IF IT'S MID-AUGUST, IT MUST BE YORK
One of the great features of racing in Great Britain is its large number of racecourses. This abundance enables meetings to be held on fresh ground as none of the programmes stretches for more than five days at a time. And the significant gaps between meets at any given location means the turf has a chance to recover so that pristine conditions prevail. Earlier this month, the Goodwood carnival concluded and now the gravy train moves on to the Knavesmire, as the vast track at York is known.
The feature of the meeting for punters is the competitive Betfred Ebor Handicap, due for decision next Saturday. For the purists, of course, the principal event is the Gr.1 Juddmonte International (10 fur., 88 yds.) which embellishes the opening day, Wednesday, August 17th. This year's renewal of this prestigious event, set for 3:40 p.m. BST (8:10 p.m. IST), has drawn 13 and the list of contenders is headed by the very high-class Postponed (by Dubawi).
It may be recalled that the much-improved five-year-old was forced to miss the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot last month due to a respiratory infection. Trainer Roger Varian has rightly adopted conservative tactics with his ward, who was taken away from Luca Cumani last year and moved at the instance of his owner the short distance from Bedford House Stables to Kremlin House Stables, both in Newmarket.
The reason that Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum chose this course of action is not self-evident. However the owner can have no cause for regret as the entire has remained unbeaten in three starts under his new management, having been seen in public most recently when annexing the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Cup (sponsored by Investec) at Epsom in June.
Varian was quite upbeat, despite the drop-back in trip from 12 furlongs, saying "He is a colt with terrific turn of foot and a high cruising speed. These attributes and the manner in which that he has been winning over a mile and a half suggest that the drop back in trip shouldn't be a problem. The nature of the track at York should play to his strengths. With five other Group One winners in the race, this looks a strong renewal but he seems fully recovered from the setback which ruled him out of the King George. He looks well and his work has been very pleasing."
Andrea Atzeni continues his profitable partnership on the 11 to 8 chance, who has a fairly good prospect of adding this prize to his burgeoning tally.
Races are however not won on paper but on the track in head-to-head competition. Adding spice to the concoction is Godolphin's progressive second favourite Hawkbill (by Kitten's Joy), who has won his last six starts, including most recently the Coral-Eclipse Stakes under the conditioning of Charlie Appleby. The chestnut, quoted at 4 to 1, is one of just two three-year-olds in the line-up, and will have the familiar figure of William Buick on his back.
Godolphin's representative, racing manager John Ferguson said: "The great thing about it is, it's a mile and a quarter, which we know he loves. He's very flexible as far as ground conditions are concerned. And although he is taking on some of the best mile and a quarter horses in Europe, we believe he deserves to be there. Charlie is very happy with him. He is a horse that's maturing mentally all the time. They've done a great job with him and I think he will run well."
A pair of schoolers, who have demonstrated their ability to hit the target in this very race not merely once in the past but five times each are Sir Michael Stoute and Aidan O'Brien, and both field runners with a realistic possibility of crossing the wire first.
Sir Michael Stoute's Juddmonte International winners include Shardari, Ezzoud and Singspiel. His most recent success in this race came 10 years ago with Notnowcato and this time his candidate is Ballymacoll Stud's lightly-raced six-year-old Arab Spring (by Monsun), who could theoretically step up. Jamie Spencer has been booked and the package is available at 25 to 1. Sir Michael also sends out the 33 to 1 Exosphere (by Beat Hollow) with Pat Smullen sporting the sponsors' silks.
From O'Brien's yard in Ballydoyle in County Tipperary, Ireland, come the 5 to 1 Highland Reel (by Galileo), winner of the "King George" from which Postponed was absent, and the 33 to 1 Sir Isaac Newton (by Galileo), fourth in the same race. The former has built up a formidable bank balance while roaming the globe and is tough as nails. He will have Seamie Heffernan in the saddle as regular pilot Ryan Moore is on the sidelines with a sore hip. "Heff", as he is commonly known, steered Highland Reel to victory in last year's Secretariat Stakes, so knows his mount well. O'Brien's lesser fancied runner will have Colm O'Donoghue aboard.
Frankie Dettori is on a high, having just completed 3,000 wins in Great Britain. He has a live mount in the John Gosden-trained 14 to 1 Wings Of Desire (by Pivotal), who – like Hawkbill – will enjoy an eight pound pull in the weights over his elders by virtue of being a sophomore. Last time out the chestnut ran a good second to Highland Reel in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Recent performances suggest that The Grey Gatsby (by Mastercraftsman) has just lost a step or two – he has been winless for almost two years. However, the Kevin Ryan-trained grey clearly likes this race as he has been placed in it the last two times it has been run. The in-form Danny Tudhope, fresh off a big win in the Arlington Million in Chicago last Saturday, replaces Jamie Spencer in the saddle.
The sole challenger from across the Channel is the Aga Khan's Dariyan (by Shamardal), who has a pretty good record at the trip – three wins and a couple of seconds from five attempts around 2000 m. His mere presence suggests he can play a part, what with ace Belgian rider Christophe Soumillon in the irons on Alain de Royer-Dupre's pupil.
Although rank outsiders have shocked from time to time – witness 50 to 1 Arabian Queen last year – it seems that the winner must surely come from amongst the top three choices in the betting.