The Internationals are here. Hurrah, hurrah!

There are certain races in the world that, according to script, spew up champions. The English Derby is one, the Arc another, and the Cox Plate is Australia’s version, a race reserved for the most brilliant of the spring, the one horse that has earned the right to lift silver. But racing doesn’t always go to script, does it? When maiden Shamus Award rolled over the line at Moonee Valley two weeks ago, the purists (and I’m often one of them, though not in this instance) rolled their eyes and bleated that the Cox Plate was in tatters. A maiden shouldn’t win a wfa championship. Imagine if it happened in the Arc!

Shamus Award’s victory left a few eyebrows pinched down here, though the story behind the horse is terrific. If his trainer wanted to sock all his critics in the eye, he did it brilliantly, for the newspapers, Twitter, they were all alight about the horse’s nomination in the first place. Of course, I wondered what would have come of Shamus Award had the ridiculous Atlantic Jewel stayed sound. Coolmore’s mare might have washed, dried and ironed the field before the final furlong, because all the big guns – It’s A Dundeel, Puissance de Lune – were starched before the final turn.

Racing is a curious business. This time last year the ragtag Puissance was the ‘it’ horse, and at the time I thought it was a big, gusty call from Glen Boss to declare the horse the next Cup winner. In a sport that rotates on vagueness, Boss’s confidence was, I suppose, great fun. But then Puissance was as brilliant in the autumn, and did little wrong when he opened his spring this year. And then the Underwood undid him a little, out of the money for the first time in six runs. He looked a sore, beatable horse, confirmed when he ran second-last in the Cox Plate.

I must admit, it took the wind out of my sails a little to see him ailing. Puissance had a grip on Cup favouritism, and he’d earned it, and amid an onslaught of imported talent, he was a ‘local’ horse (what the hell is local these days) that seemed to be all the good. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as upsetting as Atlantic Jewel bowing out. She would have given the Cox Plate field a neat, nasty lesson I feel.

So, the Cox Plate changed the playing field a good deal, and isn’t 24 hours a long time in racing. Now we sit less than 48 hours from the Melbourne Cup, the long-time favourite is gone and we have a strangely familiar chant going on – where are the locals?

Well, what is a ‘local’ horse these days?

When it comes to stayers in this country, true locals are a rarity because the Europeans just do it so much better. It’s like cycling. Every pro bike-rider doped because they weren’t competitive unless they did. The Euro imports, whether visiting or on a one-way stub, have proved again and again they are better at this staying game than the home bloods.

In Tuesday’s field of 24 (as it sits), there are five true locals, horses that are born and bred Australian – Fawkner, Super Cool, Ethiopia, Hawkspur (not the Irish one) and Dear Demi. Of the remaining 19, 10 are locally owned imports, brought in to syndicates or the far-sighted Lloyd Williams. The remaining nine are ‘invaders’, poised to steal the spoils for overseas. That means that nearly twice the number of visitors are competing than true locals, not to mention the fact that foreign-breds have overrun the field completely. These are interesting and well documented stats this week, nothing that surprises Australians any more. The internationals are here to stay, and I’m glad for it.

The Melbourne Cup has a far better footing on its claim to being a ‘great race’. It was the same with the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the King’s Stand Stakes: they became better competitions when the foreigners came for the loot. And Australia has only herself to blame really, spending far too much time gazing at the Golden Slipper instead of the first Tuesday in November. Yes, we are famous now for the sprinting genes. But we used to be a grand old dame of staying character, way way back to the great Yattendon. Star Kingdom, you have a lot to answer for, my friend.

Folks are saying this is the best Cup yet, and we might be saying that every year from now on. If we are, it’s not a bad thing. I used to think the race was a bit of a lottery, a prize open to the lucky, to be honest. But as the Cup tows itself into line with the best of the world’s races, helped along by the best horses entering, the results will follow. In other words, the best horse will win, on paper at least.

The 2013 Melbourne Cup Field
1. Fawkner
2. Dunaden
3. Green Moon
4. Red Cadeaux
5. Sea Moon
6. Super Cool
7. Voleuse de Coeurs
8. Fiorente
9. Hawkspur
10. Tres Blue
11. Brown Panther
12. Foreteller
13. Ethiopia
14. Dandino
15. Verema
16. Mourayan
17. Seville
18. Dear Demi
19. Mount Athos
20. Royal Empire
21. Masked Marvel
22. Simenon
23. Ibicenco
24. Ruscello

Footnote: for an educated insight into the changing shape of the Melbourne Cup, pick up the recently published ‘The Modern Melbourne Cup’ by Danny Power (@thethoroughbred). Available from Slattery Media Group (@slatterymedia).

