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On To The Craven

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Roger Varian holds a strong hand in the Nell Gwyn | Racing Post

By Tom Frary

“Happy New Year” used to be the traditional greeting at Newmarket’s Craven meeting and for aficionados of racing on the level it was apt, even allowing for the excitement of the Cheltenham festival and Grand National that preceded it. Tuesday sees it come around again on racing’s welcome continuous cycle with a storm of some of the world’s finest bloodstock cutting through the vibrant spring air. This year, due to the nature of a late Easter, the Suffolk venue’s first major feast of the season takes place after Newbury and ParisLongchamp’s Classic trials so there is a sense that we are already well underway. Nevertheless, these three days at “HQ” have a unique appeal as the true high-board of the flat and a glance down the honour roll of the Nell Gwyn and Craven S. certainly says so.

The former, a Group 3 contest over seven furlongs for the fillies whose connections are set on the 1000 Guineas, graces the opening fixture on Tuesday with it now being 13 years since Speciosa (Ire) (Danehill Dancer {Ire}) won it and the main event. Despite that statistic, it is always a trial of substance, more so for the beaten fillies of late with the Hannon-trained pair of Billesdon Brook (GB) (Champs Elysees {GB}) and Sky Lantern (Ire) (Red Clubs {Ire}) turning around reversals in the 2 1/2-week gap between this and the mile Classic.

Roger Varian has a strong contingent this time, with the stable’s G3 Oh So Sharp S. winner Mot Juste (Distorted Humor) carrying the famous silks of Robert Barnett just three days after the owner-breeder’s Star Terms (GB) (Sea the Stars {Ire}) ran a creditable fourth in the Fred Darling. Alongside her is Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Thani’s course-and-distance maiden winner Qabala (Scat Daddy) and despite the gulf in experience that exists between the duo their trainer is highly complimentary of both.

“Mot Juste has wintered well and strengthened up considerably,” he said. “I am pleased with the way she has been working but, although she is ready for a run, the Nell Gwyn will bring her on and we are treating it as a stepping stone to the rest of the season for her. She has a fast ground action–the ground is quite important to her–so the dry forecast is in her favour. I hope that she is a filly good enough to merit a place in the 1000 Guineas line-up.

“Qabala is a filly full of potential and I think that she is a group-race performer of the future. This will tell us a lot about her current level and if she is more of a filly for later in the season.”

Racecourse savvy is supplied in abundance by Saif Ali’s Main Edition (Ire) (Zoffany {Ire}), who was out last May and scooped the prizes on offer in the G3 Albany S. at Royal Ascot and the G3 Sweet Solera S. on the July Course here before winding up third behind Just Wonderful (Dansili {GB}) and Saturday’s Fred Darling winner Dandhu (GB) (Dandy Man {Ire}) in the G2 Rockfel S. over this track and trip in September. Charlie Johnston, assistant to father Mark, is in confident mood. “She’s the highest-rated filly in the race and on her Albany and Sweet Solera runs, she’s the one they all have to beat,” he commented. “It looks a decent opportunity for her and hopefully she can give us some confidence that we can come back to Newmarket next month with a realistic each-way chance.”

Charlie Appleby’s performance at this meeting 12 months ago was outstanding and his pair of fillies by Dubawi (Ire), Nashirah (GB) and Orchid Star (GB), will provide a guide as to where he stands with his Classic crop. Nashirah has the benefit of a Dubai winter behind her and is obviously considered better than her latest fifth in the Jan. 31 Meydan Classic Trial over this trip, while Orchid Star has been on the all-weather during the cold months. An impressive winner of a mile novice contest on Newcastle’s Tapeta last time Feb. 15, she may have a touch of last year’s winner Soliloquy (GB) about her. “We feel that going back up in trip will probably be on the cards for Orchid Star in time,” Appleby commented. “She has made all on her last two starts and will be ridden forwardly again, especially as she is coming back to seven furlongs.”

It is 28 years since the winner of the Listed European Free H. went on to 2000 Guineas glory and while it seems fanciful to suggest that any of this year’s cast of seven can end the drought, there is a promising type in the John Gosden-trained Azano (GB) (Oasis Dream {GB}). Last seen finishing runner-up to Saturday’s impressive G3 Greenham S. winner Mohaather (GB) (Showcasing {GB}) in Newbury’s G3 Horris Hill S. over this seven-furlong trip, Martin and Lee Taylor’s bay gets six pounds from Saeed bin Mohammed Al Qassimi’s G3 Tattersalls S. winner Arctic Sound (GB) (Poet’s Voice {GB}) with the racing weights determined by the horses’ positioning in the World Rankings. Despite having to give weight to all, Arctic Sound carries high hopes into his comeback. “He’s a course-and-distance winner and I’d like to think he’s the one they all have to beat,” Charlie Johnston said of him.

Nestled between the Nell Gwyn and European Free is the Listed Feilden S., where Phoenix Thoroughbred’s Kadar (Scat Daddy) will be seen for the second time after missing two group engagements last season due to rain-softened ground. Having beaten ‘TDN Rising Star’ and strong-staying type Waldstern (GB) (Sea the Stars {Ire}) in a mile novice race at Haydock in September, he is moving up to nine furlongs rather than tackling the speedier Classic trials. “We’ll learn a lot about him,” trainer Karl Burke commented. “I’ve said plenty about him in the last year–probably too much–but I think he’s a lovely horse.”

Burke has made no secret of the regard in which the €700,000 Arqana May Breeze-Up graduate is held, but said he feels that the Guineas may be on the sharp side. “I hope I’m wrong, but he is just showing that a mile in the top grade might just catch him out for a turn of foot which is why I’m happy to run him over an extra furlong.,” he added. “For me he’s a mile-and-a-quarter-horse plus. If he wins then we have the option of coming back for the Guineas, because he’ll have had a look at the track as well. I was probably over cautious last year–he was a big baby of a horse, but he’s much more mature now.”

Kadar’s material will be measured in his performance against Aidan O’Brien’s G1 Futurity Trophy third Western Australia (Ire) (Australia {GB}) and he is race-fit after a return second in Dundalk’s Listed Patton S. Mar. 6.

Newmarket’s Craven meeting is not just about the black-type races, however, with abundant promise in evidence in the various maidens and novice races. Last year, Sea of Class (Ire) (Sea the Stars {Ire}) managed to get beaten on her debut in the second division of the mile fillies’ maiden on this card and the next time she tasted defeat was at the hands of Enable (GB) (Nathaniel {Ire}) in the Arc. Even the closing 10-furlong handicap has proved a surprisingly fertile source of classy individuals in recent times, with Papal Bull (GB) (Montjeu {Ire}), Wigmore Hall (Ire) (High Chaparral {Ire}), Main Sequence (Aldebaran) and Old Persian (GB) (Dubawi {Ire}) all winning before achieving on a more grandiose scale. Perhaps Papal Bull’s trainer Sir Michael Stoute has high hopes for Saeed Suhail’s Newcastle novice winner Solid Stone (Ire) (Shamardal) in this year’s renewal, with the colt being his only runner on the opening card. In the five-furlong 2-year-old fillies’ maiden, Charlie Appleby unleashes Godolphin’s 750,000gns Tattersalls October purchase Chasing Dreams (GB) (Starspangledbanner {Aus}) as the operation’s first juvenile runner of 2019.

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