Today salutes the enterprise of the remarkable lady behind the candescent meteor of the South African bloodstock world, Drakenstein Stud, home to the stand-out stallions Trippi and Duke Of Marmalade. The L'Ormarins Queen's Plate is the weight-for-age championship of South African racing, with a history that dates to a time when our neighbourhood was ravaged by a Zulu King who rejoiced in the name Ushaka. This Thursday, those traditions are celebrated under the label of Gaynor Rupert's husband, Johann's stellar wine estate, L'Ormarins; the scene is Glorious Goodwood, which has a centuries-old history of attracting racegoers from every spectrum of society, one of its quaint eccentricities being the "free-entry" vantage point afforded by Trundle Hill, an Iron Age fort at the top of the straight. The coachloads come in their happy droves and everything about Goodwood conspires to celebrate the homely feel of that marvellous institution, the Great British Day Out. My only former impression of the Duke of Richmond's great estate was the black and white television memory of a motor raceway that recalls the days of Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham, and now that I've been there, a quirky British racecourse with ups-and-downs, switchbacks and loops, and undulations more reminiscent of a point-to-point venue than a testing ground for thoroughbreds. That said, glorious is as glorious does, and at this time of year, Goodwood is simply Glorious.
While South Africans are at play in the "old country", Americans are tightening their seat belts for the first major clashes of the halfway season at ancient Saratoga, where the weekend features the time-honoured Jim Dandy Stakes (Gr.2) and the Haskell Invitational (Gr.1), each of which have disgorged any number of the nation's leading stallions on their way to what has been dubbed the "Midsummer Derby" of American racing, the Travers (Gr.1). While no self-respecting racing fan in that part of the world would ever suggest that the Travers has displaced the Kentucky Derby for sentimental prominence, in the local psyche of many breeders, the quintessential definition of the American middle-distance Thoroughbred is the hero of the Travers. It often comes as a kind of "second guess" of the Triple Crown, mainly because its winners have sometimes either been denied a shot at acts one, two or three of that melodrama, or for some reason came up unlucky, and the Travers was their vindication.
The honours board of the Travers is littered with the names of former legends of their sport, and whatever else the Triple Crown may mean to its fans, for them, you can't beat fabled Saratoga for its atmosphere, its pomp and its roll call of peerless contests. As an illustration of its racing greats of the past 40 odd years and the paths they followed to Travers glory, we've highlighted the names of those who've since passed into the folklore of American racing and breeding.
|1972||Key to the Mint|
|1999||Lemon Drop Kid|
One fellow whose analysis of the game I deeply admire is the English writer James Willoughby, whose dissections of form are quite fascinating. He and a fellow columnist at The Washington Post, Andrew Beyer, have made a fine art of the study of speed and its impact on the outcomes of races. For some time now, they have bemoaned the steady trend of deterioration in the times of recent winners of the Kentucky Derby, as you can see from the chart dating from 1991 to the present. While some theorists put this down to the dryer surfaces of the tracks, the fact is that while that may result in the absolute times being affected, it cannot change the relativity of the splits during a race.
The real cause is that American breeders, together with their counterparts in Australia, have led the obsession with speed in their bloodlines that afflicts us all these days, at the expense of classic stamina, and underscores the fact that few US racehorses, even the best of them, are bred to run one-and-a-quarter-miles. From a statistical standpoint, there can be little doubt about the veracity of this. Three year olds might get 10 furlongs on a fast track by the end of their campaign, but on the first Saturday of May, the trip is too far for most of them to sustain their speed, no better illustrated than this year, when an undoubtedly vintage crop of three year olds combines to run as slow as 2.03 minutes for the Kentucky Derby. Of one thing there is little denying, this year's winner of the Triple Crown, American Pharoah (the first since Affirmed in 1978) is an exceptional racehorse by any stretch at his preferred distances, but if a horse of his class in peak form slows down more than the average horse winning the Derby, it was either because the early pace was too strong, or he couldn't go the distance.
But the past is a different country and they do things differently there. The world right now is on the verge of a vintage era in horseracing with three brilliant three year olds on three different continents. Yes, comparable to the golden ages of the 60s and the 70s. Three years ago, British racing witnessed the final season of the phenomenal Frankel; there is zero room for questioning that the Juddmonte colt was one of the best racehorses of all time. We cannot say that yet of the present trio, but they will certainly rivet the attention of racegoers, who in recent years have had to tolerate the lukewarm performances of the older brigade wherever racing is conducted as a serious pastime, while they wait to find out.
