Perhaps more than any other meeting during the Flat season; Future Champions Day both in name and racing content, merits closer scrutiny than any other day.
The races on the card – particularly the juvenile events, are steeped in history and have over countless decades provided the platform for Classic winners and sprint champions the following season.
The realignment of the fixtures list, enacted in 2011, brought the Middle Park Stakes and the Dewhurst Stakes together on the same card; a controversial move which has yet to be defined as a mistake or a stroke of genius.
Certainly for the purist, the fact that the two Group One races are now on the same day is disappointing, as it means we no longer have the intrigue of a Middle Park winner like Diesis or Lujain or Dream Ahead, adding an important and fascinating ingredient to the Dewhurst, as an existing Group One winner.
It could also be argued that the occurrence of the two races on the same card might to some extent “water down” the quality of the races.
On the other hand of course, Newmarket has had to readjust to losing the Champion Stakes, the Crown Jewel in its Autumn campaign and in theory, the day has put the juvenile form sharply in focus now.
Certainly the move did not seem to have inspired the general public to flock to Newmarket, imagination captured by the prospect of two juvenile championship races on one day and numbers seemed down on my previous visits to the old “Champions Day”.
However, the day remains compulsive viewing for the racing connoisseur, with excellent prize money and healthy competition on the racetrack.
The Challenge Stakes opened proceedings but undoubtedly the late withdrawal of the magnificent specimen that is Darwin, detracted from the race. As it was, rain had softened the ground sufficiently for Ballydoyle to pull the colt out; whilst fellow Irish challenger Fiesolana, revelled in the conditions, galloping clear of German contender Amarillo and the revitalised Libranno.
Whilst this may have been a Challenge Stakes lacking a big name, like a Kris, Moorestyle or a Selkirk, the filly Fiesolana is clearly very smart on her day and should be considered any time conditions are similar to yesterday’s.
An intriguing Middle Park Stakes brought together the Gimcrack winner Astaire, Flying Childers Stakes winner Green Door, the Mill Reef Stakes winner in Supplicant, the Cornwallis Stakes winner Hot Streak and from Ireland, the Phoenix Stakes winner Sudirman.
On paper at least, this looked a solid race – albeit one with sprinting form written all over it, as opposed to potential Guineas form for 2014.
Despite the involvement of so many big race winners, much of the intrigue and interest surrounded the hitherto unbeaten Aidan O’Brien colt Great White Eagle, who had made a big impression on debut before claiming the Go and Go Round Tower Stakes at the Curragh. It seemed that if there was a horse with potential Classic aspirations in the field, then the son of Elusive Quality was probably it and needed to win this race decisively.
In the event however, Great White Eagle never struck a blow and was disappointingly beaten, although his trainer later reported the ground had inconvenienced him and he had slightly stumbled in the Dip – suggesting a return trip to the Rowley Mile next May is unlikely.
At the front end of the race, Astaire showed tremendous early speed to pull his way to the front, with the help of the stand rails. Jallota helped to cut out the running along with Supplicant, while Hot Streak tracked the leader and his stable mate.
At the two furlong marker Astaire showed a really good turn of foot off the pace he had set to burst a couple of lengths clear – but started to wander off the rail, presenting a gap for Hot Streak to challenge. At this point the rest of the field were already cooked and Justice Day came through for third place.
As the line approached it was clear that Astaire was going to hold on grimly from Hot Streak but in truth, there did not look a lot left in the tank. It was a terrific training performance from Kevin Ryan, to saddle the first two home – and Astaire, a son of first season sire Intense Focus, has now won four of his five races, including a Gimcrack and Middle Park. That on paper is exceptional but one is mindful of the yard’s previous Middle Park winner Amadeus Wolf, who failed to last home in the Guineas and ultimately proved a sprinter.
So did the race live up to the billing of Future Champion? I am not convinced it did. Current two year old sprinting champion seems an appropriate title and I am sure the yard were rightly celebrating this success for what it was. The jury is out on whether Astaire is to take top billing among the sprinters or milers next season but he has had a terrific 2013.
So to the Dewhurst Stakes. Europe’s Champion two year old race. A race won by the likes of Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Grundy, Wollow, The Minstrel, El Gran Senor, Ajdal, Generous, Dr Devious, Zafonic, Pennekamp, Rock of Gibraltar, Shamardal, Sir Percy, New Approach, Frankel and of course Dawn Approach.
The Dewhurst has long earned its right of passage to be considered a juvenile championship race as well as a breeding ground for future champions.
Often in history, the race has thrown up a champion from a strong line-up; take El Gran Senor for example – who beat Rainbow Quest.
On paper anyway, the six-runner field for this year’s renewal seemed to lack a little strength in depth. Anjaal had won the July Stakes but had not run since – and one wonders if he might have been better placed in the Middle Park.
Cable Bay had run creditably in a number of pattern races, placing in the Richmond Stakes, Gimcrack Stakes, Champagne Stakes and Tattersalls Stakes – he was a model of consistency and represented exposed but solid form.
Friendship appeared to have been exposed and seemed to come from Ireland as pacemaker for War Command.
Outstrip had beaten Cable Bay in good style at Doncaster, having found subsequent National Stakes winner Toormore just too good in the Vintage Stakes at Goodwood. Hailing from the all-powerful Godolphin team, who have farmed two year old winners for fun in recent weeks, he looked the main threat to the favourite.
Stormadal had been running consistently well at several grades below this.
Which just left the favourite, War Command. The son of War Front had made a striking impression when obliterating the field in the Coventry Stakes on fast ground. That he started at 20/1 suggested that Aidan O’Brien had better fancied contenders so it seems he burst on to the scene that June afternoon.
