Chris McGrath: Nathaniel to come of age in test of the generations
Saturday 23 July 2011
Whatever you may suspect about the Emperor's new clothes, at least he looks good naked.
In fairness, the elite racing calendar's new raiment – the Qipco Champions Series – is not totally invisible, having at least introduced substantial fresh sponsorship to the sport. Moreover, its one, genuine innovation has been underwritten with such lavish disregard for the industry's daily privations that anyone remotely in contention for the trainers' championship knows that two races at Ascot in October could turn the prize-money table inside out.
It is best to reserve for another day the question of whether or not it is in the best interests of their horses, and owners, to reiterate some parochial supremacy in the autumn, when there are foreign fields still to be conquered. For now, however, it is worth stressing the organic, unchanging roots of what is proving a vintage season on the Flat.
This has long been the time of summer when trainers sense that the balance of power, contingent on the weight-for-age scale, swings towards maturing three-year-olds. Sure enough, the big races at Ascot today and Goodwood next week together serve their traditional role as a test of strength between generations.
On Wednesday, in the Qipco Sussex Stakes, Frankel will represent the Classic crop against last year's winner, Canford Cliffs. This afternoon, equally, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes is made complete by the participation of Nathaniel, who looks the leading British three-year-old over a mile and a half.
True, his older rivals set him an exacting standard. And his involvement hardly reverses the broader trends that have increasingly discouraged trainers from running three-year-olds here. It is imperative nowadays, with the international autumn in mind, to give a break to colts that have soaked up a Derby preparation. Hence, for instance, the disappearance of Pour Moi after Epsom. Moreover, the meddlesome transposing of the two big French races for three-year-old colts – which has, in effect, postponed their Derby to within nine days of the King George – means that those who do persevere from Epsom can now do so in the company of their contemporaries. In the event, after he ran Pour Moi so close and then won at the Curragh, Treasure Beach's performance in the Grand Prix de Paris simply confirmed that he was due some leave.
That is hardly the case with Nathaniel, who sat out the Classics. What's more, he can offer Treasure Beach some vicarious involvement today. At the time, admittedly, even those of us most jealous of Chester's reputation as a proving ground were making limited claims for his photo-finish defeat of Nathaniel in May. It turns out, however, that the Vase was contested by two authentic stars in the making.
Having resolved not to risk Nathaniel on fast going at Epsom, connections brought a fresh, unexposed colt to the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot. After plenty of rain, he duly annihilated a strong field by five lengths and more. A couple of those strewn in his wake have since excelled, and remember that Nathaniel had run Frankel himself to half a length on their debut at Newmarket last summer – his only other start on soft ground.
Nathaniel has still had only five starts, receives 8lb from his seniors and has shown himself very much at home over the course and distance. He was being traded yesterday at around 7-1 with the race sponsors, Betfair. And while Workforce remains much the most likely winner, the odds against him have shrivelled horribly over the past week.
Workforce ran a shocker in this contest last year, after all, and would by no means be the first to evince an aversion to the renovated track at Ascot. The chances are, however, that he had simply failed to absorb a very hard race at Epsom. In principle, after two excellent runs over 10 furlongs, he should be hard to beat back over a trip he has still tried just three times – winning a Derby and an Arc in the process.
In theory, Rewilding can beat him, on the premise that he was able to run down So You Think at the royal meeting, whereas Workforce could not see off the same rival at Sandown. But Rewilding had a gruelling race and has produced his best performances when fresh. No less than Workforce, he will appreciate the longer trip, but whether he is quite so effective with cut remains to be seen.
The stiffer the test, the better for St Nicholas Abbey, readily outpaced by Midday before rallying as she idled in the Coronation Cup. This looks harder, but continued weakness in the market could yet make him value, not least if based on mistrust of his inexperienced rider. Joseph O'Brien would clearly not have been given opportunities like this, so soon, in any other yard – but that is not to say that they are beyond his competence. St Nicholas Abbey was too short last week, when Workforce was too long; but the reverse may yet become true today. Pending any further such disparities, however, the only odds that give you breathing space are probably those against Nathaniel.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Divine Call (1.30 Ascot)
Potentially better than this rating, having idled in front when scoring at Kempton and since shown plenty of dash over an extra furlong.
Entitled (3.40 York)
A decisive winner dropped to course and distance last month, and easily excused defeat from a poor draw since.
One To Watch
El Greco (Sir Michael Stoute) has an excellent pedigree and showed as much as connections could have wished at Sandown on Wednesday, bearing down from the rear to go down narrowly.
Where The Money's Going
Frankel is evens from 11-10 with Paddy Power for the Qipco Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on Wednesday, with Canford Cliffs eased to 5-4 from 6-5.
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