Geoff Lester – London: Chester and Leopardstown might have produced a couple of legitimate place prospects for the Derby in Young Rascal and Hazapour, but last week’s various trials only went to strengthen the position of 2000 Guineas hero Saxon Farm for Epsom.
However, there are potentially a fistful of classic clues at York’s big three-day May meeting which starts today, with all eyes tomorrow being on the Group 2 Dante Stakes over 2063m, which has thrown up the Derby winner four times in the last 14 years, courtesy of Golden Horn, Authorized, Motivator and North Light.
York, known as the Royal Ascot of the north, was again voted best racecourse in the UK last year, and, while the likes of Epsom, Newmarket and Chester have their idiosyncrasies, horses can have no excuses for being beaten on the Knavesmire, which is a big, flat galloping track and as fair as any on the globe.
John Gosden, who was not only responsible for Golden Horn but also Benny The Dip and Winged Desire, both of whom used this as a stepping-stone to Blue Riband glory, has the front two in the betting for the Dante in ROARING LION and Crossed Baton.
We only just missed nabbing the place money with the fast-finishing Roaring Lion in the Guineas, the colt looking a lot sharper than he had done when slammed nine lengths by Masar in the Craven and reducing the deficit to less than a length, despite being forced to race in isolation up the stands side.
Gosden feels this is Roaring Lion’s optimum distance and that the extra 500m should be right up his street, and for me he has more speed than either Crossed Baton, whose Epsom form was given a double-boost at Chester, or recent Feilden winner Mildenberger.
Lah Ti Dar is Gosden’s main hope for the Oaks, but he can also boast another talented middle-distance filly in HIGHGARDEN, who can reverse recent Sandown form with Give And Take and win today’s Group 3 Musidora Stakes.
Highgarden, who might miss Epsom in favour of the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot, got stuck in the mud on the Esher slopes, but was rallying at the end. She’ll be sharper for that reappearance and should not be missed here. Ceilidh’s Dream could be the one for the Exacta.
Harry Angel is a short-priced favourite for the Group 2 Duke of York Stakes, but the formbook suggests that TASLEET is the value as he beat Clive Cox’s sprinter a length in the Champions Sprint at Ascot last October and is now 3kg better off.
I’m a big fan of Harry Angel and accept that he might have gone over the top for that race, but the fact that he has to shoulder the 2.5kg penalty, having won a Group 1 last year, makes his task formidable first time out.
Gosden hopes last year’s St Leger fifth CORONET will win a Group 1 this season, so it is no surprise that she is favourite for the Group 2 Middleton Stakes tomorrow, when I expect her to be too good for Jessica Slack’s former South African superstar Smart Call.
Should Gosden opt to launch newcomer KESSAAR in the two-year-old maiden this Kodiac youngster, the first juvenile he has entered this season, would be well worth an interest as he has been impressing on the Heath. And I’ll be following Gosden at York on Friday, too, with his St Leger third STRADIVARIUS taken to clinch his place in the Ascot Gold Cup field by winning the Group 2 Yorkshire Cup.
After Doncaster Stradivarius, who has apparently thrived physically through the winter, ran a brave third behind Order Of St George and Torcedor in the Long Distance Cup at Ascot on Champions Day, and the runner-up has already franked the form this season by winning the Sagaro Stakes at Ascot.
Newbury stage their richest race of the year on Saturday in the 1600m Lockinge Stakes, and, remarkably in view of the fact that he has trained so many champions over this distance, Aidan O’Brien has only captured the Group 1 prize once, with Hawk Wing in 2003.
However, the Coolmore maestro makes a twin-attack, with RHODODENDRON preferred to stablemate Lancaster Bomber.
Even though Rhododendron chased home Enable in last year’s Oaks and also won the 2000m Prix de l’Opera at the Arc meeting, O’Brien is adamant that dropping back in trip will suit his filly.
Rhododendron’s two best runs were over the shorter distance, finishing second in last year’s 1000 Guineas and chasing home Wuheida, who, incidentally, has suffered a recurrence of an injury and will not race again, in the Breeders Cup Filly & Mare Turf in California last autumn.
O’Brien tells me that Rhododendron’s run against Cracksman in France last month has put her spot on for this, and I think she might have too much class for Addeybb, who has won two Group 2s for William Haggas this season but is dipping his toes in the deepest waters yet.
Across the Atlantic on Saturday, JUSTIFY takes the second step towards possible Triple Crown stardom when he attempts to win the Preakness at Pimlico, just two weeks after his sensational victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Bob Baffert has brought four Derby winners to Maryland before – Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem and American Pharoah – and all emerged triumphant, and Justify is odds-on favourite to make it five for the Californian trainer.
However, the legendary Wayne D Lukas, who won the Derby four times and the Preakness five, warns punters against going in with their size 12 betting boots.
He said: “Justify is 4-4 and he’s the fastest horse in the race, but you need to be so tough to win a Preakness as it comes just a fortnight after his win in the Churchill Downs slop.
“Justify is with the right man so might well win, but if he doesn’t bring his A-game to Pimlico then he might well get bitten on the butt.”
Good Magic, runner-up at Churchill Downs, looks the logical one for the Exacta, but don’t rule out QUIP, who has the same owners as Justify.
He was runner-up in the Arkansas Derby and missed the Run For The Roses to come here fresh. He’ll start at double-figure odds and, while we all made money from Justify in the Derby, we just might be in for a surprise result this time around.