The talk of War - War Front


There’s been talk of War since Royal Ascot, when a certain stallion from Claiborne Farm did some trading on the European stock market. War Front, an 11-year-old bay son of Danzig, barnstormed the Royal meeting on opening day with two huge winners – first Declaration Of War in the Queen Anne, then War Command in the Coventry. This a few months after another sprog, Lines Of Battle, took out the UAE Derby in Meydan. And there was more to come. Declaration Of War pressed for placings in both the Coral-Eclipse and Sussex Stakes before sweeping, unexpectedly, the Juddmonte International a few nights ago (step aside Al Kazeem and Toronado). This Claiborne stallion was snatching and grabbing all over the place. But who the hell was he?

Aside from a son of Danzig, War Front was a pretty smart dirt horse in the US before his retirement. For 13 starts he had four wins and six placings, and though he didn’t notch a Gr1 in three seasons, he was second in two attempts, his best victory arriving in the 2006 Gr2 Alfred Vanderbilt Breeders’ Cup Handicap at Saratoga. On paper, he’s not a bad prospect. His dam, Starry Dreamer, has produced three other black-type winners in America, and his progeny are carving impressive family trees. For example, Declaration Of War is out of a half-sister to no less than Union Rags. At the time of writing, all this bodes well for War Front. The Danzig stallion sits equal fifth (within a swig of Megaglio d’Oro and Giant’s Causeway) on the American Graded Stakes standings, and eighth overall on earnings.

As a story alone, War Front is not much more interesting than any young gun staking his claim in the market (though he be doing it quickly). It’s his moves in Europe that have made everyone sit up and pay attention. Though a dirt horse himself, the stallion has had no problems producing turf smarts Declaration Of War and War Command. The former cemented his standing in the Juddmonte (a start in the Breeders’ Cup anyone?), while the latter is a close watch for the next 2000 Guineas. And these two, along with Lines Of Battle and a string of up-and-comers, have something else in common – the Coolmore colours.

Magnier, Tabor and Smith have done a Northern Dancer manoeuvre here and invested heavily in what looks like a goldmine sireline. War Front was bred by American Joseph Allen, raced and retired by him, but Allen has jumped squarely into the Tipperary camp, saying, ‘to stay ahead you need great partners, and these guys have been in the game a long time, and add so much to it’. Reportedly, Coolmore have a battalion of great mares earmarked for the European War Front invasion – Together, Misty For Me, Kissed – but I couldn’t help asking myself after the Juddmonte... could this stallion work in Australia?

Well, we’ve had lesser American stallions come to our shores. Animal Kingdom and Big Brown were top racehorses, sure, but they are young, unproven stallions. War Front could shuttle on a reputation similar to that of Bernadini or Medaglia d’Oro – proven at 11 years old. And, like Street Cry you might say, War Front has no allegiance to turf or dirt in the covering shed. With the alliance to Coolmore also, Joseph Allen (the Claiborne part aside) has a strong, experienced ally in the shuttling world. The only question is would Australian breeders come to the trough? After the Juddmonte, I’d be inclined to say they would.

All this aside, War Front is a fascinating horse to watch. He’s probably the most prolific US stallion to emerge from that nation in a long time, and that’s saying something because it hasn’t been easy for American stallions to peg their stake in Europe. But pegging it, he is. Beginning at a modest $12,500, War Front’s fee climbed to $15,000, then $60,000 and is currently $80,000 a serve. What’s it good for? Absolutely something you’d have to say!

Career-ended St Nicholas Abbey – A Tribute


The thought of certain horses makes your blood rush, and St Nicholas Abbey is one of them. As a racehorse, he is a Breeders’ Cup Turf and three-time Coronation winner, a Dubai victor, a modern thoroughbred with almost £5 million in the kitty. But as an animal, he is a six-year-old son of Montjeu, a lithe bay horse with a high galloping action and rattling stride, a face narrow and refined as if Arab. He is a warrior down famous straights, has run into all sorts of famous names, and fame... well, it has come to him in all disguises since 2007. A Classics contender, a Breeders’ Cup hero, an Arc failure, a Frankel chaser, a Coronation legend.

A stricken racehorse.

Mid-last week, news trickled off the wire that St Nicholas Abbey had landed a ‘career-ending injury’ at Ballydoyle. It was the kind of news that floored horse racing, for this animal is one of the great sticking stories of our sport. Reports that he was injured wiped the King George of its banner entrant. But ‘injured’ didn’t quite cut what had happened in Tipperary. Nineteen screws, a plate in his pastern and a bone graft, and then word that colic complications had led to further surgery. How was it possible, I wondered, that I had never met this horse, but his fate had completely consumed my week?

