Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake recaps on U S Navy Flag's July Cup success, praising a recently delivered three-year-old sprinting initiative that has helped pave the way for the Classic generation while looking to a major future international prize that connections are targeting.

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There can be little doubt that the new programme of stakes race for three-year-old sprinters on both sides of the Irish Sea that culminate in the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot has been one of the better programming changes of recent years. The races offer a clear path for that demographic that wasn’t there previously that better prepares them for life against older sprinters in the second half of their three-year-old season.

Perhaps that new programme played some role in three of the first five home in the July Cup at Newmarket on Saturday being three-year-olds, but the winner U S Navy Flag showed that going the “old school” route for a three-year-old sprinter of running over a mile prior to dropping in trip is still no barrier to beating older sprinters in open Group 1 company.

What makes U S Navy Flag’s success so impressive is that he didn’t just do so after a brief dip of his toe into miling waters, he did so after being fully submerged into those deep waters for three starts at the highest level where he went hard from the front on each occasion.

We perhaps shouldn’t be surprised at his toughness given his full-sister Roly Poly proved herself to be one of the hardiest fillies of recent years just last season, but it was still impressive to witness him see off his July Cup rivals from the front after all the hard races he has already had this season. Indeed, it only becomes more impressive when one considers that he hasn’t just had a hard season, he has had a hard career. This was his 16th start and nine of those have been outside of Ireland.

Perhaps the most fascinating post-script to the race was that Aidan O’Brien revealed that U S Navy Flag would now be given a break with a view to being brought back for the second running of The Everest at Royal Randwick in Australia on October 13th.

For those that aren’t familiar with it, The Everest is a six-furlong conditions race that is currently the richest turf race in the world with a prize fund of AUS$13m (approx. €8.25m and STG£7.29m). First run last year, the race is restricted to 12 starters which have all secured a slot that was originally purchased for AUS$600k. These slots can be used by those that bought them or traded to other owners with a horse they’d like to run in it. With Coolmore having bought one of the original slots, they will not have to worry about negotiating to buy one for U S Navy Flag.

U S Navy Flag wins the July Cup
U S Navy Flag may head to Australia to run in The Everest

While such incredible levels of prize money will always attract great levels of attention, it is likely to have disappointed the race organisers that the first running of it didn’t attract any foreign raiders. Caravaggio was considered a possibility for it at one stage, but he didn’t do enough at the backend of the season to justify the trip.

That said, the weight-for-age conditions of the race do not exactly encourage a Northern Hemisphere three-year-old such as U S Navy Flag to make the journey down for the race. This was shown in the opposite direction by the tough task Merchant Navy faced at the weights when switching from Australia to the Northern Hemisphere, with him being obliged to race as a four-year-old whilst technically being only six weeks shy of being considered a three-year-old. While Merchant Navy was good enough to overcome it, such in-built disadvantages can only act as a barrier to further cross-hemisphere competition.

The same disadvantages are there in the opposite direction, as U S Navy Flag will race as a four-year-old in Australia in October whilst still a three-year-old in the Northern Hemisphere. While the race conditions allow Northern Hemisphere three-year-olds a 0.5kg allowance against Southern Hemisphere four-year-olds, 0.5kg isn’t much of an allowance for what in his case will be as much as six months of a deficit against his Southern Hemisphere equivalents.

Given that Southern Hemisphere three-year-olds will receive 5.5kg from the Southern Hemisphere four-year-olds and older in The Everest, it is clear that a 0.5kg allowance for a Northern Hemisphere three-year-old is too low.

Despite this systemic disadvantage, the declaration of intent from O’Brien with U S Navy Flag is likely to have been music to the ears of those involved in The Everest. However, going forward the race organisers perhaps need to look at those race conditions if they are going to consistently attract the foreign raiders that will help establish it as a truly significant contest in the international racing calendar.

Kevin Blake
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