CONCIERGE kicked off the new season by winning a 6f Fast Track Qualifier at Newcastle on the opening day and has since enhanced his reputation over in Qatar. The son of Society Rock - sire of last season’s 3YO champion Corinthia Knight - scored a decisive victory on the Tapeta, despite being wrong at the weights with his more fancied rivals. He landed a valuable prize over 7f in Doha just before Christmas to earn a robust rating of 101.
Kempton Park’s qualifier in January went to veteran trainer David Elsworth‘s lightly raced No Nonsense, who lived up to his name to score in impressive fashion. A big strapping son of Acclamation, he overcame a slow start to supplement his win over the same 6f in novice company. He is open to significant improvement and promises to stay further, so it’s worth bearing in mind that he might just find Lingfield on the sharp side come finals day.
No Nonsense was well beaten on debut by Roger Charlton’s Khalid Abdullah filly Red Impression, who posted one of the most eye-catching performances of the season so far when shattering the 6f juvenile course record at Lingfield in November. Unbeaten in two starts following that six-length romp, she needs two more runs to qualify but could be a threat to all if she turns up on the big day.
William Haggas is assembling a potentially powerful team for Good Friday which will include Wolverhampton’s Fast Track winner Deputise. By champion All-Weather sire Kodiac, he brought plenty of experience to Dunstall Park in early December, having won three times over the minimum trip. Deputise still had to prove himself over 6f and, despite travelling powerfully, was desperate for the line. His jockey Tom Marquand feels he will be better suited by the sharper test at Lingfield.
Race replay: Deputise holds on at Wolverhampton.
Richard Fahey’s Group 2 placed performer Charming Kid ran much better behind No Nonsense than he did in Deputise’s qualifier and further enhanced his claims with a win at Dundalk in mid-January. He could be peaking at the right time. Charming Kid could be joined in the Final by John Ryan’s Shining Armor, who out-ran his rating to get within a neck of Deputise at Wolverhampton and has since won at Kempton and finished a creditable fifth in a valuable 7f conditions race in Dubai.
Simon Crisford has been enjoying a profitable winter with some well bred individuals including the filly Kareena Kapoor, who returned from a six-month lay-off to break her duck in a 6f Newcastle novice stakes in early January. She was only a short-head behind subsequent Group 1 winner Pretty Pollyanna on debut at Yarmouth and could yet emerge as a Final contender.
Mark Johnston, who went close with Lake Volta in last year’s Final, has another candidate in Deep Intrigue, who put a disappointing effort in Kempton’s qualifier behind him with a dominant win at Lingfield Park. This imposing colt is far from the finished article but should continue to progress.
Hugo Palmer’s James Street has taken his form to a new level since undergoing wind surgery, winning over 6f at Kempton before splitting No Nonsense and Charming Kid in that qualifier Deep Intrigue ran so poorly in. However, he couldn’t confirm the form with Johnston’s colt at Lingfield a couple of weeks later.
Archie Watson took the decision to geld Quiet Endeavour after his below-par performance in a Fast Track feature at Wolverhampton before Christmas. This multiple 6f All-Weather winner still has time to qualify and, given his profile, couldn’t be under-estimated off a mark that should guarantee him a place in the Final.
Fast Track Qualifier: 20th February at Newcastle (6f Conditions Stakes).
FILLIES AND MARES
William Haggas has enjoyed a fine record in this Final, winning it last season with Diagnostic and narrowly missing out 12 months earlier with the classy Muffri’Ha. He could launch a two-pronged attack on the distaff crown in April with the progressive ISLAND OF LIFE and Move Swiftly. The former emerged as his key contender, however, when she stepped up in trip to win Wolverhampton’s 7f Fast Track Qualifier on 2nd January, completing a hat-trick of All-Weather victories and improving her official rating from 82 to 101.
Whilst she promises to relish Lingfield’s easy 7f, stable companion Move Swiftly would almost certainly find the trip too sharp. She has produced her best form over 1m, including at Lingfield in November when she got going too late to peg back Rasima in the Listed Fleur De Leys stakes over 1m - the category’s first qualifier for Finals Day.
Roger Varian’s Rasima was dropping back in distance herself when taking the Fleur De Lys, and boasts a consistent record on the All-Weather. She may also find things happening a little too quickly over 7f but represents a trainer who won the Final in 2016 with Realtra - a filly who had also shown some of her best form over further. Varian also has the improving Contrive, who completed a hat-trick at Wolverhampton to edge her mark up into the 90s. Like Rasima, she looks at her best over at least 1m.
