Sunday 3 December 2023

Kentucky Derby Festival

A Grade 1 contest, run over 2,000 metres, or approximately a mile and a quarter, on dirt at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky and open to three-year-old colts, fillies and geldings, the Kentucky Derby represents the first leg of the North American Triple Crown. Known colloquially as the 'Run for the Roses' and billed as 'the most exciting two minutes in sport', the Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May, where it forms the highlight of a 14-race card.

However, the Kentucky Derby Festival stretches far beyond the confines of Churchill Downs into the wider Kentucky community, where it celebrates not only the Kentucky Derby, but also the coming of spring to the 'Bluegrass State'. Indeed, the Festival is the largest single annual event in the Kentucky calendar and, in the two weeks preceding the Kentucky Derby, attracts 1.5 million people to a series of playful, tongue-in-cheek events suitable for the whole family. All told, over 70 special events, many of which are free of charge, are laid on for entertainment purposes and to bolster the local economy.

Highlights include the opening fireworks display, known as 'Thunder Over Louisville', which is one of the largest events of its kind anywhere in the United States, the 'Great Steamboat Race' on the Ohio River, and the founding event, the 'Pegasus Parade'. Sports, including basketball, golf and volleyball, are very much in evidence and so, too, is music, with concerts running almost non-stop throughout the fortnight.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Many Clouds

 Described by trainer Oliver Sherwood as 'the horse of a lifetime', Many Clouds tragically collapsed and died, from a severe pulmonary haemorrhage, shortly after narrowly beating Thistlecrack in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January, 2017. However, aside from that final Herculean effort, the Cloudings gelding will always be best remembered for winning the Grand National in 2015.

The winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November, 2014, Many Clouds was sent off 7/1 second favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following March, but could manage only sixth, beaten 24½ lengths, behind Coneygree. Consequently, when he lined up at Aintree less than a month later, under the welter burden of 11st 9lb, he was a largely unconsidered 25/1 chance.

However, ridden by regular partner Leighton Aspell, he raced prominently for most of the way and was left in the lead when second favourite Druids Nephew fell at the fence after Valentine's Brook on the second circuit. Thereafter, he made the best of his way home and set off up the run-in with a three-length lead over his nearest pursuer, Saint Are. Approaching the famous 'Elbow', he looked sure to win comfortably, but Saint Are, who was receiving 17lb, started to cut into his lead close home and, in the end, he had to be driven right out to win by 1¾ lengths.

Win he did, though, and in so doing made Aspell the first jockey since Brian Fletcher, in 1974, to win back-to-back Grand Nationals. Winning owner Trevor Hemmings, previously successful with Hedgehunter in 2005 and Ballabriggs in 2011, joined James Machell and Noel Le Mare as co-leading owner in the history of the Grand National.

Monday 5 June 2023

Saudi Cup Festival

The Saudi Cup Festival is a recent addition to the global racing calendar, having been inaugurated in 2020. Under the auspices of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, the two-day festival centres around the Saudi Cup, run over 1,800 metres, or approximately nine furlongs, on dirt at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in February. The Saudi Cup was established with the intention of raising awareness of horse racing among the Saudi population and promoting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia internationally. It is, in fact, the most valuable horse race in the world, with a total purse of $20 million.

Indeed, the Saudi Cup is the highlight of an eight-race card, featuring top class races on dirt, and on turf, worth a total of $30.5 million in prize money. The card, as a whole, attracted 22 Group 1, or Grade 1, winners in 2020 and 31 such winners in 2021. The preceding Friday features a curtain-raising 'International Jockeys Challenge', contested over four races, each worth $400,000, on the dirt course , plus the Saudi International Handicap, worth $500,000 and open to horses trained in developing racing countries. Irish jockey Shane Foley, who won the International Jockeys' Challenge in 2021, said, 'I really enjoy riding abroad and think it’s massively important. The racing in Saudi Arabia is a big and growing operation as far as owners are concerned, and all it takes is to kick on with one there and you could bring an owner back to Ireland for your stable.'. In 2022, the race was won by outsider Emblem Road, and Panthalassa in 2023 - with the winner claiming a cool $10 million.

Saturday 20 May 2023

Breeders' Cup

The Breeders' Cup, or Breeders' Cup World Championships, to give the event its official title, is a series of 14 Grade 1 horses staged in North America in late October or early November each year. Inaugurated, as a one-day, seven-race event, at Hollywood Park, California in 1984, the Breeders' Cup has been staged at various venues throughout the United States and Canada, although predominantly at Santa Anita Park, California and Churchill Downs, Kentucky. In 2007, the Breeders' Cup was held for the first time at Monmouth Park, New Jersey, three new races – namely the Juvenile Turf, Dirt Mile and Filly & Mare Sprint – were added to the programme and the event was extended to two days.

The most valuable races run at the Breeders' Cup are currently the Breeders' Cup Classic, worth $6 million in prize money, and the Breeders' Cup Turf, worth $4 million. Both races are open to horses aged three years and upwards, but the Breeders' Cup Classic is run over a mile and a quarter on dirt, while the Breeders' Cup Turf is run over a mile and a half on turf, by way of making it more appealing to horses trained outside North America. Arguably the most famous horse in Breeders' Cup history was American Pharoah, trained by Bob Baffert. In his three-year-old campaign, in 2015, American Pharoah won the traditional North American Triple Crown – that is, the Kentucky |Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes – plus the Breeders' Cup Classic, to complete what has become known as the 'Grand Slam of Thoroughbred Racing'.

