The 2017 Qipco 2000 Guineas kicks off the Classic season at Newmarket tomorrow.
The old adage that it is “the last two year old race” perhaps carries some substance, although the form coming into this race has not necessarily advertised 2016’s major contests in the greatest of lights.
Foremost among Europe’s top two year old colts last year was the Aidan O’Brien trained Churchill, a colt who won his last five starts, including Group 1 victories in the National Stakes and Dewhurst Stakes.
By season’s end, the latter race had very advertised Churchill’s credentials, with Thunder Snow, Rivet, South Seas and Lancaster Bomber all subsequently running well.
Churchill came across last season as a scopey individual, most likely to show his best form at three, but one who did not possess instant acceleration rather needing a little time to stoke up the fires.
He coped admirably with Newmarket’s wide expanses and the Dip last autumn and the prospect of a big field and the danger of lost race position have evaporated this week with news that he will meet only nine rivals.
However, Churchill faces unknown rivals in this contest and that is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this 2000 Guineas.
Three colts will line up at Newmarket with unbeaten records to protect after unexposed two year old campaigns. These horses to some extent are unknown quantities and it is hard to equate their merits to Churchill’s, although they all possess race fitness in their advantage.
Also it should be noted that England’s two major Guineas trials, the Craven Stakes and Greenham Stakes, saw proven pattern race form from last year turned over by unexposed, inexperienced colts.
Indeed, the Craven Stakes saw once-raced colts fill first and third place, while the Greenham Stakes saw once-raced Barney Roy defeat once-raced Dream Castle.
Those two results do give credence to anyone who wants to question the credentials of last year’s leading juvenile colts at up to a mile.
Of the unexposed horses, Eminent, a son of Frankel, made a big impression on debut when winning over the Rowley Mile last autumn, making light of his lack of cover and possessing a powerful, long stride.
Course-Specialist was privileged to visit Martyn Meade’s stables in April, when the trainer suggested Eminent could be better over even further.
His stamina certainly played its part as he impressed with victory over Rivet in the Craven Stakes, that long, raking stride taking him further clear in the final analysis. Again, he might be seen as a colt who takes time to hit full power, and there must be a slight question whether he will be tapped for speed before staying on in the Guineas.
Al Wukair is another fascinating contender who represents two-time Guineas winning trainer Andre Fabre.
Whilst Fabre’s two previous Guineas winners Zafonic and Pennekamp had prior experience of Newmarket (both winning the Dewhurst in their juvenile seasons), Al Wukair was not given too hard a time of things, as his stable suffered a rare dip in form last year, due to health issues.
That has left Fabre with a stable of unexposed and little-raced three year old of infinite potential. Al Wukair clearly figures prominently in the pecking order at this stage which should be seen as a good sign, particularly given the stable’s terrific form during April.
His last to first success in the Prix Djebel, saw him readily account for National Defense, last year’s Group 1 Prix Jean Luc Lagardere winner.
Whilst that may have been a sub-standard renewal, that may have been down to the health of inmates in several of France’s big stables last autumn and the Prix Djebel may serve as an indicator to where the real balance of power lies among France’s three year old colts this year.
Barney Roy is the third of the trio of unbeaten colts and showed sustained power to catch and beat Dream Castle in the Greenham Stakes at Newbury.
The Richard Hannon trained son of Excelebration certainly didn’t look inexperienced in that performance, despite having had just one previous run in his life.
Dream Castle had shaped as though the likely winner, but was perhaps coming to the end of his tether when passed by Barney Roy and there must be questions marks about him quite staying on the final climb to the line at Newmarket.
In our opinion the Craven Stakes was the stronger of the two English trials, with Eminent beating proven Group horses in Rivet (Group 1 Racing Post Trophy winner), Larchmont Lad (Group 3 Tattersalls Stakes) and War Decree (Group 2 Vintage Stakes).
They simply cannot all have run bad races.
What can be said is that the big Newmarket trials all appeared to favour horses on the stands side and in the case of Larchmont Lad, there are ground for suggesting this course winner might reasonably be expected to improve for this run.
This is based on him beating his two far side rivals clearly in the Craven Stakes and lasting much longer into the race, before fading in the final furlong to finish fifth.
If there was a clear bias, then this run might have more merit to it than appeared at the time and it is interesting to hear that Hannon has not given up on his apparent second string.
Aidan O’Brien has more than one credible string to his bow in this contest with Lancaster Bomber having improved significantly during 2016 and running a good prep race in Dubai in late March.
This son of War Front should appreciate the going tomorrow and was just a length and a quarter second to his stable mate Churchill in the Dewhurst Stakes last October. He was subsequently an excellent second to Oscar Performance in the Breeders’ Cup.
With race fitness and proven ability to handle Newmarket, Lancaster Bomber is certainly no forlorn hope and perhaps has gone a little under the radar this spring. His staying on fourth to Thunder Snow in Meydan (on dirt) will have brought him on and perhaps it is interesting that he has been pointed at Newmarket, rather than Churchill Downs, where the winner heads tomorrow night.
Spirit Of Valour was well-held on his return in the same race at Meydan and whilst dirt perhaps suited him less, on juvenile form he would appear to have plenty to make up on stable mates Churchill and Lancaster Bomber.
Top Score looks highly exposed based on juvenile form and whilst he improved in the spring in Dubai, was beaten a long way behind Thunder Snow.
Law And Order represents James Tate and has already confirmed his well-being this spring, with a Listed success at Lingfield Park in early April. However, he was 3 ¼ lengths behind Larchmont Lad at Newmarket last autumn and beaten 3 ½ lengths by Khalidi in what looked perhaps a slightly sub-standard renewal of the Listed Feilden Stakes at Newmarket. He looks on the overall basis of his form to fall short of what is needed here.
So Churchill’s 2016 juvenile performances arguably set the standard here but he is very much taking on the unknown with three unbeaten rivals and a potentially improving Larchmont Lad.