Author: Nicholas Godfrey
There was a reason why everyone was falling over themselves to lavish superlatives appropriate to describe Pinatubo’s performance in the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes at The Curragh last weekend. ‘Freak’, ‘monster’, ‘a Ferrari of a racehorse’ and the rather less colourful ‘one of the most exciting 2yos in years’ were just some of the epithets flying about after Godolphin’s latest star routed his Curragh rivals in a stunning display that lit up Irish Champions Weekend. What is more, even handicapping experts, those unromantic assessors of weights and distances, were left drooling into their cagoules as the son of Shamardal dismantled seemingly top class juvenile opposition, the might of Ballydoyle’s best, no less, for an explosive nine length drubbing.
The Racing Post’s 2yo guru Simon Turner, for example, assessed Pinatubo’s victory as higher than anything achieved by Frankel as a juvenile. Frankel’s best was a Racing Post Rating (RPR) of 126 in the Dewhurst Stakes; Pinatubo was 128. “We are dealing with an exceptionally gifted young horse who is nailed on to be this year’s Champion 2yo,” wrote Turner. Timeform have given Pinatubo a performance rating of 134, second only to Celtic Swing’s Racing Post Trophy mark of 138 in the modern era. By any measure, this was an outstanding performance, one to rank alongside the likes of Arazi and Celtic Swing. And it is not as if it is the first time the colt had produced an eyecatching effort: he was hot favourite on The Curragh for a reason, namely that he had won the Group 2 Vintage Stakes at Goodwood by six lengths on his previous outing, beating subsequent Solario Stakes victor Positive in the process.
But if that one was eyecatching, then this was startling indeed. Pinatubo has already won five, and the Dewhurst now beckons; in some quarters, it feels as if they are already talking about next year’s 2000 Guineas as something of a formality. “He’s a trainer’s dream once you get to know him, because he doesn’t excite you in the morning to say the least,” said Charlie Appleby, whose European campaign has recently taken a distinct turn for the better after early disappointments with Masar and Quorto. “We started his career off at Wolverhampton for a reason, as we didn’t really know he was in the yard,” the trainer went on. “He’s the best 2yo I’ve trained, no doubt about that.” Even amid such a sensational performance, however, it is a facet of racing that all of us, Appleby included, can’t help wondering just what can we expect when Pinatubo grows up.
Remember, after the Vintage Stakes, there were those who were suggesting here was a precocious individual who might lose his competitive advantage over the winter. While it would take a brave person to repeat that suggestion now, Pinatubo will have had six races by the end of his 2yo campaign. That said, such a busy schedule reflects how he evidently doesn’t overexert himself at home, which augurs well for his future career. Pedigree also offers distinct cause for optimism. The homebred Pinatubo is a 24th Group or Grade One winner for his sire Shamardal, himself a top 2yo who won the French Guineas and Derby and the St James’s Palace Stakes at three before injury ended his career prematurely. By the way, that was 2005, the first year the distance of the Prix du Jockey Club was cut back to an extended 1m2f. He’d have been beaten by Hurricane Run over the old 1m4f.
Although Pinatubo is out of a Dalakhani mare, which suggests an influence for stamina, he looks too fast for anything beyond a mile to be contemplated. (Mind you, in the interests of full disclosure, I am also on record saying Frankel would be a sprinter, so the form book isn’t too kind.) On this subject, what might be interesting is to consider what happened to other horses who posted similarly outrageous juvenile efforts. What does the form book of history tell us about them? Well, it is a mixed bag. We might as well start with Frankel, who turned out to be not just everything he looked as a 2yo, but even more. While the nonpareil’s most visually impressive juvenile effort was a ten length demolition in the Royal Lodge Stakes, even such a noteworthy performance pales into insignificance given how his career progressed.
According to official handicappers, the highest rating ever achieved by a 2yo is the 130 awarded to Arazi in 1991 and Celtic Swing three years later. Presumably nobody needs reminding, but Arazi posted to my mind the most spectacular performance in Breeders’ Cup history when flooring the American dirt specialists at Churchill Downs in the Juvenile on the last of eight juvenile starts (he won seven after coming second on debut). Made favourite for the following year’s Kentucky Derby, Arazi was never the same horse again after knee surgery, winning a Listed race on his 3yo debut before abject failure in the Run for the Roses. His only subsequent win came in Group Two company at the Arc meeting. Celtic Swing, for his part, was lauded as a potential Triple Crown winner after his 12 length success in the Racing Post Trophy of 1994 at Doncaster, where owner Peter Savill instructed jockey Kevin Darley to ride him out as if his Timeform rating depended on it.
Which, to be entirely honest, it did. Celtic Swing’s 3yo career was no disaster, but it was hardly the second coming either. After winning the Greenham, he was beaten by Pennekamp in the Guineas before bypassing the Epsom Derby in favour of Chantilly (prompting the notorious ‘Sad, Mad, Bad’ headline in the Racing Post), where he scored by half a length. Then he was only eighth at The Curragh on his final start in the Irish Derby, during which he sustained an injury. Arazi and Celtic Swing are the highest profile examples of horses who produced astonishing 2yo displays and then failed to seal the deal at three. But what about Xaar, who won the Dewhurst by seven lengths in 1997 for Khalid Abdullah? He received a Timeform rating of 132, and never won again after scraping home in the Craven on his first outing of a Classic campaign in which he was only fourth to King Of Kings in the 2000 Guineas. Armiger, who earned a Timeform rating of 130 for a six length winner of the Racing Post Trophy in 1992, won only a weak edition of the Chester Vase in five subsequent runs. Others fared better.
George Washington won the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes at The Curragh by eight lengths in 2005 and went on to land both the 2000 Guineas and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes the following year. Dream Ahead was a nine length winner of the Middle Park in 2010 before he languished behind Frankel in the Dewhurst. He went on to win three Group Ones at three, ending his career by defeating Goldikova in the Prix de la Foret. Lady Aurelia, whose Queen Mary Stakes victory was one of the most impressive ever seen from a juvenile at Royal Ascot, produced a carbon copy 12 months later in the King’s Stand. Less spectacular, yet emphatically top of the 2yo tree, was Too Darn Hot 12 months ago. Unbeaten in four runs at two, he never made the Guineas after a setback, though he did at least add a couple of Group Ones to his CV before his recent injury brought his career to a premature conclusion. So where do the lessons of history leave us with regard to Pinatubo? At the risk of getting splinters from a spot of fence sitting, all results are possible and nobody will be counting any chickens, even after a dazzling display that had ‘superstar’ written all over it. Maybe we should just enjoy it while we can and keep our fingers firmly crossed. At this stage of his development, Pinatubo looks an immense talent; regardless of the future, what he did on The Curragh will linger long in the memory. But if there is more to come, then the sky indeed is the limit, as they say.