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No clear favourites for British classics

By: Rolf Johnson   May 9 , 2024

By ‘Over Hyped` out of ‘Talking Horse` – a mating that produces offspring doomed to disappoint. But eh, it`s not their fault. Our hype and overblown expectations burden any racehorse showing even an early glimmer of ability: if the victory is spectacular the unfortunate animal is immediately slapped with the label “the next Frankel”. You`d be forgiven for thinking racing in Britain hit the buffers on 20th October 2012 - the date of the great one`s tenth and final victory. The racing world has been vainly seeking “the next Frankel” ever since.

A string of truly great horses has graced the turf since racing began under Rules in 1619 (other dates as much as five hundred years earlier have been claimed) but there is always a gap between the incontestable few who captivate a universal audience, and those that racing lauds but whose names are preserved primarily on trophies.

The latest to be crushed under premature adulation is City of Troy, unbeaten at two and odds-on for the Two Thousand Guineas. One of his Coolmore owners – hubris is never a characteristic of his trainer Aidan O`Brien - tempted fate by calling City of Troy “our Frankel” after his unbeaten two-year-old season. After humiliating defeat in the Guineas, apologetic voices could be heard suggesting, “Well he could be ‘the next Auguste Rodin`”.

Auguste Rodin indeed. Well, after that Coolmore colt`s Guineas debacle last year, in which he was beaten a double-figure margin, he has run six times interspersing two more double digit defeats with three Group One triumphs, including the Derby. If that isn`t definitively enigmatic I don`t know what is. Now punters are backing City of Rodin for the Derby on June 1 as though the Guineas never happened! Rudyard Kipling knew the score he had the words to describe the syndrome – “The burnt fools finger goes wabbling back to the fire”.

City of Troy wasn`t beaten as far – seventeen lengths as opposed to twenty-five for Auguste Rodin at Newmarket - but of equal significance was the return of Godolphin to centre stage. They had a miserable (by their standards) 2023 but surprise packet Notable Speech looked the ‘real deal` overwhelming a class field in the Guineas.

Is unbeaten Notable Speech the next Frankel? Like the ‘incomparable` he won`t be heading to the Derby. As William Buick was happy to say “He`s all speed”. He`s the fourth Guineas winner for Sheikh Mohammed`s Godolphin operation by the all-conquering (all bar Frankel) Dubawi and is the first foal of a useful race-mare.

Godolphin have an authentic Derby favourite in Arabian Crown, winner of the Sandown Classic Trial and their premium stallion Dubawi`s best prospect ever for Epsom.

Notable Speech was somewhat overlooked in the Guineas betting because he wasn`t seen at two and because people look down their noses at winter form such as his on the sand – ignoring the fact that dual Prix de l`Arc de Triomphe winner Enable kicked off on the surface – as did this year`s One Thousand Guineas winner Elmalka. Head scratching must now be replaced by a rethink on preparation for the early Classics: the odds for the winners of both One Thousand and Two Thousand were lip-smacking. 28-1 Elmalka was a price you could have had about Notable Speech not long before the start.

Notable Speech was sent off at 16-1 as astute punters started talking among themselves – about the possibility City of Troy not being the ‘certainty` he was alleged to be. The son of Justify, a stallion who is being promoted as the “next Galileo”, certainly isn`t the most imposing three-year-old to have come out of Coolmore. Twenty-four hours is a long time in racing and that`s at least the time we should have known to wait to see how City of Troy came out of his race. Nothing materialized. Auguste Rodin never runs consecutive races alike – last at Meydan this spring being the latest but would you dare bet – against Aidan O`Brien – that he wouldn`t revive City of Troy just as he did Auguste Rodin in the twenty-eight days between Newmarket and Epsom?

For no particularly good reason the huge prices of the Classic winners reminded me of the definition of the possibilities of ‘Online Dating` – getting one is odds on; but the goods are odd. My conclusion is that whatever Notable Speech`s next date, he will start odds-on.

Elmalka I`m not so sure about. The fillies Guineas winner is a Kingman half-sister to three very high class sons of Dubawi, but Elmalka was favoured by several elements in the race, not least the ride of Sylvestre de Sousa.

