With the retirement of AP McCoy at Sandown this Saturday, it signals the end of the jumps season and the return of the flat.
As usual, there are many bright prospects to keep and eye on but here are six with their sights set firmly on the top prizes.
Trainer: Aidan O’Brien
County Tipperary in Ireland seems the most logical place to start looking at the elite who could be contesting this year’s Epsom Derby. Gleneagles is O’Brien’s strongest possible candidate for the 1m4f prize when assessing last season’s form.
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The three-year-old out of former Derby winner Galileo justified odds-on favouritism at Curragh to land a Group 1 and Group 2 event in August and September respectively.
In the latter race, he comfortably held Dutch Connection, a horse with an incredibly strong pedigree for trainer Charlie Hills, proving that this is yet another horse to roll off the O’Brien production who needs to be taken incredibly seriously.
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Dutch Connection had previously won a strong Goodwood maiden and finished second to Faydhan, a horse with very strong potential despite flopping on re-appearance at Newmarket this month.
Gleneagles’ final race of last season ended in controversy as he claimed a Group 1 at Longchamp on Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe day, only to be demoted to third after the race by stewards after jockey Joseph O’Brien crossed the rails on his mount and impeded the second and third.
Yet this was a jockey issue, not an issue with Gleneagles himself and again he travelled well throughout the race, with the result up for debate as we will never know if Gleneagles would have claimed a fifth career victory had he kept a true line.
In recent weeks, bookmakers have slashed his odds for the Derby on June 6, with odds currently around 5/1. O’Brien could well have another Australia on his hands with this horse and it would be no surprise if, like last year’s Derby winner, he goes to post in Surrey as an odds-on favourite. Yet this all depends on how Gleneagles fares in the QIPCO 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket on May 2, where he will no doubt face some very strong challengers. But he holds most of the aces and it will be no surprise if he cements his Derby credentials with a win for O’Brien in the race once again.
Another O’Brien horse worth a mention at this stage is John F Kennedy. He may only have won an average maiden and a Group 3 over in Ireland last season but there was enough in both performances to suggest this was a horse that was only going to go on to bigger and better things in 2015.
That made it all the more surprising when he flopped badly in the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown on April 12, finishing third of three despite being sent off 1-4 favourite. New Ballydoyle jockey Ryan Moore was never comfortable on the turn from home and to a degree excuses can be made for the poor run.
John F Kennedy never seemed truly comfortable with the pace, implying that there may be fitness issues and the ground was never what he wanted. On the same day, another O’Brien potential Jamaica labored but at this stage of the season neither should be written off. There is plenty to suggest John F Kennedy and Gleneagles especially could have a big say at Epsom in less than two months time.
Trainer: Andrew Balding
Andrew Balding may finally have a horse on his hands in Elm Park which can help him claim the Epsom double. He trained Casual Look to Epsom Oaks success in 2003 but the prize for colts has eluded him thus far.
Elm Park won his last four starts in 2014, including the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster in October, as his progress continues with each passing race.
He started off his career with a modest third in a maiden at Sandown in July of last year. However, the form of the winner Latharnach since then has led Godolphin to believe they have a serious horse on their hands, something which Balding himself can also claim.
Since forming in 2011, Elm Park’s owners Qatar Racing have only ever had one Derby entry, with Arod finishing an impressive fourth in last year’s running. However, there is a genuine belief that they have a horse that can win the race this time out, if his progression continues.
Yet before the Derby even enters connections minds, he is set to head to the 2,000 Guineas to give him a true test of his credentials. Balding stated at a media open day at his stables that “he has got to run well in that (the Guineas) for us to be serious about the Derby. It is the best Derby trial as it brings together the best of that generation.”
With Faydhan flopping at Newmarket during the Craven meeting and his subsequent withdrawal from the 2,000 Guineas, Gleneagles is now the outright leader in the betting for the Suffolk event. It is set to be a mouthwatering spectacle, with Gleneagles, Richard Hannon’s Ivawood and Elm Park all set to go to post to prove their Derby credentials. Elm Park has a great turn of foot over the last two furlongs and likes to lead from the front, prompting the question as to whether Gleneagles will need to adopt different tactics to stay within the race.
Elm Park cannot be given the freedom out front that he was allowed in the Racing Post Trophy. He moved like a dream over the last furlong-and-a-half and despite the standard to be considerably higher in the Guineas, he is a horse that has the ability to run his rivals into the ground given the chance.
