Tuesday 12 December 2017

Guineas upset sees Makfi knock Abbey down to size

The hot favourite could not trump history or breeding, says Ian McClean

T he opening English Classic at Newmarket yesterday left us the legacy of a still unbeaten, regally-bred winner with everything to look forward to for the remainder of the season.

However, instead of the anticipated highly-touted Ballydoyle-fashioned St Nicholas Abbey, it was instead the unheralded Gallic mouthful Makfi whose name spoke the loudest to transform the youthful French trainer Mikel Delzanges instantly into a name to be reckoned with.

Perhaps it was greed, or perhaps it was too much time spent at bus-stops, but having just enjoyed the best racehorse in living memory in 2009 (Sea The Stars), we were willingly charmed into believing that there would be another along in a minute. And that St Nicholas Abbey -- scintillating winner of all three races as a juvenile culminating in the Group One Racing Post Trophy -- was to become the latest incarnation.

No matter that no Racing Post Trophy winner had gone on to win May's Guineas since High Top in 1972. Or that a dozen that attempted had perished. No matter that St Nicholas Abbey's sire Montjeu had yet to sire a top-class miler or that his progeny excel at a mile and a half. No matter that Ballydoyle's chief Guineas suspects -- Dewhurst combatants Steinbeck and Beethoven -- were both sidelined through injury. No matter. Racing wanted to believe that it could happen. Twice. In a field of 19 overflowing with with five unbeaten runners, St Nicholas Abbey was sent off at even money.

Nonetheless, there were valid forces to balance the belief. There was the blistering acceleration shown at Doncaster off a seemingly pedestrian pace that indicated a mile at Newmarket could easily be within range.

Add to that the times clocked at Ballydoyle in preparation, suggesting the Montjeu colt was as quick at a mile as previous Coolmore Guineas winners. And the not insignificant matter of the colt being carefully named after one of the seven architectural wonders of the owners' beloved Barbados.

If St Nicholas Abbey parades his glory in the morning, then Makfi finds it hard to get out of bed. Unlike the Irish colt, the form of Makfi's two wins were inconclusive at best. Moreover, he was acquired unraced for a measly £25,000 by the little-known French trainer having not shown enough at Marcus Tregoning's for Sheikh Hamdan.

Indeed, a sub-text of yesterday's race was that you could have taken home the first four in the Guineas for a little more than £100,00 combined which sounds more like the rattle of loose change in Flat currency.

A 33/1 return can often smack of fluke, but make no mistake yesterday the discard won on merit. Indeed he needed only the lightest flick of the stick from his stylish jockey after travelling motionlessly throughout to dispatch his rivals.

By contrast, Johnny Murtagh was too animated too early on the heath. In truth, if you hadn't witnessed St Nicholas Abbey's acceleration capability at Doncaster over a mile last autumn, you would rate his staying on sixth as a perfectly plausible Derby trial for one so stoutly bred.

Aidan O'Brien was left to rue the fact that, improbable as it might appear, they only went "a hack canter to half-way". And however good St Nicholas Abbey proves to be in time, he will never be a sprinter. A Ballydoyle pacemaker (or two) would certainly have given the race the necessary hurry-up.

The voice of reason that is John Oxx, when canvassed last week about St Nicholas Abbey's prospects at a mile, replied that he was "more up against it than people think" and this backed up by O'Brien's post-race assertion that at this premature stage of the season that "we weren't winding him up for a mile" suggests that St Nicholas Abbey is still the formidable candidate for the Derby (for which he has been extended to a best price 4/1) and other Group One middle-distance races throughout the season.

There is always a dull sense of disappointment when an

unbeaten athlete surrenders his record and whispers of Triple Crowns are relegated to silence.

What heights Makfi may reach by contrast is anyone's guess although his breeding tells us his distance is a mile. Jeremy Tree once said you can be certain of nothing in racing and yesterday was just another reinforcement of that particular chapter.

Whilst the second coming (of Sea The Stars) failed to materialise at Newmarket yesterday at least one prediction was truly borne out -- the suggestion by Mikel Delzanges who learned his trade with the doughty Jimmy Fitzgerald back in the late eighties that "at least we won't be made to look ridiculous".

Sunday Independent

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