O’Brien ready to rule Flat season once more
Champion trainer set to continue winning ways Enable and Cracksman can repeat last year’s triumphs
It may have seemed a little incongruous with post-Cheltenham snow still hanging about but the British turf Flat season began at Doncaster yesterday – hardly a harbinger of spring this year.
Though the Derby is only 10 weeks away, far from it being quick out of the blocks, the Flat season is a little like a hibernating tortoise which sticks its nose out of its box, sniffs the air and decides it will go back to sleep until after the Grand National has been run.
It is the early Classic trials at the Craven and Greenham meetings when it really kicks off.
But, with last season’s two star performers, Cracksman and Enable, both coming back for more, we should all have a spring in our step, not just their trainer, John Gosden, and jockey, Frankie Dettori.
Though less accomplished than his stable companion, Cracksman ended the season with a higher rating (130) after his scintillating seven-length victory in the Champion Stakes.
The so-far best son of Frankel is now expected to start off in the Prix Ganay at Longchamp on April 29.
As a rule of thumb, fillies generally feel the cold a bit more than colts, so Enable (128), which won the Oaks, Irish Oaks, King George, Yorkshire Oaks and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe last year, is pencilled in for a late May/early June start, either in the Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh or the Coronation Cup at Epsom.
“History is against us,” said Lord Grimthorpe, racing manager to owner Khalid Abdullah, referring to her [Enable’s] defence of the Arc, “but it’s not putting anyone off.
“Physically and mentally, she seems in good form and her big three targets will be the King George, the Juddmonte International and the Arc.”
While jump fans are still coming to terms with the fact that Cheltenham was dominated by two Irish trainers, Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, Aidan O’Brien remains out on his own on the Flat both there and in the big races here.
Though former super-power Godolphin began to show green shoots of rechael covery, Charlie Appleby and Saeed bin Suroor are still some way off blocking the road to stop O’Brien’s onward march.
Last year, O’Brien sent out a record 28 Group One winners around the globe, he was champion trainer in Ireland and Britain, and the horse which broke Bobby Frankel’s record in the Racing Post Trophy, Saxon Warrior, went into winter quarters as the Guineas and Derby favourite.
Clemmie, the sister of last year’s Guineas-Irish Guineas winner Churchill, is favourite for the 1,000 Guineas.
As for keeping it at home, Expert Eye looked head and shoulders above his contemporaries when winning the Vintage Stakes at Goodwood for Sir MiGrey Stoute but he was bitterly disappointing in the Dewhurst after becoming fractious in the stalls. He ran no race at all.
Connections retain the faith, however, and one can assume that his trainer did not get to where he is today by hoping a stalls problem such as Expert Eye’s will just go away, and he will have had plenty of extra tutorials on the subject during the winter.
If there is a North-South divide over jumps, there is no such thing on the Flat and the biggest threat to O’Brien’s annexation of the early Classics could come from Middleham, where Mark Johnston trains the colt Elarqam, a son of his 1,000 Guineas-winning filly Attraction, and Karl Burke looks after Laurens, the Fillies’ Mile winner. Elarqam, another colt by Frankel, looked very good winning the Tattersalls Stakes at Newmarket in September and a proven ability to handle Newmarket is no bad thing.
The same applies to Laurens, although her breeding suggests a mile will be her minimum this year.
“Siyouni, her sire, is such an influence for speed that, at the moment, the plan is to go for the Guineas,” said Burke yesterday.
“If, in the next month, we feel she wants further, we’d switch to the Musidora but she is not slow. Otherwise, we think the Prix de Diane, the French Oaks, is her race.”
Burke also has the sprinters Havana and Unfortunately in his yard. Havana Grey may find it tough in the early part of the season because he will have to take on his elders over five furlongs but Unfortunately will be aimed at the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot.
The best race of 2017 was the Ascot Gold Cup in which the popular Big Orange beat Order of St George in a thriller. Big Orange flew out on Friday for the Dubai Gold Cup, a traditional starting point for his year, on World Cup night next Saturday. But he and Europe’s stayers have the boost of the new Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers Million to go for this year.
The £1million bonus is for any horse who can win one of either the Sagaro, Ormonde, Yorkshire Cup or Henry II in
Five things to look out for in 2018 Will Aidan O’Brien finally crack the Kentucky Derby?
His five attempts have failed so far but he has earmarked Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn this time. The form of the Del Mar race has worked out and he was a cosy winner of a Listed race at Dundalk recently.
Can Josephine Gordon ride her first Group One winner?
Nick Rust, chief executive of the BHA, says he wants a female champion jockey within five years, so Gordon, who rode 106 winners last year, had better get her skates on. Her next logical step is a Group One and Royal Ascot winner.
Will French racegoers bother with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe?
There are usually more British racegoers than French and Brexit will not change that, so it will be interesting to see whether Parisians come out in force to the €140million Longchamp redevelopment.
Can Archie Watson continue his upward trajectory?
Watson, 29, trained a staggering 56 winners last year in his first full season. He has already had 21 this year and the Lambourn trainer has had to expand to a second yard.
Will ‘dark horses’ justify billing?
The official handicappers, who are paid a living to rate horses, have revealed their ‘dark horses’ for the season. So, watch out for: Without Parole, High Garden, Willie John, Key Victory, Contingent, Wootton and Amedeo Modigliani.
May before landing the Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup and Lonsdale Cup. Silvestre de Sousa has a favourite’s chance of retaining his champion jockey status. Only a handful have the ability and backing to win it and some of those would consider they have bigger fish to fry. De Sousa, at least, is up for it.
Of course, if I had to be a pound behind one jockey at the end of the year it would be Ryan Moore.
He won more than the top two jockeys at Cheltenham combined in two minutes last Sunday when guiding Ping Hai Star to success in the Hong Kong Derby and, until the international racing returns to Hong Kong in December, Moore is likely to dominate the big-race scene.
A year to remember: Frankie Dettori celebrates his seven-length victory on Cracksman, one of last season’s star performers, in the Champions Stakes at Ascot last October