Sunday 19 January 2020

O'Brien's super Saint shoots for the Stars

Exciting Ballydoyle prospect must deliver in Guineas to justify the hype

Richard Forristal

Hard as it may be to fathom this morning, St Nicholas Abbey was never meant to be a Guineas horse. Last August, he made his debut over a mile in heavy Curragh going, coming under pressure two furlongs out before motoring home to win going away. Once stamina came into play, St Nicholas Abbey came into his own -- or so it seemed.

Aidan O'Brien's five previous winners of today's 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket all began their juvenile campaigns between five and seven furlongs, because that's what you do with a horse that's bred to excel over a mile at three; build them up gradually.

When O'Brien targeted that Curragh maiden, it was a decision in keeping with St Nicholas Abbey's pedigree. By Montjeu, the Irish Derby and Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe winner that produces stamina-laden Group One performers, both sides of the leggy colt's parentage scream a mile and a half.

Yet St Nicholas Abbey is a red-hot favourite for the opening Classic of the season, and is being touted by some as the next Sea The Stars. Clearly, he has evolved to this point, confounding the expectations of connections and the norms of bloodlines.

Five weeks after his debut, St Nicholas Abbey returned to the Curragh and recorded another impressive performance in the Beresford Stakes on good ground.

Again, he had to be bustled up at the two pole, and he was undoubtedly more authoritative the further he went. Following the Group Two, which was won by Sea The Stars in 2008, it was the Epsom Derby market that reverberated. Not the Guineas market.

"He's definitely one to look forward to for next year," Johnny Murtagh said after the Beresford. "You'd like to think of him showing up for the Derrinstown Derby Trial."

Well, St Nicholas Abbey does still hold an entry for next week's Leopardstown trial, but instead he takes in an altogether more ambitious route this afternoon. His final outing as a two-year-old demanded as much.

A month after the Beresford, he annihilated the Racing Post Trophy field over a mile. In a slowly run race, the Doncaster Group One ought to have finally exposed any fundamental lack of gears in St Nicholas Abbey. Some chance.

Coming from off the pace, the worst place to be when the leaders dictate a sedate gallop, Murtagh's mount displayed devastating acceleration to draw clear in a heartbeat. It was a breathtaking feat, and the whole 'could he be another Sea The Stars?' debate quickly grew legs.

However, despite Murtagh reckoning St Nicholas Abbey might be one of the best he has ridden, the Sea The Stars parallel is spectacularly premature. Right now, St Nicholas Abbey has as much in common with One Cool Cat, that prodigious Ballydoyle juvenile that bombed so spectacularly in the 2004 Guineas, as Sea The Stars.

John Oxx's colt's two-year-old campaign began in defeat and culminated in his relatively low-key Beresford win.

Whereas Sea The Stars, a more compact and physically robust specimen, was trained to train on, so to speak, St Nicholas Abbey was asked a serious question as a juvenile; albeit one that he answered emphatically. The next question, and the one that will define him, is: will he deliver at three?

If the truth be known, Team Ballydoyle probably still considers St Nicholas Abbey as much a Derby horse as a Guineas horse, but they are not going to say that and, more importantly, little else has put its hand up since the Doncaster rout.

Elusive Pimpernel did in the Craven, but St Nicholas Abbey slammed him by four lengths at Doncaster.

Likewise among his own stable-mates, a collective that has the potential to dominate this season, nothing has matched St Nicholas Abbey's rate of progression. It wasn't of him, remember, that the birds in the trees were said to be singing last year.

As it is, then, St Nicholas Abbey's place at the head of today's market has continued to harden almost by default.

On the basis of what he has done and what others haven't, he deserves to be a raging favourite and he is a fascinating prospect.

A mile on fast ground might still render him vulnerable but, if he does rise to the challenge at Newmarket, he'll have taken a small step toward justifying those comparisons with Sea The Stars. That would give us all something to get excited about.

Irish Independent

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