Author: Howard Wright
Forget the immediacy of the Breeders’ Cup for a moment. With Remembrance Day looming, memories come flooding in, recalling both humans and equines. But it’s also time to think about those who might have been forgotten, especially since this is the part of the year when champions are made or broken, when reputations are cemented or crushed. The Derby is only five months distant; yet those intervening days in between represent a lifetime in certain terms for horses who have since gone on to take the biggest headlines. Nevertheless, nobody in the Godolphin camp will forget that magical day in June, when Masar was crowned king of Epsom. This time last year Masar was on his way back to Newmarket after a disappointing experience in the Breeders’ Cup.
Having progressed steadily through his first four races as a 2yo, culminating in a Sandown Solario Stakes win and a very creditable third to Happily in the Group 1 Prix Jean- Luc Lagardere at Chantilly on Arc day, he started favourite with international bookmakers for the Juvenile Turf. Whatever could go wrong over the firm ground of the mile at Del Mar did go wrong. He was making steady and eye-catching headway three furlongs out but failed to get a clear run and had to be checked by William Buick. Soon ridden along, as the leaders gave charge for home, Masar made some headway on the outside but though he kept on willingly, the big birds had flown and he was beaten not much more than a couple of lengths into sixth place behind Aidan O’Brien’s Mendelssohn.
Although on Racing Post Ratings Masar ran only a couple of pounds below his Chantilly form in the US, it still meant he went into winter quarters with only an average reputation. He was not even considered worthy of a long essay in that admirable record of the year’s event Racehorses of 2017. There was worse to come when March and the Al Bastikiya over an extended nine furlongs at Meydan hove into sight, with Masar apparently struggling to adapt to the switch from turf to dirt. Finishing a remote tenth of 13 to the runaway winner Yulong Warrior, Buick returned to scale reporting that he had felt uncomfortable from the halfway mark, whereupon his mount stopped quickly. Examined by the ERA vets, Masar was found to be slightly lame on his off foreleg and carrying a degree of mucus. The omens did not look good.
Yet trainer Charlie Appleby was able to see the positives from both experiences, as he explained in an illuminating interview before the Breeders’ Cup with Chris McGrath of Thoroughbred Daily News. “Obviously we had to put a line through what happened at Del Mar,” Appleby said. “But most importantly, as a couple of old shrewdies said at the time, he was getting a lot of experience. “It was the same when he flopped round the back on the dirt at Meydan in March. It was a ‘win win’. If he had happened to adapt, he’d have ended up going to the UAE Derby and then potentially come over here for the Kentucky Derby. “When he didn’t, some people said it was a waste of time, but it wasn’t. I wanted to get a run into him, because he was getting a bit too much of a boy out there and we wanted to put some manners on him.
Again, the experience put him in good stead.” Exactly how much good the experience did Masar was quickly evident on his return to Newmarket. He scooted away with the Craven Stakes, ran a very good race when third to Saxon Warrior in the 2000 Guineas and battled admirably to take the Derby with something in hand. All seemed set fair for Sheikh Mohammed’s first Derby win in the Godolphin colours, via a colt bred by the operation, to be followed by more good things from Masar. It was not to be. His five day confirmation in the Eclipse Stakes, which sparked so much extra interest in a race that needs every bit of quality to sustain its elevated status, was almost immediately followed by the news he would miss the outing, and the rest of the season, through an injury to his off foreleg, the same limb that had been found to be affected at Meydan.
So, that was that for Masar. While those following in his coat tails at Epsom, such as Dee Ex Bee, Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior, kept going, with varying degrees of success, Masar was confined to barracks and recuperation. Absence has definitely not made the heart grow fonder as far as the panel of international handicappers responsible for compiling the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings are concerned. In the latest list of the top 50 horses, published immediately after the Arc, Masar stands on 121. He will remain there today, when the new, post-Breeders’ Cup assessments are published. Masar has not had the chance to improve on his Derby rating, whereas Roaring Lion (127), the filly Alpha Centauri (124), Cloth Of Stars (123) and Sea Of Class (122) have.
The comparison with Roaring Lion, who patently did not enjoy the Churchill Downs kickback in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, is especially galling, for although the John Gosden trainee followed up Epsom with four Group One wins in as many races, Masar had him behind in all three early encounters this year. Who can say that Masar would not have improved at the same rate of knots as Roaring Lion? Nobody, but that is not how the world rankings work; there is no provision for improvement without performance. Thankfully, though, while Roaring Lion now heads for stud, Masar has a winter in Dubai to look forward to, without a race this time. Maybe, just maybe, this time next year he will be able to return to the Breeders’ Cup to right the wrongs of 2017.