Toormore to cause upset in a Guineas renewal for the ages
And so another memorable National Hunt season is brought to a conclusion this afternoon with the culmination of a delightful week at Punchestown. But the bandwagon rolls on and, for racing enthusiasts, just as one door closes, another opens.
Today's 2,000 Guineas in Newmarket signifies high summer is close. Flat racing's aristocrats are emerging from a winter of hibernation. Their time is here. Warm days, good going and equine bluebloods vying for a career as a stallion ensures there is much to anticipate.
It begins this afternoon with the season's first Classic. Before we look forward to the 206th running of the 2,000 Guineas there is credence in reflecting on the Guineas of 1971. Although just six runners went to post, the race had considerable depth with Mill Reef, My Swallow and Brigadier Gerard having been the dominant two-year-olds throughout Europe the season before. Collectively, they had been successful on 18 of the previous 19 occasions they raced.
Mill Reef and My Swallow both won their prep race and public opinion anticipated a match between the two. A starting price of 11/2 suggests Brigadier Gerard was overlooked, but he outran his odds and won cozily by three lengths. Jimmy Lindley, who rode in the race, said: "My colt was nearly flat out the whole way. It must be the best Guineas for 50 years."
Time alone will dictate how good a renewal lies in store this afternoon but similarities with 1971 are hard to miss. Just as then bookmakers' prices suggest the first Classic of 2014 is a two-horse race.
The John Gosden-trained Kingman has been all the rage since his prep-winning run in the Greenham at Newbury three weeks ago.
His performance there was very taking and he appears to have lost none of his brilliance from two to three. The form looks solid, with the runner-up Night of Thunder apparently catching pigeons in his work beforehand at Richard Hannon's yard. By the champion sprinter Invincible Spirit, out of a Group One winner which is a half-sister to champion sprinter Oasis Dream, Kingman is bred to be a champion, a speedy champion.
The case for Kingman is obvious. But at odds of 6/4, value is long gone. If Kingman has a chink it may well be his ability to act on quick ground, especially on a course containing undulations unique to the Rowley mile's infamous dip.
Gosden said after his Newbury victory that his horse won't be risked on quick ground, so connections obviously have concerns over his pronounced knee action.
All the evidence indicates Kingman is a horse with an engine only Group One horses possess; I just question whether we will see the full capability of the engine given today's conditions at Newmarket over a truly-run mile contest. If Kingman is not at his best, the depth of quality in opposition is sufficiently strong to take full advantage. Leading the charge is Aidan O'Brien's Australia.
Recently proclaimed to by his astute trainer to be "the best we've ever had," his position as second favourite might well owe as much to his Ballydoyle handler's words as it does his achievements on the track.
Last September at Leopardstown, he was the winner of a small-field Group Three in which the odds-on favourite disappointed. Australia was very impressive on that occasion but, being by a Derby winner out of an Oaks winner, I wonder will he be most effective over a 12-furlong Derby trip.
In the recent past, Ballydoyle horses such as Hold That Tiger, One Cool Cat, and St Nicholas Abbey have all arrived on Guineas day as huge talking horses only to disappoint. Australia may well be a superstar but I suspect we will acclaim his greatness on a different day in a different location.
Furthermore if Australia is expected to win, the presence of another O'Brien horse, War Command, in today's field is baffling. Should the Guineas of 2014 replicate events of 43 years ago, then assuming the role of Brigadier Gerard is the Richard Hannon-trained Toormore. He was the highest-rated two-year-old in Europe following his three runs last year, a year which climaxed in a Group One-winning performance over seven furlongs in the National Stakes at the Curragh.
On ground officially described as good, the winning time was quick. Last year, as I watched this horse progress from winning a Leicester maiden to a Group Two at Glorious Goodwood before his final triumph at the Curragh, I found myself picking holes in his achievements. At Goodwood, I felt Mickael Barzalona kicked for home too early on the second horse and gave Toormore and Richard Hughes an opportunity to catch them in the shadow of the post. At the Curragh, the field appeared to be lacking in strength and I concluded Toormore's subsequent victory represented a soft Group One.
In hindsight, I suspect I might well have been looking in the wrong places and reading the wrong signs. At Goodwood, when Toormore lowered the colours of subsequent Breeders Cup juvenile winner Outstrip, he was still learning how to race and doing so on such an intricately unique track was less than ideal.
As Outstrip kicked for home, Toormore looked beaten but, as champions do, he refused to wilt and was well on top at the line. Two months later at the Curragh, he was considerably more furnished and Hughes jumped from the stalls, made all and never saw another horse.
His recent reappearance in the Craven Stakes was very effective if not spectacular. While doing plenty early in the race, he was a comfortable winner and conceded 3lb to the Group Two placed Great Gatsby, which ran second.
Toormore didn't display the eye-catching brilliance of Kingman but, for a prep run, it was satisfactory. Given horses such as Canford Cliffs and last year's star filly Sky Lantern were beaten in their seasonal reappearance as three-year-olds, the extent which Hannon's horses improve for their first run should not be underestimated.
Even though Toormore was champion juvenile, he has never been a horse to catch the media's imagination and never received the hype racing's scribes sometimes chose to bestow.
As a result, his achievements and abilities have been undervalued. And at the prices for today's race, he represents value. The Hannons have learned from their handling of Canford Cliffs, choosing the Craven as a prep run, ensuring lack of experience over the course wouldn't be an issue.
Neither will the predicted ground conditions. And, in Hughes, he has a jockey who has the courage to ride a race best suited to his horse.
His plans won't be dictated by the competition and, in high-class races with margins so fine, such confidence can be decisive. In racing, sometimes the obvious isn't easily identified. In 1971 it was overlooked and history may well be about to repeat itself. This afternoon, I believe Toormore will win a vintage running of the 2,000 Guineas.