By Bill Oppenheim
This is a refrain usually reserved for handicap races with 20 runners, but welcome to the 2017 GI Kentucky Derby. I would agree with correspondent T.D. Thornton's ranking of the top three (click here), and pending this weekend's GI Arkansas Derby, they figure as the first three favorites come Derby Day: GI Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming (Bodemeister); GII Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets S. hero and 'TDN Rising Star' Irish War Cry (Curlin), who redeemed himself after a dull effort in the GII Xpressbet Fountain of Youth S.; and fellow 'TDN Rising Star' McCraken (Ghostzapper), only third in the GII Toyota Blue Grass S., but previously unbeaten. We said last week he didn't need to win the Blue Grass to win the Kentucky Derby and he duly didn't, but he did run as though the race would move him forward, and jockey Brian Hernandez has now decided to stick with McCraken over GII Louisiana Derby winner Girvin (Tale of Ekati), who he has also been riding. In fact the Blue Grass looked an odd race altogether, with two other highly touted horses, GIII Gotham S. winner and 'Rising Star' J Boys Echo (Mineshaft) and GII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit (Tapit) also turning in dull efforts behind previous maiden Irap (Tiznow half-brother to Speightstown, big pedigree) and Practical Joke (Into Mischief), who at least ran his race.
I've been watching Classics and Classic preps for about 45 years now, and a rule of thumb I've used since the days before speed figures is that the over-and-under, as we now call it, is 1:50 for the major nine-furlong preps–especially in California, which most years is a couple of seconds faster than the Eastern tracks. If they run faster than 1:50–good time; if they don't–slow time. All three of last Saturday's preps were won in over 1:50. The Wood is the race, of the three, where a 1:50 is closest to being an okay time, and Irish War Cry's 1:50.91 came back as a Beyer Speed Figure 101. Irap won the Blue Grass in 1:50.39, which came back as a 93 Beyer, and Gormley (Malibu Moon) won the GI Santa Anita Derby, which looked slow in 1:51.16 and returned only a Beyer 88. The first five were within 2 1/2 lengths of each other, also often an indicator of a well-matched field, but not necessarily one with a lot of superstars.
If last year's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner (Beyer 102) and Champion 2-Year-Old Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile), GII Rebel S. victor and 'TDN Rising Star' Malagacy, from Shackleford's first crop, or something else wins the GI Arkansas Derby impressively with a decent speed figure, they would join the top three among the group of probable favorites. At this stage though, it looks like not too many who have the points will duck the issue.
Meanwhile, in Europe, there have already been some interesting results in France and Ireland, none more so than in Monday's G3 Prix Djebel, in which Al Shaqab's Al Wukair (Dream Ahead) came from an unpromising position to cruise by National Defense (Invincible Spirit), who had been so impressive in last year's G1 Qatar Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere, France's top 2-year-old race. Mind you, Criquette Head no doubt left a bit to work on with National Defense, who in any case probably goes for the G1 Poule d'Essai des Poulains–French 2000 Guineas. Al Wukair, trained by the master, Fabre, was immediately promoted to second favorite for the G1 English 2000 Guineas, behind only Coolmore's Churchill (Galileo). M. Fabre has won the English 2000 Guineas before, in 1995, when Pennekamp upset Celtic Swing, so when he brings one to England, best take notice. He may be sending one over in a couple of weeks for a G1 Epsom Derby prep at Newmarket's Craven meet: this would be Akihiro, a son of Deep Impact bred and raced by the Wertheimer Brothers who won the G3 Prix des Chenes last term, with National Defense in third. Akihiro may run in a nine-furlong listed race Fabre has used before, the Fielden S.
There were also a couple of deeply impressive performances in Ireland last weekend. On Saturday, Orderofthegarter, a Galileo colt out of the group-placed 2-year-old Kitty Kiernan, by Pivotal, followed up an 11-length maiden win with a near-four length success in Leopardstown's Listed 2000 Guineas Trial over stablemate Taj Mahal (Galileo), a full brother to Gleneagles but who looks bigger and like he might get further. Then, on Sunday, the €2-million yearling Tocco d'Amore, by Raven's Pass out of Spirit of Tara, a full-sister to Salsabil out of Flame of Tara, impressively swept through a field of colts to record a six-length win for owners Moyglare Stud in a hot-looking 10-furlong maiden race en route to 'TDN Rising Stardom'. It was a big couple of days for Raven's Pass: his Via Ravenna won the G3 Prix Imprudence, for 3-year-old fillies, at Maisons-Lafitte on Monday.
Speaking of Maisons-Lafitte, may I give a huge double thumbs-up to 'new' (last year) France-Galop supremo Olivier Delloye, previously a key member of the Arqana team which won the coveted (if mythical) 'New Sales Company of the Decade' award. I was able to watch Monday's French races on the revamped France-Galop website (www.france-galop.com), among the many useful features of which is the facility to watch the top French races on-line, no charge. Big move forward.
And speaking about big moves forward, what about Australia?
I've never yet been in Eastern Australia–an oversight which I hope to rectify at least by this time next year–but reading the accounts and looking at the results of the Inglis sales in Sydney the past couple of weeks, it reads like things were in Kentucky in the early 1980's: vibrant, even explosive. The American sales these days consist of a lot of sitting around punctuated by the occasional burst of energy, but the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale read more like a sustained burst of energy last week. Even with 10% fewer horses catalogued (404 from 450) and 13% fewer horses sold (303 from 347), the gross increased by 9% (A$9 million), from $A98.9 million to A$108 million. The average increased by a whopping 25%, from A$283,489 to A$355,493, and the median increased by 30%, from A$200,000 to the really impressive figure of A$260,000. With 303 horses sold, that means 151 of them sold for A$260,000 or more. In fact, 17 yearlings brought A$1 million or more (up from nine the year before), and 64 yearlings–better than one out of every five sold–brought final bids of A$500,000 or more.
Besides the Easter Yearling Sale (these figures are from 'Session 1'; there is a short 'Session 2' on the final day which this year grossed A$6 million), Inglis also holds a Weanling and Broodmare Sale which had already moved to just after the second day of the two-weekend (the yearling sale in between) The Championships race meet. This year they created a “Chairman's Sale” of 'elite' breeding prospects, weanlings, and mares on the Friday which grossed A$23 million for 70 horses sold; there had been a short “Chairman's Sale” of 'elite racing prospects' the previous Friday. As of yesterday, they had one day left of the Broodmare Sale; to that point the Inglis sales series had grossed over A$149 million. Last year the entire sales series had grossed A$141 million. But as much as the bare figures were impressive, it was the palpable surge of energy which we could detect even many time zones away, from my desk in Scotland. For a couple of years, during the dark days of the 2008-2010 world economic crash, the Australian dollar reached parity with the US dollar, and the Australians for the first time were able to compete and buy not just the half-sisters to good fillies and mares, but the good fillies and mares themselves–just as the Japanese have been doing for the last 25 years. Now these catalogues really do have world-class pedigrees, and not just Redoute's Choice and Fastnet Rock, but Redoute's Choice's son Snitzel, who is now a world-class sire by anybody's standards. We can argueabout whether Australia has yet reached parity with the other world racing and breeding powers, but if they haven't yet, they're not far behind, and they're closing with a rush. It's been coming for a while, and it looks like now, in the horse racing and breeding world, in Australia and with their new partners in Japan and throughout Asia: the future is now. Contact Bill Oppenheim at [email protected] (cc [email protected]).