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Bumps in the European road to Kentucky but here’s hoping we still get there

Author: Nicholas Godfrey

15/03/2018
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The first year of Churchill Downs’ designated ‘European Road to the Kentucky Derby’ has been a veritable curate’s egg. Good in parts. Five 2yo races from 2017 plus three this month have been linked in a points series with a guaranteed spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs for the horse who comes out on top. A Japanese series offers a similar carrot, and it is a worthwhile prize: the Kentucky Derby is always oversubscribed these days, and given that the rest of the field is determined on a points basis from selected US races (plus the UAE Derby), horses outside America face a tricky assignment just to secure a place in the field.

So far, so good. Except that they might as well ignore all five 2yo races as none of the horses involved are destined to cross the Atlantic, while it seems virtually nobody is minded to go to Newcastle for the final leg, the Burradon Conditions Stakes on 30 March. And that is despite the race offering more points than any of the previous contests, so in practice whatever wins at Newcastle will jump straight in, as long as they’re nominated to the Triple Crown. It is surely the softest route on the planet into America’s most celebrated race. On that basis, then, the European Road to the Kentucky Derby looks a bit of a damp squib, yet any such cynicism must be tempered by the fact that both last week’s qualifiers at Kempton and Dundalk were won by horses who are still regarded as contenders for the Run for the Roses.

It is just that they won’t be going there via Newcastle, and will therefore have to rely on other means to get into the field. The qualifying events at both Kempton and Dundalk were rescheduled races after their original dates seven days earlier had been lost to the Arctic conditions across Britain and Ireland. The Jeremy Noseda-trained Gronkowski won the Kempton leg, earning 20 points; Three Weeks, who is also Triple Crown nominated, came fifth. Okay, the bare form of a threequarter length victory on the allweather may not look the stuff of Kentucky Derby dreams, but I was quite impressed by the winner as everything went wrong.

The son of Lonhro took a fierce hold in a messy race, pulling for his head throughout, before being forced into a wide move six wide and then idling in front; he was much the best. Named after double Super Bowl winner Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots, Gronkowski has now won three times on the all-weather, at Chelmsford, Newcastle and Kempton. As such, the Newcastle race might appear an obvious target for the Phoenix Thoroughbreds’ colt, but at the time of writing Noseda was suggesting he wants to test the water across the water with a run in one of the traditional American dirt warm-ups.

“This plan was hatched after he won at Chelmsford last year,” said the Newmarket trainer. “We’ve taken our two first little steps towards that and if Newcastle and Kempton worked out well then we would go to America for most probably the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, but the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct would also be on our horizon. “The easy way to go would be to go to the next race in England but in trying to win the real race you have got to do a real preparation and get him on American dirt and get him to race on American dirt to know where you are. “As much as there is an easy route, if you really want to achieve the big prize the prep race on dirt in America is key. There’s no point thinking you are legitimate; you have to find out beforehand and a proper Derby trial in America will tell us. If we are, the points won’t be a problem.”

Aidan O’Brien fielded three potential Kentucky Derby runners in Dundalk’s Patton Stakes, a one mile Listed race on Polytrack. They came home 1-2-3, with Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf hero Mendelssohn needing only to be shaken up by Ryan Moore to win cosily from stablemate Threeandfourpence with Champagne Stakes winner Seahenge third. Again, instead of pointing for Newcastle, O’Brien said he was looking elsewhere: it’s Meydan for Mendelssohn, with the UAE Derby on the agenda for the USbred son of Scat Daddy. O’Brien said: “If everything is well with him we’ll go on to Dubai and if he runs a big race there we could well go on to the Kentucky Derby.

He’s a good traveller and there’s plenty of dirt form in his pedigree.” So it seems the European Road to the Kentucky Derby has already located at least two possible runners, and surely the idea was that they would clash at Newcastle. Instead, with 30 qualifying points on offer, whoever wins there will leapfrog both of them in the rankings for Churchill Downs, at least on the European points tally. But if it feels rather odd, and surely the idea will need a tweak or two, perhaps it does not really matter. The series has certainly heightened European awareness of the Kentucky Derby, and the qualifiers offered decent purses to enliven otherwise dull race meetings under the floodlights.

What is more, even without any Japanese runner, throw in Gold Town from Dubai and the Kentucky Derby could feasibly end up with three legitimate overseas runners, maybe more if the O’Brien second strings can somehow find a way in. Maybe Newcastle would offer them a chance. That said, they’ll all have their work cut out in Kentucky; there is a reason no European-trained horse has ever won at Churchill Downs, despite the best efforts of both Godolphin and Coolmore.

And while this year’s US Classic crop was not looking up to scratch in the early skirmishes, any such notion looked a trifle silly after the epic served up by McKinzie and Bolt D’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday or the limitless potential of Justify on Sunday. Go west, people, by all means. Just don’t expect any favours when you get there! “Can’t sign off this week without acknowledging last week’s dismal effort. Okay, advance deadlines don’t help when you’re dealing with running plans but no sooner had my words concerning Japanese representatives at the World Cup meeting appeared in print and they were exposed as nonsense. Mea culpa.

Contrary to my assertions, it seems there may well be as many as 15 Japanese-trained runners at the meeting, and there is still one possible for the Dubai World Cup itself in the shape of last year’s fifth, the veteran dirt star Awardee. But you’d better not take my word for it.

Nicholas Godfrey,
Racing Post international editor

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