Maj. Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)
The 69th renewal of the Indian Oaks looks to be a race which in effect is a re-run of the Indian 1000 Guineas. The difference is that this time the fillies will be going over a mile and a half and the additional 800 m. mean that earlier inter se positions may or may not hold good. Last month, Alma Mater (Royal Kingdom - La Pieta) finished three-parts of a length ahead of Botswana (Invincible Spirit - Kerataka) with Black Magic Woman a neck behind in third and only a short-head to the fourth placed Hills and Stars. A little over two lengths further away was Smashing (Holy Roman Emperor - Exquisite) in fifth.
The connections of Black Magic Woman have wisely and realistically taken their filly out knowing that the Oaks trip was beyond her prowess while Hills and Stars is keeping her powder dry for the Indian Derby. Alma Mater, Botswana and Smashing are the obvious three aces that Shroff holds and to that you can add Volterra to give him a nap hand. Volterra was not a runner in the 1000 while the other three haven't raced since the first Classic. All four have been systematically honed on the track and whichever way you look at their workouts, all that can be said is that they are fit as the proverbial fiddle. Everyone tends to look at things from their own perspective and those who are gushing over Smashing’s gallop over 1800 m. have missed that Volterra has been worked twice over the same distance and actually returned a better time on 8 January. In any case, all that track work indicates is general fitness. It is not how hard you hit the ball in practice which matters in any sport but what you dish out in the actual match does.
This is a very unusual Oaks field in that the three highest rated contenders do not really have the pedigree for a mile and a half Classic. In fact, had Hills and Stars, In the Spotlight, Southern Bay and Forever Glory been running, Alma Mater, Botswana and Smashing - all three unbeaten going into the 1000 - would have had a job getting their numbers in the frame. In their absence, someone has to win but don't count on the winner being a serious contender for the Indian Derby or the Invitation Cup. The obvious question is, which of the fillies is that 'someone'? A year's racing has sorted out the 2008 crop and it is now strung out. However, as the longer distances are attempted, the twin factor of class and stamina comes into play.
Alma Mater is unbeaten in three starts and is already a Classic winner. In the 1000, she was drawn 16 of 17 but Prakash moved her diagonally to the rails within the first 200 m. or so and she stayed there till the bend where she skirted the whole field and came into the straight widest of all. Then, as her surge commenced, she again cut in and finished close to the rails. No filly covered as much ground in that race as Alma Mater and she came from last at halfway stage to win. Full marks to her considering that as a winner of her only two previous races, she was also very inexperienced. In a competitive Oaks, Alma Mater would have her hands full as on pedigree she is not meant for the trip. The fourth Classic winner for her sire Royal Kingdom - Holding Court, Democraticus and Sun Kingdom being the previous three - she comes from a top class international family - that of Sadler's Wells, Nureyev, Thatch, Bachelor Duke and others - that is at best at a mile to 2000 m. Royal Kingdom is not an influence for stamina – the likes of Sun Kingdom and Doi Moi being exceptions rather than the rule - so he cannot be counted on adding to Alma Mater's staying potential. There are intricate patterns in Alma Mater's pedigree which enhance her class and they should stand her in good stead.
Botswana did everything right in the 1000 except win. Alma Mater's run on the wide outside may have caught her off-guard but against that is the fact that Black Magic Woman was keeping her honest in the last last 200 m. or so. She was all out to hold Black Magic Woman and probably did not have much left in the tank. All Invincible Spirit's seven wins were gained over 1200 m. He was a sprinter pure and simple. His progeny stays a bit further than him and their average wining distance is a trifle short of a mile. Every sire produces horses which excel on either side of the average winning distance and Invincible Spirit has sired a winner of the Prix du Jockey Club, Gr.1 (the French Derby) - Lawman - run over 2200 m. Lawman, however, had stout staying influences Shirley Heights and Nijinsky close up and came from a classier family. Botswana's dam traces to Lindos Ojos, a family which has come into the prominence in the last 60 years. (Incidentally, the first big winner of this family was Priorate, a son of Lindos Ojos, who won the Eclipse Stakes of India in 1949). Again, this is a family that is at its best between 1600 m. and 2000 m. Alma Mater's family, though, is much superior to that of Botswana.