Joseph O’Brien has been content to track the leaders throughout Gleneagles’ career because, like Elm Park, he knows he has the ability in the run-in to ground the opposition into submission. If the race shapes up with these two running in their own racing styles, it could shape up to be one of the best finishes to the Guineas in years, similar to Night of Thunder’s 2014 victory which turned into a blitzkrieg in the final strides. If both horses do make it to Newmarket, it is fair to say there will be a significant shake-up in the Derby betting by the time they both pass the post.
There is also the issue of the extra distance should Elm Park head to Epsom. He has never run beyond a mile and even if he was to propel himself to the top of the list of most exciting three-year-olds with success on the Rowley Mile at Newmarket, there is no guarantee he will get the extra half mile in Surrey.
However for a horse that has doing nothing but improve so far in his career, there is every chance Elm Park is a superstar in the making. Only time will tell.
Trainer: Richard Hannon
This could be a horse that genuinely upsets the apple cart this season and could become Richard Hannon’s stable star, eclipsing the much-publicised Ivawood.
After winning the Richmond Stakes at Glorious Goodwood last summer, Ivawood was being mooted as one of the hottest prospects around and had seriously credentials for this year’s running of the 2,000 Guineas. Yet since then the form of both Group 2’s that Ivawood has won has looked weak in truth and he finished behind stablemate Estidhkaar in the Greenham Stakes on April 18.
Estidhkaar ran a blinder behind Muhaarar and looks every inch a Guineas horse. He also boasts strong form from last season, winning Group 2 races at both Newmarket and Doncaster.
It was a very strong renewal of the Greenham and Hannon is likely to send a four-strong assault to Newmarket for 2,000 Guineas glory. The form of the Greenham and last season’s exploits mean Ivawood certainly deserves his chance as does Estidhkaar obviously. Craven Stakes winner Kool Kompany is likely to be involved as will Moheet, third in the same race.
Throw in Tiggy Wiggy and Osaila for a crack at the 1,000 Guineas the following day and Hannon has a very strong chance of being the first trainer to win both Guineas races in the same year for the first time since Aidan O’Brien in 2012.
Trainer: Richard Hannon
Speaking of Osaila, she has turned herself into a horse with genuine credentials for the 1,000 Guineas as her impressive form continues into this season. She gave trainer Richard Hannon his first group winner of the season at Newmarket during the Craven meeting in April when she won the Neil Gwyn Stakes despite questions marks over the trip and ground. As big as 40-1 for the Guineas pre-race, Osaila was cut to 16-1 by some bookmakers for success in the filly’s Classic.
Since she began her career as a two-year old, Osaila has run over distances ranging from five furlongs to a mile, proving she is no one trick pony. She first tasted success in a novice stakes at Doncaster in June of last year and although there was not much depth to that race, she followed that up with an impressive performance to take the Princess Margaret Juddmonte Stakes at Ascot in July.
Both those victories came over six furlongs but Osaila was equally impressive over seven, winning a fillies trophy at Newmarket in October. She finished off the year a more than creditable third over at Santa Anita in a fillies event during the Breeders Cup meeting. Finishing behind two extremely strong American fillies, it proved that Osaila was capable of mixing it with the stars over a mile and turned the idea of Guineas participation from ambitious to probable.
She now has more than enough experience over a range of distances for Richard Hannon to believe Newmarket, and potentially Epsom for the Oaks, a viable option.
Jockey Frankie Dettori, winner on Osaila during the Neil Gwyn Stakes, admitted that she needs the mile and all the signs are that Surrey on May 3 is where she is headed. Hannon also had the winner of the Craven Stakes the following day for the fourth successive year with Kool Kompany. As touched upon earlier, it shows the strength in depth at Hannon’s yard at the moment and this will be his strongest Newmarket line-up in a very long time.
She may not have had a run over a mile in Britain but the way she performed in America makes it valid to believe she can replicate that run. Whatever the outcome, she is a young horse with a big future.
Trainer: Peter Chapple-Hyam
Despite having modest bare form last season, the stats do not tell the full story when it comes to Arod. As a three-year old, he competed in the Juddmonte International Stakes, The Dante Stakes and the Derby.
He was a very creditable fourth at Epsom, showing an impressive turn of foot three from home and quickened away nicely from the group that had assembled behind him. On the day though, he found Australia, Kingston Hill and Romsdal too good for him but he is not the first horse to fall into that category and there is certainly no shame in it.
That performance made it all the more surprising when he flopped in the Juddmonte at York in August. The Peter Chapple-Hyam-trained runner could only finish fifth of sixth on a very disappointing day all round. Arod can have some excuses for the performance (dropped back to 1m2f, facing dual winners Australia, The Grey Gatsby and Coral-Eclipse winner Mukhadram), but the way he was positioned early on in the race and the turn of foot he had shown at Epsom meant more was expected of him, despite the stellar line-up. In between those two races, he won a mediocre race at Leicester where he barely moved out of second gear.
