Middle Park shapes like top-class renewal
There can be little doubt the 2020 Flat season has been the oddest campaign in living memory. Racing being put on hold for over two months at the start of the season had widespread ramifications, but the equine group most affected was perhaps the precocious two-year-olds.
Not only were their trainers having to train them to try and be ready for the return of racing - in a situation where that return date was unclear and ever changing - they then only had around a fortnight from the resumption of racing until Royal Ascot. In the case of Irish-trained two-year-olds, they had a little over a week to get a run in before Royal Ascot.
One can be sure that more than a few trainers were badly hindered by the uncertainty and rushed nature of the early stages of the campaign, and this was perhaps reflected in a rather murky juvenile picture during the opening months of the delayed season. Slowly but surely, pecking orders have started to be established, and Saturday's Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket promises to offer the strongest evidence yet in deciding who the best sprinting two-year-old colt in Europe is?
Supremacy looks to rule rivals at Newmarket
The Clive Cox-trained Supremacy is the first of the contenders to deal with. The son of first-season sire Mehmas didn’t give much indication of what was ahead on his debut at Windsor in June, coming off the bridle before halfway and beaten seven lengths. However, that run clearly sharpened him up, as three weeks later he returned to Windsor and made all to win a six-furlong novice contest by 3¾ lengths.
That victory demanded a significant step up in class, and the Richmond Stakes at Glorious Goodwood was chosen as the stage for it. Supremacy again showed good gate speed and early pace to secure the running rail and never looked in serious danger, powering away inside the final furlong to prevail by four lengths.
In visual terms, it was a very impressive performance, and the time was up to scratch too. It is fair to point out that those who finished behind him haven’t done much to further boost the form since, but Supremacy saw them off with sufficient disdain to make such quibbles less relevant.
Supremacy’s gate speed, early pace and professionalism will be major assets for him in the Middle Park and he looks sure to be a leading contender.
Another son of Mehmas that may well prove to be an even more popular choice is the Owen Burrows-trained Minzaal. He created an excellent impression in winning two of his three starts, with his only defeat coming on his debut at Ascot in July when meeting trouble in running - he might have won on another day. He gained quick compensation by winning a six-furlong novice at Salisbury in taking fashion, powering into the race and surging away on the bridle to record a 3¾ lengths victory.
The style of that win made a step up in class a must, and he was duly given such an opportunity in the Gimcrack Stakes at York. While a couple of his market rivals disappointed on the day, Minzaal did the opposite. Again, he caught the eye with how powerfully he travelled into the race, and having been asked to go through the gears, he surged clear for one slap in the final furlong to win by two lengths.
There aren’t many holes that can be picked in Minzaal, but there are a couple of points worth mentioning. He hasn’t been good at the stalls so far, missing the kick by at least three lengths in all three starts. While it hasn’t held him back, it is far from ideal and could be heavily punished at the highest level on Saturday. It is also worth pointing out that the Rowley Mile course at Newmarket will be the most challenging track he has faced in terms of undulations. Given that he hung to his right under pressure in the Gimcrack, it will be interesting to see how he handles the dip at Newmarket.
For all those minor quibbles, there is no question that Minzaal is very talented and looks all speed at this stage. He very much deserves to be considered a leading contender for this.
The Martyn Meade-trained Method is yet another son of Mehmas that set to be a leading contender for the Middle Park. Purchased for just £20,000 as a yearling, he made a winning debut in what was one of the better auction maidens run in Britain during recent years, where he got the better of subsequent Group 2 winner Fev Rover by 4¼ lengths at Doncaster. He did so despite missing the kick by a few lengths, but steadily recovered that ground and proved very strong inside the final furlong.
Just over three weeks later he was upped in class for a Listed race at Newbury and proved much the best on the day. Having started more sharply than on debut (only missed it by a length or so this time), he got a good tow into the race travelling strongly behind the leaders, and having had a smooth passage into the clear, he quickened under hands-and-heels to see off subsequent Group 3 winner The Mighty Gurkha by an easy 2¼ lengths.
Method has been absent since, though it seems an intentional move, with his connections only having eyes for the Middle Park rather than other Group 1 targets. He will be the least experienced of the leading contenders at Newmarket, a track that will be the most unorthodox he has faced, but Method did enough at Newbury to demand the utmost respect.
Those three sons of Mehmas are the ones coming into the Middle Park off the back of impressive victories, but there will be no shortage of rivals, who despite tasting defeat in their most recent starts, still warrant respect.
Unlucky Vega seeking Middle Park compensation
The Jessica Harrington-trained Lucky Vega is the most obvious of that group, having already won the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh in great style. At the time, that 3½ length defeat of The Lir Jet represented arguably the best display we’d seen all year in the division. The manner in which he travelled and put the race to bed was very taking. In terms of his development, it was a positive he stayed straight under pressure having edged left in his previous two starts.
That form made him a leading fancy for the National Stakes at the Curragh earlier this month. While he settled well over the longer trip behind the leaders, the field compressed entering the closing stages and Lucky Vega was the primary sufferer, getting badly checked just over a furlong from home, which ended his winning chance.
There is no question Lucky Vega is better than that. It is an interesting move from connections to return him to six furlongs rather than stay at seven and aim for the Dewhurst a fortnight later, but he certainly didn’t lack pace in the Phoenix Stakes.
Another one that could represent the Phoenix/National form is Aidan O’Brien’s St Mark’s Basilica. O’Brien hasn’t been having a great season with two-year-olds, but the wheels are starting to turn and St Mark’s Basilica took a good step towards delivering on the high regard he is held by finishing third in the National. Mind, the way he shaped didn’t suggest that a return to six furlongs would be the obvious way to go.
The form of the Prix Morny is also likely to be represented on Saturday with the Clive Cox-trained Nando Parrado, and the Andrew Balding-trained Tactical, who finished second and fifth respectively. Nando Parrado ran a solid if somewhat unspectacular race that day, but it can be viewed more positively when considered the context of him having a setback prior, which ruled him out of the Prix Robert Papin, while racing on a different part of the track to the winner. Tactical can also potentially have his run upgraded given he got hampered at the start and was the only other one to race with Nando Parrado early on. That said, both had some shine taken off them by those defeats, and more will be needed.
All told, this year’s Middle Park looks well up to standard. It promises to bring together an engaging mix of fast improvers against others that already have Group 1 form in the book. The pecking order amongst the sprinting two-year-olds, therefore, should look a lot clearer come Saturday evening.