O'Brien empire strikes back
Richard Hannon's young guns are putting it up to Ballydoyle, writes Ronan Groome
I n horse racing, it's always about the next race. And in no other sector of the sport is that more evident than in Flat racing's two-year-old division. These days they start talking about the following year's Guineas even before the present generation get to Newmarket.
Trying to evaluate a two-year-old's Classic credentials is mainly a guessing game. Performances and pedigree are the most important while the main questions still remain: Will it stay a mile? And will it train on?
It is always around this time of year, early August, that the 2,000 Guineas' market takes shape and given that most of the season's top two-year-olds will show up at Newmarket next year for their first run as a three-year-old, your guess now will probably be as good as your guess in 10 months.
Richard Hannon would probably be a good place to start. Fifty six individual two-year-old winners is a truly remarkable feat at this stage of the season, and the word is that there are still more promising juveniles waiting to see the racecourse back at his Wiltshire base.
For now we can only have a look at those that have raced. Strong Suit, King Torus, Libranno and Casual Glimpse are all prominent on bookmaker lists for the Guineas, with the first-named identified by Hannon as his best juvenile. Strong Suit is similar in a lot of ways to Hannon's Canford Cliffs; he took the same Newbury maiden before going on to impress a lot of people in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot.
It may not have been as impressive as his stablemate's six-length romp in the race last season, but Strong Suit showed a serious turn of foot from a near impossible position. Richard Hughes had nowhere to go two furlongs out, but still sat his mount as if he were on a rocket, and indeed when the gaps did open, he got going to take down the seemingly unassailable lead of Michael Jarvis's Elzaam.
It has to go down as the best two-year-old performance of the year so far and it saw bookmakers go as short as 5/1 for the Newmarket Classic.
Strong Suit already looks a steal at the £40,000 paid for him at the St Leger sale last August, and while his immediate relatives wouldn't necessarily inspire Classic confidence, if you go back far enough into his pedigree, you can see where he perhaps has acquired his talent. Strong Suit's fourth dam, Grecian Banner, produced Personal Ensign, a champion in her day and an excellent producer as well, along with dual Grade One winner Personal Flag, and it is from their sister Private Colors, which was a triple winner in the US, that Strong Suit descends.
But while that was the best of a number of high-class performances from Hannon's two-year-olds, including Libranno's impressive display in the Richmond Stakes and King Torus's romp in the Vintage Stakes, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before Ballydoyle struck back, which happened last week at The Curragh in the Group One Keeneland Phoenix Stakes, when Zoffany, well-beaten in the Coventry, exacted his revenge on Strong Suit.
And all of a sudden, the 2,000 Guineas market has a typical look to it -- a Ballydoyle juvenile at the top. Zoffany is a Dansili colt, and he enjoys a similar racing style; he arrived late on the scene, producing a really quick turn of foot to take it up when it mattered. Aidan O'Brien (pictured) said afterwards that the horse had suffered a bit of stage-fright at Ascot, and pulled too hard early on, that he had learned a lot since and he will be aimed at the National Stakes now. He should get a mile and further in time. His dam, Tyranny, never quite made the grade, but her dam was a Group Three winner over 10 furlongs and a half-sister to a Group Two winner over nine furlongs.
While Zoffany's win provided a timely boost to what has been a relatively quiet season for O'Brien's two-year-old string, the race perhaps indicated a turning point in the British/Irish juvenile rivalry as a whole, with Jim Bolger's Glor Na Mara finishing second on what was only his second run.
Glor Na Mara, which had been the subject of some good reports early in the season, was judged good enough to make his debut in a Group Three. He disappointed that day, but he ran a much better race here, and he might have won had Strong Suit not drifted over and let Zoffany through. Bolger indicated after the race that he will now aim him at the Group One Dewhurst Stakes, which probably best indicates the high regard he holds this colt in; he has won that race twice in recent years with a subsequent Derby winner in New Approach and a champion two-year-old Teofilo.
With regard to the stamina question, Glor Na Mara's sire was a miler; the dam is by American-based sire Saint Ballado, which was effective over seven furlongs and a mile, so connections can be hopeful.
A further boost to the Irish challenge comes in the form of Kevin Prendergast's originally-named Dunboyne Express. His performance in the Anglesey Stakes, although probably slightly flattering in beating Samuel Morse by eight lengths on softish ground, must be treated with a lot of respect. He has already given the impression that he will stay further, he is a half-brother to a two-time winner over 10 furlongs but he should have all the speed as well, being by Shamardal, which has had an excellent start to his stud career.
Peter Martins, Head Space, Pathfork, and Native Khan all created lasting impressions in taking their maidens impressively first time out. Three Group One races, the Dewhurst at Newmarket, the National Stakes at The Curragh and the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster, should test their Guineas potential in the coming weeks.
For now, Zoffany is probably just about shading it over Strong Suit. Ballydoyle's main two-year-old, so far, has the potential to claim superiority in the market with one more big performance, and the stage will be set for him when he lines up for the National Stakes.
But don't desert Strong Suit just yet. The Hannon team found no excuse for the latter's run at The Curragh, but they can find reassurance in another similarity to Canford Cliffs, which also got turned over at long odds-on in his reappearance after the Coventry.
In saying that, even if Strong Suit could go on to be as good as Canford Cliffs -- which is probably the best three-year-old in Europe -- it should be remembered that the latter still wasn't good enough to win his Guineas in Newmarket earlier this season. It's that kind of race.