His subsequent defeat by Sudirman in the Phoenix Stakes (Sudirman had disappointed in the Middle Park when fifth), left major question marks about War Command and immediately ridiculed the wonder horse headlines and ante post prices.
O’Brien suggested that the horse may have been “rusty” off a break after Royal Ascot but the showing at the Curragh showed vulnerability in War Command.
Certainly the War Command that turned up at the Curragh for the Futurity Stakes, was far from rusty. The Group Two race did however disappoint numerically and the colt was a bloodless 3 length winner over Mustajeeb and Exogenesis. It was a smart performance but not Group One form.
With Darwin already pulled out of the Challenge Stakes and Great White Eagle failing to handle the ground or track, there was the real fear that War Command may find share the same fate. Certainly his odds on price seemed to owe more to the memory of one outstanding effort in completely different conditions – and the fact that he hailed from Ballydoyle.
The two outsiders Friendship and Stormadal, as expected, took the field along in the early stages at a reasonable pace, with Cable Bay and Jamie Spencer sitting nicely behind these and Joseph O’Brien being towed along comfortably in fourth.
By the end of the third furlong Anjaal was already under pressure and Outstrip was at the back of the field.
With a quarter of a mile remaining, Cable Bay, with Jamie Spencer ideally positioned, made his move, inching off the rails to pass the ailing Friendship and Stormadal. Interestingly at this point, Joseph O’Brien was starting to work seriously to shake War Command up and the big horse looked slightly flat-footed for a stride or two, as he had done in the Phoenix Stakes.
Unlike that day however, eventually the engine was stoked up and War Command was able to stick with and eventually pass the enthusiastic Charlie Hills colt, although his young jockey had to exert serious pressure to do so.
In the meantime, Outstrip and Anjaal had their own private duel further out, having passed the two earl leaders. But they were one-paced and unable to catch the two principles.
Having finally got on top off Cable Bay, War Command galloped on resolutely, although the latter rallied again next to the rails to close to within a length and a quarter at the line, with Outstrip just getting the better of Anjaal for third place, a length and a half further back.
The third and fourth paced horses seemed to struggle in this race, yet their finishing proximity to the winner and runner-up, suggest this was not a stellar Dewhurst. Cable Bay is an admirable horse and placed yet again, this time at the highest level. He is a model of consistency and may yet develop into the best three year old from this field – he certainly appreciated the ground yesterday and the manner of his finish suggest he will get the mile comfortably next season, whilst clearly handling the course well.
But what do we make of the winner War Command? Well he has now won a Group One race. It is hard to say this was definitively a championship performance, given the lack of depth in the line-up and indeed the manner of his victory. At times in the race he looked laboured and we have seen this twice from War Command now. Joseph had to really roust the colt and he showed enough speed to build up a big enough advantage that he seemed to be able to just about sustain.
Afterwards, his trainer in interview did not seem to go overboard, talking of other horses like Australia and Geoffrey Chaucer. In the past Aidan has been very vocal when certain horses have won. He also suggested that he thought the horse would stay a mile – but seemed to fall short of crowning a champion.
For once even the bookmakers seemed in no great rush to shorten and hype a Dewhurst winner, so at the moment the jury is very much out on whether we have seen a current champion or a future one.
After the thrills of a gruelling Cesarewitch, run across a rain-swept Newmarket, came the often highly informative Rockfel Stakes. Despite its Group Two status, the Rockfel has thrown up notable fillies for the future, including: Musical Bliss, Negligent, Relatively Special, Lahan, Maids Causeway, Speciosa, Finsceal Beo and Just The Judge.
It is another race where we discover evidence of a filly’s ability to handle the Guineas track – and often throws up an interesting, unbeaten or unexposed type. This year was no exception, with Al Thakhira, who had won a Yarmouth maiden race impressively on debut, was a decisive winner from Blockade.
Indeed, once Marco Botti’s filly quickened, the race was settled in a matter of strides and whilst the Rockfel is a race where horse get thrown in at the deep end, Al Thakhira not only swam, she did so comfortably, indicating to the world that Group Two form held no fears for her. The Dubawi filly looks likely to play a significant role in Group Ones next year so long as she trains on and stays healthy.
Half an hour later saw the Autumn Stakes, a race switched from Ascot, which has gradually built in status. It is now a Group Three event, raced over a mile and last year it threw up subsequent Irish Derby winner Trading Leather and Galileo Rock.
Aidan O’Brien’s Oklahoma City had won over the Rowley Mile course a week earlier and held smart Irish form. Joseph set off along the stand rails and looked to have beaten the field off when the unbeaten colt Kingston Hill, came out of the pack with Andrea Atzeni, to deliver a challenge.
It was the latter, a son of Ballydoyle’s own Mastercraftsman, who showed the best fortitude, to overcome greenness and win decisively.
Given the previous form of Oklahoma City, course experience (and experience in general) and the fact that he beat the rest of the field well suggesting he ran his race, this was a very impressive showing from Kingston Hill. Roger Varian’s colt had only raced once before when taking a Newbury maiden, so will have learned an enormous amount from the Autumn Stakes and on rain softened ground and out of a Rainbow Quest mare, it will be interesting to see which distance he is campaigned over next year.
It was an interesting and compelling day’s racing at Headquarters. On the face of it, the so-called championship races may well have crowned deserving juvenile champions. However the future champions may have raced later on the card in the Rockfel and Autumn Stakes, which delivered two unexposed, unbeaten and decisive winners. Coursespecialist looks forward to seeing further evidence of Al Thakhira and Kingston Hill.
Coursespecialist will provide an in-depth review of the two year old season after the Breeders’ Cup meeting.