Kevin Blake

Reflections on a Classic weekend at Newmarket and Churchill Downs

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Saxon Warrior storms to 2000 Guineas Glory

With the first Classics of this season having quite an open look about them on paper, the neutral spectator is always hopeful that a star will emerge to really get the Flat season off to a flyer. That is what duly transpired in the 2000 Guineas on Saturday with Saxon Warrior maintaining his unbeaten record in the style of one that could prove to be a leader of his generation.

As a two-year-old, the son of Deep Impact had trodden a path more familiar to contenders for the Derby rather than the 2000 Guineas, with him showing a mix of class and grit to win the Beresford Stakes and the Racing Post Trophy. With Aidan O’Brien already having talked about him as a potential Derby contender, the main concerns going into the 2000 Guineas were whether he would be vulnerable to rivals with more pace and that O’Brien might not have his screws fully tightened with the Derby in mind. 

In truth, if Saxon Warrior had finished a staying-on third, that would have been widely considered an excellent run and would have led to him being shortened significantly in price for the Derby. However, what he delivered was a performance far in excess of those more modest expectations.

Having missed the kick a shade, Saxon Warrior was ridden with patience in the early stages by Donnacha O’Brien prior to steadily making his way into the race up the middle of the track. Perhaps the most striking aspect of his performance considering he is a horse that is very much a middle-distance prospect is how quickly he went from tracking the leaders to hitting the front when asked to quicken. The speed with which he made up that ground may well have taken Donnacha by surprise, just as it seemed to do to Ryan Moore when he ended up in front earlier than ideal in the Racing Post Trophy. As had been the case at Doncaster, Saxon Warrior still looked a bit raw in front, but despite this he still won with a degree of authority. Indeed, his rawness when in front raises hopes that he could be seen to even better effect if delivered a bit later in future.

As satisfying as any Classic victory must be, one suspects that the O’Brien family will hold this one particularly close given that it was Donnacha in the saddle. This was the 19-year-old's third Group 1 and first Classic victory. As was the case for his brother Joseph, Donnacha’s riding career is on a countdown timer due to what will almost certainly prove to be an un-winnable battle with his weight. While one will never hear any public complaints or self-pity from him, one can be certain that he fights a brutal battle with it every day. For his efforts to be rewarded on such a big stage will be a source of great joy not just for him, but for his family and all of those around him.

The natural line of questioning with Saxon Warrior now turns to “what next?” The Derby is very much his target and his pedigree gives nothing but encouragement as to his potential to stay the mile-and-a-half trip. He is by a sire in Deep Impact that won over two miles and has proven to be strong influence for stamina, while he is out of a mare by Galileo from the immediate family of Oaks winner Dancing Rain.

While he clearly possesses plenty of pace, he is tractable enough to suggest that it can be harnessed and carried over the longer trip. Perhaps the main concern is that his size and big action suggests that Epsom may not be ideal for him, particularly if the ground is on the quick side, but that he remained as balanced as he did in the Dip at Newmarket is encouraging on that front.

If Saxon Warrior wins the Derby, talk will inevitably turn to the possibility of a bid for the Triple Crown in the St Leger. While Nijinsky (1970) is the only horse since World War II to have completed it and the unfashionable status of the St Leger had resigned many to thinking that it would never be won again, Coolmore showed with Camelot that they are still willing to attempt it when the right horse and opportunity presents itself. While there is plenty of water to go under the bridge before then, not to mention the small matter of the supreme test of a thoroughbred in the Derby, the prospect of it couldn’t be more exciting.

Saxon Warrior’s emergence also promises to have a serious impact on the world of European bloodstock. Deep Impact may not have the profile of Galileo in this part of the world, but his exploits in Japan have established him as a world-class sire and having a high-profile son of his at stud in Europe promises to be a major coup for Coolmore.

While the fact that Saxon Warrior is out of a mare by Galileo means that he is not the complete outcross that Coolmore seek for their raft of top-class mares by Galileo, with Enable exhibiting that being 3x2 in-bred to Sadler’s Wells is anything but a barrier to success, one suspects that Coolmore won’t be shy in experimenting with some 3x2 in-breeding to Galileo by sending some of his daughters to Saxon Warrior in the years ahead.

 

Lessons Learned As Mendelssohn Disappoints

The quest for a European-trained winner of the Kentucky Derby will continue after Mendelssohn’s high-profile bid for the Roses ended in disappointment on Saturday night. In truth, his chance was gone after a couple of furlongs, as he was badly interfered with early on and having been asked to make up some of that early lost ground into what were brutally-fast early fractions, his supporters knew their fate very quickly.

Given that Mendelssohn was such a prominent contender and the main question regarding his chance going into the race was whether he could get forward enough to avoid the scrimmaging and kickback that is synonymous with the race, it wasn’t a huge surprise that some of his opposition took the opportunity to rough him up. However, the brutality of the early stages was quite a shock to those more accustomed to turf racing where the early exchanges are generally much less competitive.

While it was disappointing and Mendelssohn’s connections would be entitled to be frustrated at how the race panned out, the reaction of Aidan O’Brien was telling. There were no complaints, no sour grapes, only lessons learned and experiences logged into his armoury for the next time. In what was a remarkably frank and detailed debrief given to the press at Newmarket on Sunday, O’Brien outlined where he thought it had gone wrong. The reasons varied from a lack of preparation from his team for just how rough the race could be, just how important gate speed is and the impact of the frenzied atmosphere on the horses. While Mendelssohn’s bid ended in failure, one suspects the lessons learned from his eclipse will very much be to the benefit of future Ballydoyle-trained contenders in the race.

The biggest races on dirt in America remain the only frontier that Ballydoyle have yet to conquer. While they have gone close in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on a number of occasions over the years, the Kentucky Derby is a challenge on another level again given how chaotic it is and with the horses involved being that much younger and more inexperienced. However, while his contender may have finished last on Saturday night, one suspects that O’Brien is getting closer to a winning formula.

The campaign given to Mendelssohn appeals as being the right sort of way to prepare a European horse for the Kentucky Derby. Experience on dirt, especially of the brutal kickback, is clearly very important. While the UAE Derby at Meydan appeals as being a fine trial, perhaps one change O’Brien may consider is to run a potential Kentucky Derby contender in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile rather than the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf as he did with Mendelssohn last year. While the Juvenile is a tough race to introduce a European-trained two-year-old to dirt in, the experience of an additional highly-competitive run on dirt could only be a help to the colts that are tough enough to come through it.

Given the proliferation of dirt-bred colts that are being trained in Ballydoyle these days, it seems inevitable that the Kentucky Derby will remain a significant target for those that show themselves to be potentially capable of competing in it. With the failure of Mendelssohn and others serving to illustrate just how tough a challenge the race represents to a European-trained contender, if Aidan O’Brien can eventually pull it off, it will go down as one of the very best feats of his remarkable training career.

Kevin Blake
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