Among the other leading contenders at the half-way stage is Ben Haslam’s admirable Castle Hill Cassie, who deserves plenty of credit for finishing so close to Island Of Life at Wolverhampton despite conceding a 3lb penalty for her Listed win at Pontefract last summer. She also confirmed her credentials by beating another Final pretender, Ghazawaat, over 7f at Wolverhampton before Christmas.
Race replay: Island Of Life beat Castle Hill Cassie at Newcastle earlier this month.
Switched from Jean-Claude Rouget’s care in France in the autumn, Hamdan Al Maktoum’s daughter of Siyouni was making her debut for Gosden when Castle Hill Cassie caught her in the shadow of the post at Wolverhampton in November. Since then she stayed on to be a close fourth against the boys in an all-age conditions race over 7f at Lingfield (in first-time blinkers) and seemed to appreciate the step up to 1m when beating her own sex at the Surrey track last time.
Godolphin has enjoyed considerable success on Finals Day and will have strong claims with Dubai One, who proved her liking for 7f when out-gunning some seasoned handicappers at Wolverhampton in December. She remains a fresh horse and has proven form around Lingfield.
Another to consider is Hugo Palmer’s Shamardal filly Heavenly Holly, who put herself in the picture with consecutive novice stakes wins at Chelmsford and Wolverhampton earlier in the season before running with credit in a Listed race in Deauville just before Christmas. With an official rating of 94, she shouldn’t have any trouble making the cut.
Mick Channon knows what it takes to win this category - he succeeded with Volunteer Point a few years ago - and has claims with the tough Pattie, who was good enough to make the frame in the Listed Hyde Stakes at Kempton before finishing third to Island Of Life and Castile Hill Cassie in the Wolverhampton qualifier despite enduring a wide run.
Lucymai is held by most of the leading contenders but never seems to run a bad race. She was third in last season’s Final but saves her best form for Chelmsford City, where she has won five times, so will warrant respect if she lines up, as expected, in the Fast Track Qualifier there in February.
Fast Track Qualifiers: 7th February at Chelmsford City (1m Conditions Stakes); 1st March at Dundalk (7f Conditions Stakes).
This season’s Final could see the winners of both of last Good Friday’s sprints go head-to-head. French raider CITY LIGHT produced a remarkable finishing burst to upset Listed Cleves Stakes winner Kachy and went on to pay a handsome compliment to the Championships by finishing second in the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Stephane Wattel’s star hasn’t been seen on the All-Weather since snatching the glory at Lingfield but is expected to bid for his place in this year’s line-up by winning France’s Fast Track Qualifier, their Listed Prix Anabaa, at Chantilly in March.
If he makes it, City Light will almost certainly face Archie Watson’s 3YO champion Corinthia Knight, who has been gelded since confirming himself the best young sprinter, albeit in a marginally slower time. The son of Society Rock confirmed himself a force in the senior division by landing a 5f Lingfield handicap off a mark of 105 in early December.
Kachy is taking a lower key route to this year’s Final. His trainer Tom Dascombe swerved the Listed Golden Rose Stakes at Lingfield in November to wait for a conditions race at Wolverhampton on Boxing Day that the six-year-old turned into a procession. His only defeat in four runs on synthetics came in the 2018 Final and he should prove tough to deny when he returns to action in the Listed Cleves Stakes and possibly the Listed Hever Stakes at Lingfield.
Race replay: Kachy routes the Wolverhampton field on Boxing Day.
The Golden Rose went to Hugo Palmer’s hugely impressive Encrypted who, with a record of four wins from five starts on sand, is likely to be kept under wraps with his qualification assured. He proved too good for David O’Meara’s ever-reliable Intisaab, who gave the form a rock-solid look. The eight-year-old has since run well in Dubai and could be joined in the Final by stable companion Alsvinder - winner of a 6f handicap at Lingfield in early January. He needs to win at least once more to guarantee making the cut but gives the impression he has more to offer.
A new name on the sprinting scene is Keystroke, who made his considerable reputation as a 7f/1m specialist for Jeremy Noseda. Equipped with a first-time tongue-tie, he made his 6f debut at Kempton Park on 9th January after almost a year off and made an instant impact, holding Noseda’s strong-finishing favourite Cenotaph to nudge his rating up to 105.