He started off his career by coming third and first in maiden stakes at Kempton and Windsor respectively before the ambitious decision was taken to enter him in the Dante Stakes at York. An impressive performance saw him finish three-quarters of a length behind The Grey Gatsby, who would later finish second in the Juddmonte.
There have already been positive signs that Arod will shine as a four year old. He was second in the Craven Stakes at Newmarket in mid-April behind French Navy and there were once again signs that he has the potential to compete at the higher levels.
He was positioned well throughout the race and led two out but again just came up against a horse that was smarter and could go on to big and better things in the future.
The great thing to see is that Peter Chapple-Hyam still has great faith in his colt and it is likely he will be competing in group races once again throughout the season. The potential is there for all to see, but the problem with high-class racing is that you have to beat the best of the best. However, on his day Arod has more than enough to trouble the opposition and hopefully he will win a group race at least once this season.
Trainer: Dermot Weld
Free Eagle is a horse who will be looking to bounce back after his finish to 2014 left more questions than answers. Boasting some very strong form going in to the QIPCO Champion Stakes at Ascot in October, the Dermot Weld-trained four –year-old was sent off 5/2 favourite in a very strong renewal of the race yet could only manage third behind Al Kazeem and Noble Mission.
There were some excuses on the day however. The ground was clearly too soft for him and he still managed to beat multiple Group 1 winner Cirrus Des Aigles and 2013 Derby winner Ruler of the World. You would think that with better ground the race would have gone a different way altogether.
Before that race, his only other defeat was dealt to him by Australia in a juvenile event at Leopardstown in September 2013. Since that was the eventual Derby winner and an all-round superstar, he can certainly be forgiven for finishing sixth lengths behind him.
His maiden race saw him see off the likes of Kingfisher and Orchestra at Leopardstown in September 2013, both of whom went on to compete in the Derby.
Jockey Pat Smullen has openly admitted that he is “the best horse I have ever ridden” and his first target this year is set to be the Tatterstalls Gold Cup at Curragh on May 24. Although he has never run beyond ten furlongs, Weld believes he will get 1m4f in time and the long-term target is the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in October.
There is a lot of work to be done before then though. Yet both trainer and jockey believes this is a fantastic horse whose reputation is only going to rise and rise once again this season.
The new flat season always unveils some horses with incredible potential but at the same time it is a time for reflection on superstars who were retired in 2014 after more than proving their worth on tracks all over the world.
Derby and Juddmonte international Australia will never race again. A horse with all the class and pace that Camelot was renowned for three years ago. Then there was Taghrooda, a filly who won four races on the bounce at the beginning of her career, culminating in victories in the Epsom Oaks and King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Kingman shared a considerable amount in common with the mighty Frankel. Blistering speed to leave world-class horses trailing in his wake. Winner of the QIPCO Sussex Stakes, St James’s Palace Stakes and the Irish 2,000 Guineas in 2014, it was little wonder he was voted Cartier’s Horse of the Year after retirement.
But perhaps the emotional farewell of all belongs to Noble Mission. The late Henry Cecil adored his six-year-old and what a fitting tribute he gave the late trainer with his heroic win at Ascot in October of last year.
After a rather bipolar season and in a race containing stars like Cirrus Des Aigles, Free Eagle and Ruler of the World, Noble Mission led from start to finish in vintage fashion to take the QIPCO Champion Stakes from Al Kazeem, and immediately could begin to think about life off the course.
The six-year-old was always been consistent and time and time again he has knocked on the door when the big races have come round.
He has beaten a raft of fantastic horses over his three-and-a-half year career, including 2012 St Leger winner Encke, 2014 Hardwicke Stakes winner Telescope and Flintshire, winner of the Hong Kong Vase in 2014.
Noble Mission has only failed to finish outside the top three in four races of his 21-race career but he is a horse that settles far better in smaller fields. Tom Queally and then James Doyle have found it difficult to find a rhythm on him in fields of over five and because of this his races are chosen very carefully. Despite winning at 1m4f, 1m2f seems to be the perfect distance for the Lady Cecil-trained colt. He has a great turn of pace even when dictating from the front throughout.
He was certainly the people’s horse and racecourses throughout Britain and France may miss a little of his sparkle this season. Yet there is a new raft of superstars waiting in the wings to take his glory. Let the flat season begin.