Guineas Weekend is always the time when the Flat season springs to life, and the 2018 version, bathed in glorious sunshine and littered with classy, competitive racing, was no different.
It also marked another chapter in the amazing Aidan O’Brien story as the Ballydoyle trainer saddled the 300th Group One success of his unparalleled career.
Even though he was thousands of miles away at Churchill Downs, overseeing a predictably futile bid for Kentucky Derby glory with MENDELSSOHN, O’Brien mastered the first Classic of the campaign, the Qipco 2,000 Guineas, courtesy of the imposing, unbeaten colt, SAXON WARRIOR.
It was his ninth Guineas success at Newmarket, since King Of Kings triumphed back in 1998. And not only did he train the winning horse this time, he also sired the winning jockey as 19-year-old Donnacha O’Brien steered home the son of former Japanese champion Deep Impact to emulate older brother, Joseph, who also landed the Guineas as a teenager, on Camelot in 2012.
They are the first set of brothers to taste Guineas glory since the Mercers, Joe (aboard the great Brigadier Gerard in 1971) and Manny (in 1954). A fitting achievement in the week that Ascot staged a race named after Manny, who died when kicked by a horse at the royal track in 1959.
O’Brien was hoping, of course, to double up in the Qipco 1,000 Guineas for fillies 24 hours later. And even though it wasn’t to be, his influence could not be resisted. For winning jockey, Swaziland-born Sean Levey, who was aboard 66/1 surprise package, BILLESDON BROOK, learned his trade under the wing of the genius early in his career. Levey even rode for O’Brien in a Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and his mum, Tini, still works for the family as a housekeeper.
Mind you, the redoubtable Ballydoyle operation was not all that linked the two Guineas victors. They were also responsible for two of the most unlikely, jaw-dropping wins of last season. Saxon Warrior looked to be on an educational day out when he made his debut at The Curragh in August. There he was just tootling along in rear when, with nothing grasping the nettle up front, Donnacha decided to ask if he might be interested. When pulled to the outer, the colt took off, mowing them all down.
Billesdon Brook’s win in a 7f Nursery at Glorious Goodwood a month earlier had been even less straightforward. Come the final 2f, she was not only surrounded by a wall of horses, she was also bumped, barged and squeezed as Levey desperately tried to engineer an opening. Soemhow, she recovered and when a gap finally materialised, she shot past at least half a dozen rivals in the final half-furlong to get up on the nod.
Richard Hannon’s daughter of Champs Elysees was winning off a mark of only 87 that day, so Guineas aspirations were furthest from his thoughts. But O’Brien knew what he had seen was something special -- and not just because of the rule of thumb that demands we follow any of his juveniles who win first time out on a Grade One track. No, it was more telling than that because, as he confessed afterwards, the youngster “was only just ready to even go racing”.
Whether or not he was 100 per cent ready for Saturday’s Classic was a moot point in the build-up to the race. O’Brien revealed Saxon Warrior had developed physically into “a monster of a horse”, so it’s a measure of his training talents that he was able to harness that growth while still instilling enough work into him to prepare him for such a crucial assignment.
The jury is still out considering the merits of the race. It could be argued that the close proximity of 50/1 rag TIP TWO WIN in second devalues the form. But my view beforehand that it looked a solid Guineas on paper was franked by the visual evidence. I would certainly expect the fourth, ELARQAM, the fifth, ROARING LION, and the sixth, GUSTAV KLIMT, to win more races.
Mark Johnston’s son of Frankel probably lacked experience at the highest level and will benefit from a step-up in trip. Considering he fretted in the stalls and was a bit keen early, he ran a blinder, running on again after briefly getting tapped for toe at a key moment in the race.
John Gosden’s grey came on substantially for his seasonal debut in the Craven Stakes, finishing much closer to the favourite, MASAR, than he did that day. He has to be a good horse, having given Saxon Warrior plenty to think about in the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster last autumn.
The pre-race case for the winner’s stablemate, Gustav Klimt, was not difficult to make beforehand. Coincidentally, like Saxon Warrior and Billeson Brook, he had also pulled a rabbit out of the hat when a remarkable winner at Group Two level last summer, and he had impressed last month on his first run since. As a result, some of his supporters were a shade disappointed by his effort on Saturday, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him progress as the season goes on, particularly on faster ground.
So, what about the winner? What kind of heights did he scale, and can he scale in the future? Unsurprisingly, in this era of exaggeration, his victory tempted some over-the-top, Samcro-like verdicts. I even read one correspondent likening him to Dancing Brave!
I felt Saxon Warrior’s display was a good one, but not a spectacular one. The fascination with him relates to his potential, which is tied in with his physique and his pedigree. He won Saturday’s race with the striking turn of foot he displayed to surge to the front from The Bushes around the 2f pole. Once in front, he didn’t exactly power clear, and yet he is very much bred to appreciate middle-distances. The sire was third in an Arc, while the dam is by the great Galileo (no introduction needed) and the second dam is closely related to 2011 Oaks winner Dancing Rain.
He is a colt clearly at home at 1m, but Donnacha feels his optimum trip will be 10f, while his pedigree screams 12f and the Derby. Maybe all distances will come alike and he fulfils his future potential to such an extent that he could yet be mentioned in the same sentence as Dancing Brave.
He’s certainly almost guaranteed to come on for Saturday’s run, given his huge frame. I thought that, for a horse his size, he looked as straight as he could do for his first engagement of what is sure to be a long season. Ironically, though, it could be his sheer bulk and shape that compromise his chances at Epsom, rather than his talent or his breeding. Connections have no doubt that the Downs are where Saxon Warrior is heading next, but is he equipped to conquer its unique contours?
Epsom was also foremost in my mind after Sunday’s 1,000 Guineas. Primarily because steps up in trip will surely benefit the three chief protagonists who chased home the winner, LAURENS, HAPPILY and WILD ILLUSION.
All are admirable, likeable fillies, particularly the latter, but none are milers, which drags down the form. The contest was already devalued by the absence of O’Brien’s potential superstar, CLEMMIE, while the very fact that Billesdon Brook went into it off a mark of just 99 and had previously been beaten by five of her rivals adds another obvious dampener.
Not that I begrudge the filly’s enthusiastic owners, Pall Mall Partners, their deserved success. And her genuine turn of foot might well prove me wrong as the campaign unfurls. But not even Hannon expected it, and certainly the punters didn’t. She was the biggest priced winner of the race in its long history, and the biggest priced winner of any Classic since 66/1 shots took both the Derby and the 2,000 Guineas back in 1961.
At least Billesdon Brook’s upset proved once again that nothing is certain in the world of racing. Apart from, of course, the supremacy of one Aidan O’Brien.
HORSES TO FOLLOW FROM THE GUINEAS MEETING -- Curiosity (Hugo Palmer), Elarqam (Mark Johnston), Graffiti Master (John Gosden), Highbrow (David Simcock), Key Victory (Charlie Appleby), Laurens (Karl Burke), Lah Ti Dar (John Gosden), Old Persian (Charlie Appleby), Roaring Lion (John Gosden), Saxon Warrior (Aidan O’Brien), Sharja Bridge (Roger Varian), Symbolization (Charlie Appleby), Stephensons Rocket (Ed Walker), UAE Prince (Roger Varian), Wild Illusion (Charlie Appleby), Wuheida (Charlie Appleby).