Cenotaph entered the sprinting picture in the summer after joining Noseda from Aidan O’Brien and has also emerged as a serious contender for the Final. His three domestic All-Weather wins have all been achieved at Chelmsford City and whilst he couldn’t quite match Keystroke for a turn of foot, he could be dangerous rattling home off a strong pace around Lingfield.
David Simcock’s speedy chestnut Doctor Sardonicus is a potent threat when he gets loose on the sharp end, and has a good record when fresh as he demonstrated at Wolverhampton over Christmas. He has produced his best form around Chelmsford - a track that suits his prominent style - but also has a Lingfield win on his CV. I expect to see him take his chance in the Listed Hever Stakes over 5f in February.
Newcastle’s Fast Track Qualifier over 5f went to Robert Cowell’s Encore d’Or, a big horse when defied a three-month lay-off and his trainer Robert Cowell’s cold spell to score under Luke Morris. He could now head for the Listed Hever Stakes before taking his chance in the Final - a race he was third in back in 2017.
Fast Track Qualifiers: 2nd February at Lingfield Park (6f Listed Cleves Stakes); 5th March at Chantilly (6f Listed Prix Anabaa).
Classic-winning Irish trainer Jim Bolger will be a welcome new participant at the £1 million Finals Day if he allows his Fast Track Qualifier THEOBALD to line-up in the Mile. The four-year old has progressed well this winter on the Polytrack at Dundalk, winning that qualifier early in the New Year under experienced stable jockey Kevin Manning.
Securing his place in the Final off a mark of 97 at the expense of the now retired 2016 champion Captain Joy, the son of Teofilo will have to prove himself on a much sharper track come April - a comment that also applies to Joseph O’Brien’s King’s Field who beat Theobald in a 1m handicap at Dundalk in December to confirm his own credentials. This lightly raced son of Kodiac is being campaigned in Dubai but looks a legitimate contender at this stage.
Last year’s Final produced a shock result when French raider Lucky Team flashed home at 40-1 for trainer Joel Boisnard and jockey Theo Bachelot. His performance could not be labelled a fluke, as he denied unbeaten All-Weather star Second Thought a seventh win on sand in a course record time. He finished well from too far back in a 9.5f Fast Track Qualifier at Deauville at the end of November and again ran respectably in defeat in a 7.5f contest there last time.
Second Thought wasn’t seen last year until striking in the Listed Lady Wulfruna Stakes at Wolverhampton in March - a Fast Track Qualifier - and could be set to take a similarly direct path to Lingfield once again. However, his trainer William Haggas also has Original Choice, who had the run of a messy race to score at Wolverhampton towards the end of last year but didn’t fire on his first start in Meydan.
Original Choice was always better placed than the hot favourite Salute The Soldier at Dunstall Park and although Clive Cox was left frustrated that his progressive gelding didn’t quite get up, there’s clearly more to come off his current mark of 94. He would need to win at least once more to get into the Final but looks capable of further progress.
Kempton Park’s Listed Hyde Stakes in November is always fiercely contested and Dean Ivory’s Flaming Spear came out on top to clinch a guaranteed place in the Final. Potent when produced off a strong pace, he has shown his best form on galloping tracks (his other two wins have come at Newcastle) which raises a concern about his ability to handle Lingfield’s tight turns.
Jamie Osborne’s Hathal - formerly with Williams Haggas - made an eye catching All-Weather debut behind Flaming Spear at Kempton and has since run well in Listed company in France before winning a 9.5f conditions race at Wolverhampton. Rated 107, that performance opens him up to the possibility of running in the big Middle Distance races over 10f.
Another with options is Mark Johnston’s highly progressive four-year-old Matterhorn, who has scaled new heights with wins at Chelmsford City, Southwell and Lingfield. This strong traveller is highly effective at 1m but looked just as accomplished when he stepped up to 10f to win a Lingfield handicap off 93 in early January.
David O’Meara’s consistent front-runner Salateen allayed any concerns at 1m when winning around Lingfield in conditions company. A Listed winner on Tapeta, he has been in the money in his last nine starts on sand and looks assured a deserved crack at the big prize off a mark of 103.
Another confirmed trailblazer who came back to form with a vengeance early in the New Year is Tom Dascombe’s Arcanada, who loves Lingfield’s tight bends but finished stone last in the 2018 Final despite arriving at Lingfield with a hat-trick under his girth.