America finally has its epoch-defining racehorse. Pharaoh's usually make curses, they seldom mend them. Through his assault on their Triple Crown, American Pharoah, the misspelt marvel, ended a 37 year drought in which creeping superstition had induced some to formulate reasons why that great contest had become an unfair test of their so-called "modern" thoroughbred. By all accounts though, the 147th Belmont Stakes was hardly unfair on an animal of American Pharoah's abiding class. In the second leg, the Preakness Stakes, opponents who took him on had finished exhausted, so nobody took him on at all in New York's third leg. Without detracting from the accomplishment of this great horse or the well-judged ride of Victor Espinoza, to quote Vince Lombardi, "What the hell was going on out there?" Did the other jockeys take a business decision?
When a horse runs at even pace in a dirt race, he is usually getting the sand kicked in his face by every one of his opponents and being forced wide. American Pharoah's pace line of 24.06 - 24.77 - 24.58 - 24.34 - 24.32 in the rail path was freakishly even, and it would have been tough to lose off that for a horse of his monstrous ability.
Earlier on Belmont day, the John Gosden-trained Golden Horn ran a different-looking race from American Pharoah, facing a tougher trip on the idiosyncratic ups-and-downs of England's Epsom Downs, though he hadn't been wearied by the exertions of two previous classics as the "Pharoah" had.
This colt is abnormally gifted. He accelerated off strong fractions to reach the quarters of stable companion Jack Hobbs over a furlong out, switching up to another gear to put him away. This was an extraordinary performance, make no mistake, and he hit the line very hard while three and a half lengths clear.
British racing's Triple Crown is nowhere near as storied as the American version, mainly because it is more of an anachronism. The colts' version constitutes the 2,000 Guineas over a mile, the Derby over a mile and a half, and the St Leger over more than a mile and three-quarters. The series spans four months.
Two years ago, however, Coolmore's Camelot won the first two legs and was second in the third. It was highly creditable, but the Leger is not as strongly contested as the Belmont tends to be, mainly because a win over the distance is considered unflattering to the profile of modern stallions.
In terms of talent alone, one is more likely to choose Golden Horn over American Pharoah, but talent is only part of the equation in sport: accomplishment is the bigger factor. Like Cecil before him, Gosden will take a relatively conservative path to the Arc in October, a race in which he could possibly meet the third of our global superstars, Duramente.
This colt could be the second coming of the cult hero of Japanese racing, Deep Impact, although it must be hoped his countrymen have more information about the task of winning the Arc nowadays. Deep Impact arrived at Longchamp in 2006 without a race in more than three months. Japanese horses are good, but not that good. He ran a fine race to finish third but tired for a lack of physical peak.
Horses cannot win G1s any more impressively than Duramente in the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) at the end of May. He did not achieve anything like the same merit rating as American Pharoah or Golden Horn, but to have won in such amazing style suggests he is a lot better than the race indicated. Besides, we've long held the view that as ratings go, if you're not European or American, in the eyes of the "raters", you simply can't be that good!
Having earlier aced the Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2,000 Guineas) at Nakayama in April, Duramente needs only the Kikuka Sho at Kyoto in October to complete his own Triple Crown. That, however, would clash with the Arc, which has come to be seen as a nonpareil among targets for the Japanese Thoroughbred in recent years.
Of the three horses, it seems as if the management of American Pharoah is the most problematic from now on. It could be argued there's plenty to lose and not much to gain from racing on, given that his stud value can hardly be higher than it is at present. However, the Breeders' Cup Classic purse of $5 million remains one helluva drawcard, and the Travers beckons before that on 29th August 2015. You have to give it to the sporting instincts of his connections, and to the nerves of team Coolmore who have his stud career to manage, whichever way the cards happen to stack.
Horse racing may seem to have lost its way occasionally in an age of television sports, but it still resonates considerably with the uber rich. The wealthy racehorse owner, that often-maligned creature, has put a lot in, and the sport at least is giving a lot back.
Extract From Thoroughbred Racing
1960's Racing / Sporting News Collection (p)