The 2017 turf season has been hiccupping along unsure whether it is run on grass or an artificial surface since it unofficially opened at Doncaster at the start of the month but, with Good Friday’s all-weather championships behind us, it finally gets clearance for lift-off on Tuesday at Newmarket’s Craven meeting.
Sir Henry Cecil hardly ever had his first runner before the Craven meeting and he was a good judge.
As ever Aidan O’Brien, the reigning champion trainer, holds most of the keys to this year’s Classics. Churchill, his ninth juvenile champion in the last 18 years, has been a pretty solid over-winter favourite for the 2,000 Guineas and Derby since he won the Dewhurst Stakes on the Rowley Mile in October.
After being beaten first time out he won his next five starts including the Chesham at Royal Ascot. Never overly impressive, he always got the job done with a minimum of fuss and gave the impression he could pull out more if required. That’s the sort of attitude which serves a horse very well but does not necessarily earn them great plaudits.
Though he is rated towards the lower end of O’Brien’s champion two-year-olds, it is perhaps worth remembering that the highest rated, Fasliyev, never raced at three while the only one rated lower, Camelot, only just came up short in the Triple Crown.
Unlike Ballydoyle’s big hope last year, Air Force Blue, who lived up to his name in so much that he blew out on all four starts, Churchill is by Galileo and not War Front so there is plenty of encouragement that he will improve a bit at three. O’Brien has described him as one of the most imposing colts they have had at Ballydoyle and will send him straight to the Guineas.
O’Brien’s horses have not exactly hit the road running this season and have appeared to need their first runs but he has a few entered at Newmarket this week and the Guineas is still three weeks away.
Churchill will have to be on his game though after the Andre Fabre trained Al Wukair, who carries the colours of last year’s Guineas winner Galileo Gold, romped through his trial in the Prix Djebel at Maisons-Laffitte earlier this week. He was 10 lengths off the lead at one stage but Gregory Benoist was playing with them and came through to beat National Defense a length.
O’Brien’s Coventry Stakes winner Caravaggio, who was not seen out after a minor setback following the Phoenix Stakes in August, could also throw a spanner in Churchill’s works. Given a full season he might have been champion juvenile.
The Investec Derby is only seven weeks away and O’Brien has plenty to go at the trials with including Sir John Lavery, Cliffs of Moher, Douglas Macarthur, Exemplar, Capri, Sir Edward Landseer, Utah and Yucatan. On the fillies’ front you will need to get your gardening handbook out with Hydrangea and Rhododendron both expected to do well.
With Golden Horn still fresh in the memory the combination of trainer John Gosden and owner breeder, Anthony Oppenheimer, the colt’s sire, Frankel, and with Frankie Dettori in the saddle, Cracksman will carry a certain weight of expectation. He won a one-mile maiden at Newmarket smartly last October and could also be in the Derby mix. He worked at Chelmsford on Thursday.
With Wuheida out of the 1,000 Guineas, Godolphin’s focus on the first weekend of May might be on the Kentucky Derby where Thunder Snow is expected to reappear after his narrow win in the UAE Derby on the dirt on World Cup night.
A Group One winner on turf – last year’s Criterium International by five lengths – and a Group Two on dirt he already has claims to be one of the most versatile three-year-olds around. If Sheikh Mohammed ever wonders whether the game is always fun these days this horse should, at least, provide some.
Last year, Newmarket yards were laid low in late summer by a bug and, apart from the obvious, there are an awful lot of three-year-olds which did not run or only ran once which could come into the Classic equation under the radar.
As usual it will all conclude at the Breeders’ Cup in California in November where the mighty Arrogate will be aimed at a second Classic. This year the meeting is run for the first time at the picturesque Del Mar in San Diego, a stone’s throw from the Pacific, where the ‘turf meets the surf.’ A lot of water has to flow under the bridge before that spectacular photo finish.