Fast Track Qualifiers: 16th February at Cagnes-Sur-Mer (1m Listed Prix Saonois); 9th March at Wolverhampton (7f Listed Lady Wulfruna Stakes).
WISSAHICKON will become the highest rated winner of the £200,000 Easter Classic if he is successful on Good Friday. John Gosden’s colt went into the Listed Quebec Stakes in December off his current mark of 117 and the Cambridgeshire winner readily justified his cramped odds. Winner of four of his five races on an artificial surface, the son of US sire Tapit sets a demanding standard in the Classic but before that is likely to return to Lingfield for the Group 3 Winter Derby over the same course and distance in February.
Race replay: Cambridgeshire hero Wissahickon won the Quebec Stakes in December.
Gosden also has the option of aiming Court House at the big 10f races. While the son of Dawn Approach stepped up to 1m4f to win a match at Lingfield, this dual 1m All-Weather scorer should prove ideally suited by a strongly run race over the intermediate trip and would be an ideal deputy for Wissahickon with a current rating of 105.
Mick Appleby’s star Big Country has posted two gigantic efforts in defeat at Lingfield, despite carrying a penalty for his Listed win on turf last summer. He returned to beat all but the strong-finishing Master The World In The Listed Churchill Stakes in November and compromised his chance of getting closer to Wissahickon by running wide off the home turn in the Quebec.
Talented enough to win two of the All-Weather’s biggest handicaps, the Lincoln Trial and the Rosebery, the imposing Big Country isn’t ideally suited by Lingfield’s downhill turn but in spite of that, his form is rock solid and he will be a threat to all in the Winter Derby Trial, the Winter Derby itself and the Classic on Good Friday.
Master The World has been a revelation around Lingfield for David Elsworth, winning last season’s Winter Derby as well as back-to-back Churchill Stakes. He beat all but Victory Bond in last season’s Classic, to boot, and will come back for another crack at the Good Friday feature a fresh horse after being given a mid-season break.
Like Big Country, reigning champion Victory Bond runs the Final venue well despite his preference for a more galloping track and has so far been kept away from the big Middle Distance races. He found the mile an inadequate test at Kempton Park in the Hyde Stakes in November but looks set to step back up in trip in a probable quest for the Winter Derby-Easter Classic double.
Victory Bond’s stable companion Addeybb carried the stable’s hopes in the Churchill Stakes but failed to justify market support, finishing third behind Master The World and Big Country. Despite being 10lb clear on the book, he was penalised for his Group 2 success on turf and was stepping up in distance. He appeared to stay, but was clearly ridden to get it and had to run his race too soon from a difficult position turning in. He shouldn’t be written off.
France could be well represented by Fast Track Qualifier winner Trais Fluors, from the stables of master trainer Andre Fabre. He predictably stamped his class on a 9.5f Listed race at Deauville in November, having made the frame in the Group 1 Prix d’Ispahan at Longchamp earlier in the year, and will add some star quality to the Classic field despite having almost certainly having around 8lb to find with Wissahickon off level weights.
Dark horses include Archie Watson’s former Qatar winner Mango Tango, who lowered the colours of the smart Toast Of New York in a 10f conditions race at Lingfield before Christmas, and Stuart Williams’s teak-tough gelding Pactolus. He may struggle to make the line-up off his mark around 100 but has a knack for defying the assessor - just as he did when beaten only around two lengths in fourth in last season’s Classic.
Fast Track Qualifiers: 2nd February at Lingfield Park (10f Listed Winter Derby Trial); 23rd February at Lingfield Park (10f Group 3 Winter Derby).
A cast-off from Aidan O’Brien’s powerful Ballydoyle stables in Ireland has announced himself a leading contender for the 2m Final. Aircraft Carrier, bought at the autumn sales for 27,000 gns by John Ryan’s owner John Stocker, stepped up in class to win Wolverhampton’s Fast Track Qualifier on 14th January and confirm his place in the Final line-up.
The Declaration Of War colt, who cost $350,000 as a yearling, had won two handicaps over 1m6f but his jockey Martin Harley reported that he was even better suited by a greater test of stamina. There’s nothing to suggest that Lingfield’s idiosyncrasies will highlight any vulnerabilities so connections can be rightfully optimistic of a big pay day.
Race replay: Aircraft Carrier powered home at Wolverhampton last week .
