Case of St Nicholas Abbey haunts merchants of hype
Great things are expected from this season's youngsters, but recall what happened to O'Brien's 'star' of last year, says Chris McGrath
Monday 11 October 2010
Listen to this from a man who has trained many champions, and broken many records. "The sky's the limit," he said. "I don't see how a horse could start a career more impressively than he has. He's able to do things other horses can't."
The subject of his admiration, one of the most dazzling maiden winners of the summer, had been fast-tracked to elite competition and won at his leisure. But the colt's name isn't Frankel; and nor is the trainer Henry Cecil. No, this was Todd Pletcher, America's top trainer, talking about Uncle Mo, who won a historic Grade One race in New York over the weekend by five lengths. Only one horse, 27 years ago, has ever won the Champagne Stakes in a quicker time. Uncle Mo is hot favourite for next month's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, and his connections are dreaming about returning next May for the Kentucky Derby itself.
On this side of the ocean, meanwhile, everyone is buzzing about the showdown between Frankel and Dream Ahead in the Jumeirah Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket on Saturday – a race the official handicapper of juveniles, Matthew Tester, is unabashedly hailing as "the best in living memory".
Now, you never look a gift horse in the mouth, and it would be hugely gratifying should Frankel, Dream Ahead and Saamidd even remotely approach their billing on the Rowley Mile. At the same time, however, it would be wrong not to heed the rebuke – on behalf of all thoroughbreds – implicit in the absence from the Curragh yesterday of St Nicholas Abbey. Last winter Tester and his colleagues were endorsing the champion juvenile with a rating of 124, well above the recent average. Bookmakers, meanwhile, were offering exactly the sort of Classic odds against St Nicholas Abbey as they are now quoting about Frankel.
In the event, St Nicholas Abbey started at even money for the 2,000 Guineas, finished sixth, and has not been seen since. Aidan O'Brien is rather treading on eggshells, with the horse's stud reputation in mind, and backed out of restoring him to the fray yesterday because he considered him "not quite ready". It's a difficult situation.
With hindsight, after all, St Nicholas Abbey would have had to justify the least realistic expectations of last winter to dominate Makfi, Dick Turpin and Canford Cliffs (all subsequent Group One winners at the trip) over a mile on fast ground in the Guineas. If he does prove more of a middle-distance type – and connections had targeted a race over a mile and a half yesterday – then his Guineas "flop" could be revised as a perfectly creditable effort.
Either way, the sport will certainly look back and reproach itself for so excitably anointing an heir to Sea The Stars barely a fortnight after his retirement. Too sober an approach, admittedly, would smother precisely the sort of frisson that makes us love the sport. But those with a seasoned grasp of the Turf's cycles know perfectly well, deep down, that all that glisters cannot be gold. It would just not be consistent with experience for Frankel, Dream Ahead, Saamidd and indeed Uncle Mo to turn out quite as good as they look at the moment.
Handicappers love the fact that Frankel and Dream Ahead have already won big races by 10 and nine lengths respectively. Uncle Mo, moreover, won his maiden in Saratoga by 14. It was a lack of such extravagance in Sea The Stars, who tended to idle in front, that prevented them giving him a rating commensurate with his unprecedented CV. But Frankel has yet to meet a colt even vaguely competent for an average Dewhurst, while Dream Ahead seemed to owe at least a degree of his superiority in the Middle Park to the soft ground.
There is an infectious tide of optimism and goodwill about Frankel, in particular, named as he is after one great trainer and nurtured by another. And the Racing Post's Newmarket correspondent yesterday described his gallop on Saturday morning – apparently coasting some 10 lengths clear of an older lead – as "explosive" and "awesome".
But there is another colt, at another top stable, who has been getting similar reviews all year; one who simply cruised through the Middle Park, until faltering in the ground. And if you would rather back Frankel for the Guineas now, at 2-1, than Strong Suit at 25-1, then you will probably want to make it a double with Uncle Mo in the Kentucky Derby the same weekend.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Kings Bayonet (3.45 Salisbury)
Still not too many miles on the clock and promised to repay perseverance soon when unlucky at Folkestone last time, stuck in traffic and getting out just too late. Form on softer ground last year.
Cardinal (3.35 Windsor)
Much improved for his new yard when dropped to this trip at Yarmouth in August, and suggested himself equal to his new mark when fourth after missing the break at Warwick last time.
One to watch
Zahoo (J L Dunlop)
Warrants one more chance, again looking better than her present rating before being run out of things off the bridle at Newbury on Thursday. May need covering up and producing late.
Where the money's going
Midday is 10-11 from evens with Paddy Power to retain the Filly & Mare Turf at the Breeders' Cup, while French raider Fuisse is 8-1 from 10-1 with William Hill for the Emirates Airline Champion Stakes at Newmarket next Saturday.
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