It’s Tuesday evening as of writing, and St Nic, like his career, sticks on. It’s not surprising really. On the track, he had showed zero hints of tiring. He had sprung into 2013 with a clattering victory in the Sheema Classic at Meydan back in March, and followed it up with a history-making win in his third Coronation. But in a racing age where retirement falls at three for most of our ‘champions’, at the very most, four, this fellow, this six-year-old, was a blasting advertisement for training on. And his mileage said it all – twenty-one starts and five globetrotting seasons through Frankel, Snow Fairy, Danedream and Cirrus des Aigles, Sea Moon, Red Cadeaux, Nathaniel and Midday. An old-fashioned, well-seasoned marvel.

St Nicholas Abbey seems stained with that deep pot of Sadler’s Wells gold, the rare stuff that has lined the pipes of Europe’s best for decades. His damside is unremarkable. Leaping Water was an unraced English mare by the slick miler Sure Blade (who proved a pretty useless sire). She went to America for a brief stint, visiting mediocre stallions in matings that sounded nothing, until her half-brothers Aristotle and Ballingarry suggested she might do well on Sadler’s Wells. She did. Covered by Montjeu in 2006, she dropped St Nicholas Abbey on 13 April 2007, and he has gilted her name forever. Funny how a champion can do that. St Nicholas Abbey appears a one-hit wonder for Leaping Water, making him, as Tony Morris wrote in the ‘Racing Post’ back in 2009, ‘a faithful scion of the Sadler’s Wells tribe’.

If we can cling to recent optimism, St Nic will be a neon Montjeu at stud, and you can see why Coolmore has battled so hard to save him. But he was more to them than dollars and cents. He was a perennial, a stable favourite whose misfortune last week made Aidan O’Brien publicly sad, and that had nothing to do with him losing a King George favourite. Absolutely nothing.

There was something grand and glorious about unassuming St Nicholas Abbey, about his tremendous splaying stride, his narrow nose. And though the idea of a stricken racehorse is terrible, the picture of them on the ground unsettling because we know them at their strongest, their fastest, the idea of stricken St Nic was even worse. Somehow, this fellow, above most others, has really, really earned the oats of retirement.

(Picture above by author: St Nicholas Abbey before the 2012 Juddmonte)

Frankie And The Lost Kingdom of Camelot

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Oh boy. I love this racing game when it throws a curve ball, a perfect hook that knocks us all out of the playing park. Tonight it came in the shape of the Italian fantastico Frankie Dettori. The Godolphin gun will pilot gorgeous Camelot in this weekend’s Arc de Triomphe. You heard it folks, up off the floor now.

Where have the old days gone, the days of the Irish and the Arabs punching it out around the world’s sale rings, of stable rivalry so close and exhausting it was like a film script? Au revoir, say I. Frankie stepping up for Camelot is the most exciting headline racing has had in a while. It’s part two of Aidan shaking Sheikh Mohammed’s hand in Meydan back in March, of Coolmore shipping horses to Dubai for the first time in so many years. It’s modernity and simple mathematics - an awesome three-year-old and a seasoned, incomparably stylish and brilliant jockey. Quel magnifique.

Camelot is humming in neutral at the moment, questioned after the failed St Leger bid, questioned over questionable form lines. He is, without doubt, the smartest three-year-old going around in my opinion. As Frankie told RacingUK today, Camelot didn’t just win the Derby. He spread-eagled the Derby field. In my eyes, the horse put up a gallant fight in the Leger, and I found all sorts of holes in Joseph’s ride. Scores of people have disagreed, claiming the colt is simply not good enough. We’ll see.

Tactically, Ballydoyle couldn’t have chosen better. Frankie is like the modern melt of Jim Pike (grace), Lester Piggott (tactile brilliance) and Darby Munro (goes for the hole). He is the most gifted rider on the circuit. In his hands, I suspect Camelot will move like a 360, and if there’s acceleration there, Frankie will extract it. If there’s petrol left, he will drain it. Camelot won’t know what’s hit him (figuratively). And with 25 successive Arc rides in his ass pocket, you’d have to think Dettori will have the colt right where he should be. We rarely complain that this man gets it wrong in running.

So, has it fallen into Frankie’s lap to restore the lost kingdom of Camelot? If you were going to pick a jock to do it, he would be it (Johnny Murtagh would work too). Of course, there will be critics. Without Nathaniel and Danedream and Snow Fairy, people will say it isn’t the strongest Arc renewal, and they’ll pour that out if the game colt wins. If he loses, he won’t have lost much. There are some older heavyweights lining up, and the St Leger already wiped a flawless record.

Tonight, we roll around in a match made in heaven. And respect to Dettori. It’s an honour, he said, to be asked to ride the Guineas and Derby winner. His humility is impressive. The underlings of change are pretty strong in this story, for everyone is wondering how Godolphin feel about this news, about how their stamped rider has plunged into enemy territory. Is Frankie, in this freelance guise, open season, so open he’s riding for Coolmore after seven years? Apparently so, and I think it’s fabulous.