By contrast, Philip Kirby’s Stargazer has produced all his All-Weather form on Newcastle’s galloping track so this Fast Track Qualifier winner will head to Lingfield with something to prove. That said, he deserves to take his chance after beating Godolphin’s Festival Of Ages and the admirable Watersmeet over the extended 2m at Gosforth Park.
Festival Of Ages, a lightly raced colt from the stable of Charlie Appleby, was expected to gain compensation for that defeat in another qualifier at Wolverhampton but found Aircraft Carrier just too strong. A big-striding horse, he was done no favours when Watersmeet carried him wide off the home turn and with a clearer passage he may well have got closer to the winner.
Watersmeet - placed in the last two Marathon Finals - won for the 12th time on the All-Weather at Kempton Park in November but the popular eight-year-old grey has looked vulnerable in two qualifiers since. Age may just be catching up with him now.
He was also beaten by Brendan Powell’s dual-purpose performer Kasperenko in the Listed Floodlit Stakes at Kempton in the autumn. The 104-rated gelding won a valuable handicap over just short of 1m6f at Chelmsford last year so should have no problem staying Lingfield’s 2m effectively. He still needs two more runs to qualify, however.
John Gosden might consider getting the classy Corelli qualified. Third in last spring’s Lingfield Derby Trial, he came back from a lay-off to win a 1m4f handicap at Southwell to make it two from two on the All-Weather. He is bred to stay, being a relative of St Leger winner Lucarno.
Another strong though not certain contender is Nicky Henderson’s Verdana Blue, a classy jumping mare who stunned Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton but was good enough to chase home Spark Plug in the Listed Wildflower Stakes over 1m4f on Polytrack. Whilst her trainer Nicky Henderson hasn’t ruled out a crack at the Marathon Final, she is on target to run in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival the previous month.
Alan King, another trainer better known for his exploits over jumps, has two possible players in Cosmeapolitan and Caspar The Cub, who were first and second over 1m4f at Lingfield on New Year’s Eve. The former needs to bolster his mark of 94 but has won over 2m, while Caspar has improved his rating from 76 to 94 following four consecutive victories on sand. He needs to prove himself over the Final trip but his dam won over 1m5f and his grand-dam over 1m7f, so his prospects are encouraging.
Fast Track Qualifiers: 16th February at Kempton Park (2m Conditions Stakes); 7th March at Chelmsford City (2m Conditions Stakes).
TRAINERS’ TITLE RACE HOTTING UP
JOHN GOSDEN’s policy of introducing and educating well-bred young horses on the All-Weather tracks has kept him at the top of the trainers’ championship at the half-way stage - and word is he has plenty more blue-blooded talent to unleash as we head towards the spring.
Enable’s half-sister Entitle’s win at Lingfield, Dubai Warrior’s emphatic debut at Chelmsford City and the swooping success of Anthony Oppenheimer’s newcomer Sucellus at Wolverhampton have been among the highlights, while Winter Derby favourite Wissahickon spearheads his battalion of older horses.
Within striking range of Gosden is last season’s champion Mick Appleby, while Archie Watson - runner-up after an epic battle with Appleby in 2018 - is also prominent on the leaderboard.
No trainer can boast a strike rate as healthy as William Haggas’s, however. His first 19 winners - including Fast Track Qualifier scorers Island Of Life and Deputise - were achieved at a remarkable figure of 37 per cent.
The two Rogers, Charlton and Varian, were particularly busy during the opening months of the season while smaller trainer John Ryan warrants recognition for his impressive strike rate with relatively few runners. Ryan, who won a Fast Track Qualifier with Marathon contender Aircraft Carrier, scored with 12 of his first 45 runners (27 per cent).
RELUCTANT HERO KIRBY GOING GREAT GUNS
Former champion ADAM KIRBY all but ruled himself out of the battle to become winter champion at the start of the season, but he had to have a re-think after a prolific run propelled him to the top of the table.
Hot on his heels is Robert Havlin, who has capitalised on the strength in depth of his boss John Gosden’s Clarehaven Stables. The Scot reached mid-January only three behind Kirby at a strike rate of 23 per cent.
Reigning champion Luke Morris, Britain’s busiest jockey, has been playing catch-up after taking a two-week holiday before Christmas but has put himself into contention in recent weeks.
Leading lady is Nicola Currie, who not only rode out her claim last year but also reached her first ever century of winners. Like Currie, northern-based Callum Rodriguez has been in flying form since losing his apprentice status in 2018 and began the year with a return of around 22 per cent at his local track, Newcastle.