De Sousa took time to adjust from his native Brazil, experiencing a barren start in Ireland and then obscurity in the cold wastes of Northern England, before becoming three times champion jockey, 2015, 17 and 18. He made a close run thing a couple more times. Three years as Godolphin`s retained jockey followed before he was sacked; and two years off games with a broken arm. Other periods in the wilderness were capped last year by a ten-month ban by the Hong Kong Jockey Club who are unforgiving for any transgression however minor. The autocratic politicians on the mainland of China are wimpish by comparison.

Much has been made of 42-year-old`s “first classic” – except he won the 2009 Indian Derby on 50-1 shot Antonios for S M Shah. De Sousa is no relation to being a mere ‘journeyman jockey` – as much travelled as his career has been. 50-1 was the price when he won his previous big race to the Guineas – the 2015 Juddmonte International.

That was on Arabian Queen (by Dubawi) beating the Derby winner Golden Horn who was long odds-on. The filly won only one of her last ten races but at least it was in the race that sealed Frankel`s reputation – the Juddmonte was the furthest he ran, ten furlongs and eighty-eight yards – and he was sent off 1-10! Arabian Queen`s trainer took umbrage about the sniffy reception to his unlikely winning filly and commented, “If we hadn`t run they`d have been calling Golden Horn the next Frankel.”

This is the 50th anniversary of a great ‘over hyped talking horse`, Apalachee. We didn`t though feel the need to call any of his successors the ‘next Apalachee`. Unbeaten he started 4-9 for the 1974 Guineas in which his performance was so abject he never raced again. Like City of Troy, like Notable Speech, Apalachee had won all his three starts at two. (Frankel won all his four; his half-brother Juddmonte`s home-bred Kikuli won his maiden at the Guineas meeting though fortunately the weight of expectation isn`t on him – he was beaten first time up).

Always we turn to Coolmore and Aidan O`Brien with Charlie Appleby and Godolphin tailing them for the Derby. The latter`s latest Derby hero, Adayar in went off at 16-1 in 2021. The titans of the breeding and training worlds have won six of the last seven Blue Ribands of the Turf. But look at some of the Coolmore odds: 25-1 Serpentine. 40-1 Wings of Eagles. Auguste Rodin long the winter favourite went out to any price after his Guineas flop. But on Derby day he dropped to 9-2. Now we have this year City of Troy sent off for the Guineas odds on and backed down to second favourite for Epsom. Will history repeat itself? The forthcoming Derby trials will surely reveal a more reliable vehicle.

We haven`t seen the first colt`s classic winner go on to Epsom glory since Sea The Stars fifteen years ago – and he wasn`t favourite! But Sheikh Mohammed`s operation have the current favourite – Arabian Crown (by Dubawi) who won the Sandown Classic Trial as convincingly as his stablemate took the Guineas.

Arabian Queen won only one of her last ten races in 2015 but it was the Group 1 Juddmonte International at York – the longest race (by eighty-eight yards) in which Frankel underlined his greatness in 2012 – at 1-10! Arabian Queen was another 50-1 winner for Elmalka`s partner De Sousa who could be labelled the forgotten man when he decamped to Hong Kong a couple of years back, tired of the travelling in the UK often riding at two meetings – day and night – in pursuit of the jockey`s title.

Jockeys based in Britain cannot ride at two meetings on the same day – even if like Windsor and Kempton the courses are just twenty minutes apart; what happens if they rocket off abroad to another time zone hasn`t been established). The championship is decided over only six months – May to October (don`t ask – racing is a 365-day marathon in the UK synthetic surfaces swamping action).

With other top jockeys, Oisin Murphy. Tom Marquand and William Buick racing round the globe chasing greater prizes than we in Britain can put up, De Sousa who can ride anything and at low weights, might just get the volume of winners required to become champ again. The title is won by jockeys piling cheap winners high, never mind the quality. De Sousa will not have forgotten how he lost the 2010 title through travelling to Australia to ride in the Melbourne Cup.

When the Brazilian with a samba smile got off his first ever winner he said: “It`s like being on Frankel” – not that he got to ride the great one. There`s still time for him ride many more winners – if not a Frankel.

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