enable, given the fact and the fashion he’ll be running his own race, regardless of what Coolmore cooks up.
In short, there’s more to this Eclipse than meets the eye. There’s the practical question of Enable’s readiness and the hypothetical question of how her rivals go about suppressing her, in conjunction with the added complications for her of the draw and the distance. It won’t determine one of the race’s baseline briefs of the first litmus test for the generational clash, but it will go a significant way to shaping the season, such is Enable’s significance to the season, and to the sport.
In the Coral Distaff, the race prior to the Eclipse,HIDDEN MESSAGE looks overpriced compared to Beyond Reason, having her first start of the year, and Encapsulation, having her first start for Andrew Balding. The latter filly chased home Oaks runner-up Pink Dogwood when last seen, in April, in a listed event at Naas, though that was a steadily-run race which perhaps shouldn’t be taken too literally, while Beyond Reason did her Group winning last year in France where the competition wasn’t so strong.
Hidden Message finished fourth in France last time, in a Group 2, but beaten just one-and-a-half lengths, and the three that beat her were all more prominently ridden. That was the latest in a series of advances by Hidden Message, who has yet to show all she’s got, and this stiff mile promises to unlock her latent talent.