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Finesse Juvenile Novices' Hurdle

The Finesse Juvenile Novices' Hurdle is a Grade 2 juvenile novices' hurdle run over 2 miles and 179 yards on the New Course at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day in late January. As such, the race is restricted to horses aged four years who, obviously, having started the season as three-year-olds, did so without a win over hurdles.

Festival Trials Day is the last fixture staged at Prestbury Park before the Cheltenham Festival in March and, run over the same course and distance, the Finesse Juvenile Novices' Hurdle is considered a significant trial for the Grade 1 JCB Triumph Hurdle, run on the final day of the Festival. Indeed, the race is also sponsored by JCB and hence known, for sponsorship purposes, as the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle.

The Finesse Juvenile Novices' Hurdle was inaugurated in 1985 and, although many winners have subsequently contested the Triumph Hurdle, just three horses – Katchit (2007), Peace And Co (2015) and Defi Du Seuil (2017) – have completed the double. Nicky Henderson, trainer of Peace And Co, also saddled Mister Banjo (2000), Rolling Star (2013), Protek Des Flos (2016) and Apple's Shakira (2018) to victory and is the leading handler in the history of the Finesse Juvenile Novices' Hurdle, with five wins in all.

For the record, the 2023 winner of the Finesse Juvenile Novices' Hurdle, Comfort Zone, is currently quoted as 10/1 fourth favourite for the JCB Triumph Hurdle on March 17. Joseph Patrick O'Brien's Churchill gelding ticks plenty of boxes, insofar as he has run four times over hurdles and won his last two starts in Grade 2 company, but his official rating, of 132, is lower than a typical Triumph Hurdle winner; he also has just over six lengths to find with the current ante-post favourite, Lossiemouth, on their running at Fairyhouse in December 2022.

Saturday 4 March 2023

Ascot Hurdle

The Ascot Hurdle is a Grade 2 hurdle race run over 2 miles, 3 furlongs and 58 yards on the course from which it takes its name in November. Open to horses aged four years and upwards, the race was inaugurated in 1978, but has been sponsored by Coral since 2006 so, for sponsorship purposes, as the Coral Hurdle. In 2004 and 2005, during the multi-million redevelopment of Ascot, the Ascot Hurdle was run over 2 miles and 4 furlongs at nearby Windsor.

Worth £40,000 in guaranteed prize money, the Ascot Hurdle is obviously a prestigious and valuable contest in its own right, but its position in the National Hunt calendar makes it an appropriate early-season 'stepping stone' for horses with aspirations of winning the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. In fact, in its history, a total of seven winners of the Ascot Hurdle, including three dual winners, have also won the Champion Hurdle before or after their Ascot victory.

In chronological order, they were Dawn Run (1983), Gaye Brief (1984, 1985), Morley Street (1990, 1991), Hardy Eustace (2006, 2007), Annie Power (2013), Faugheen (2014) and Rock On Ruby (2015). Dawn Run, of course, remains the only horse in history to have won both the Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

As far as the most successful trainer in the history of the Ascot Hurdle is concerned, although long retired, Martin Pipe, with five winners – Sabin Du Loir (1987, 1988), Pridwell (1997), Wahiba Sands (1999) and Mr. Cool (2003) – still holds sway. Those in search of more useful statistics ahead of the 2022 renewal, schedule for 2:40pm on Saturday, November 19, may like to note that ten of the last dozen winners had won at least four times over hurdles, including at least once at Graded level.

Friday 27 January 2023

Mersey Novices' Hurdle

The Mersey Novices' Hurdle is a Grade 1 hurdle race run over 2 miles and 4 furlongs on the Mildmay Course at Aintree in early April. The race takes its name from the River Mersey, which empties in to Liverpool Bay a few miles west of Aintree Racecourse and, as the name implies, is restricted to horses, aged four years and upwards, who start the season without a win over hurdles.

The Mersey Novices' Hurdle was inaugurated in 1977, but was shortened from its original distance of 2 miles and 5½ furlongs in 1988. Similarly, the race was promoted to Grade 2 status in 1991 and again, to Grade 1 status, in 2014. The position of the Mersey Novices' Hurdle in the National Hunt calendar – the 2023 renewal is scheduled for 2.25pm on Saturday, April 15 – means that it often features horses that contested the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival the previous month. That said, of all the winners of the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle since 2014, only the 2016 winner,Yorkhill, ran in the Mersey Novices' Hurdle,  but completed the double with a minimum of fuss at long odds-on. 

The now-retired Martin Pipe saddled four winners of the Mersey Novices' Hurdle, namely Lemon's Mill (1993), Cyborgo (1994). Silver Shred (1996) and Classified (2002). More recently, his record has been equalled by Paul Nicholls, who saddled Garde Champetre (2004), Natal (2006), Elusive Dream (2008) and Lac Fontana (2014); jointly, the two multiple champions are the leading trainers in the history of the race. 

Obviously, at this still early stage of the season, it must be fairly long odds-against naming a runner in the Mersey Novices' Hurdle, never mind the winner. However, the first half a dozen or so in the ante-post betting for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, which include leading 'bumper' performers from last season, such as Facile Vega, American Mike and James's Gate would merit close examination if lining up at Aintree.