Smashing has the excuse of her jockey losing his stick in the 1000 and that may have cost her unbeaten status. She wasn't very far behind winner; on the other hand, Lake Paradise and Haunting Fantasy were just a neck and a neck adrift and last two named fillies are rated about 20 points below her. The "bad day at office" plea would have been admissible had this race been over the same distance. With another 800 m. to travel and given her pedigree there must be some reservations. Her young sire Holy Roman Emperor is only reasonably - not outstandingly - successful and the average winning distance of his progeny is a mile. Her dam sire, Galileo, is of course world class but the family is essentially a speedy one. The families of Alma Mater and Botswana have much more class. The Danehill-Sadler's Wells cross is eminently successful and it remains to be seen how much the immediate connection of Holy Roman Emperor - a son of Danehill - and Galileo - a son of Sadler's Wells - upgrades a plebeian, speedy clan and brings it into classic reaches. Holy Roman Emperor-Galileo is a much more powerful immediate connection than Royal Kingdom-Spectrum (Alma Mater) or Invincible Spirit-Doyoun (Botswana).
There are no formulae or ready-reckoners which can forecast how far a horse will stay or what it's ideal distance is. At best, they are rough rules of the thumb. Every horse is an individual and some do not conform to the dictates of the pedigree. An astute trainer or a good jockey, having the first hand experience of a horse, are sometimes able to make the correct decisions. The finest example of this - always worth a repetition in case it has been mentioned earlier - is Frankel who is unbeaten after nine starts. By Galileo out of a Danehill mare, he is a three-parts brother to Bullet Train who won the Lingfield Derby Trial over 2200 m. Sir Henry Cecil, despite having trained both, has never sent Frankel beyond a mile! The average winning distance of Galileo's progeny is over 2200 m. and surely Sir Cecil has been aware of that fact. His genius lies in correctly assessing that Frankel was not an 'average' Galileo.
The three aces in Shroff's hand having been discussed, it is time to move on to the fourth. That is Volterra (Razeen - Averoff) who has won her only start to date stylishly. She is a full-sister to Star Luminary (Poonawalla Bangalore Derby,Gr.1, Bangalore Oaks, Gr.2), Grand Madame (Calcutta Oaks, Gr.3) and closely related to Altenburg (Herbertsons Bagpiper Bangalore Derby, Gr.1) so there are no doubts about her getting the distance. As to her class, one has to respect her trainer's judgement. He wouldn't have pitched her into a Classic had he any reservations on that score. She has worked as well as his more illustrious trio and the only aspect on which a finger can be laid against her is her inexperience. But then, Shroff himself was on Classical Act when he won the Kingfisher Derby Bangalore with just one previous start.
One other filly deserves to be singled out and that is Romantique (China Visit - Romantic Liaison). A close third behind Pronto Pronto in the Kingfisher Derby Bangalore, Gr.1, she never showed up at any stage in the 1000 which remains her only subsequent start. Taken to Hyderabad for the Golconda Oaks, she returned without running and also having her starting stalls certificate revoked. She took an awfully long while - hood, Monty Roberts rug and all - to be coaxed into the stall in a mock race on Thursday and left the barrier sluggishly. On her Bangalore summer form, she would have beaten this lot comfortably. There is no evidence that she has in fact recaptured that form or that she is entirely cured of her starting kink. Also in the field are Capriole, Gossip, Haunting Fantasy, Neath and Swift Memories. Neath, a half-sister to Riyasat, is still a maiden; Swift Memories ran a poor race last time out in the Golconda Oaks while Capriole has won just once from ten starts.
Stephane Pasquier and Anthony Crastus will continue their association with Botswana and Smashing respectively but Prakash, who is retained by the Shirkes, has been claimed to ride Volterra and Richard Hughes has been booked for Alma Mater.
PAST THE POST
Some facts and figures about the Indian Oaks:-
* The terracotta, light blue sleeves and cap colours of the Gwalior family have been first past the post on five occasions.
* Trainers A.L.J. Talib and Uttam Singh have each saddled seven winners of the race.
* Shamu Chavan rode his last Indian Oaks winner in 1968. It was his fifth and his record still stands.
* Only two got-abroad fillies -- Highland Rule and Jacqueline -- have won the race.
* Razeen has himself sired six winners while his daughters have produced three. So he is the leading sire as well as the leading damsire.
* Poonawalla Farms lead Usha Stud 14-11 but Usha Stud's six consecutive winners -- Santorini Star, Forest Fantasy, Running Flame, Congratulations, Allaire and Pleasure Hunt -- is the longest winning sequence in any Indian Classic.
* The fastest Indian Oaks was run last year when Moonlight Romance was timed at 2.29. Multirosa took 2 mins and 53 seconds in 1967 to cover the same distance.
* Amazing Bay had 16 rivals to beat in 1996 but Reprint had to get better of just two in 1977.