LONG DISTANCE CUP
In the last week, Low Sun in the Cesarewitch and True Self in the listed race at Bath were the latest able agents in Willie Mullins’ one-man mission to blur the borderline between National Hunt and Flat racing, a lesson in ill-discipline - by discounting the divide in the disciplines – and a lesson from history.
Decades ago, the classy dual-purpose horse wasn’t the endangered species it is now. In the 1960s, the three-year-old Pardallo failed to hit the predicted heights in the French classics, and so his attention was turned to hurdling, winning at Pau, Enghien and Auteuil, prior to returning the Flat with an extra edge that saw him deliver on all of his potential, successful in the 1968 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot. And the reason he’s still so rare and relevant, 50 years on, is that Pardallo was the last Gold Cup winner to complete a full season unbeaten, the precipice on which Stradivarius stands on Saturday.
Though the Godolphin pair of Kayf Tara and Papineau were, strictly speaking, undefeated in 2000 and 2004 respectively, neither ran after Royal Ascot in those seasons, so hardly qualify, while it was his only Flat start of the year when Rite of Passage won the Gold Cup in 2010. The fact it has been 50 years since a divisional heavy-weight completed a perfect (full) season says something about the stresses and strains of the staying series, of long-distance running in a long-distance season, and Pardallo’s campaign in 1968 consisted of just four races, whereas this will be Stradivarius’ fifth, the wear and tear starting to show on the fourth when he made heavy weather of what had looked a routine run for a million.
What’s in his way, besides the weight of history, is the history of weight, and the traditionally taxing task of giving 8 lb in weight-for-age to an up-and-comer like Flag of Honour, if you believe there’s muscle behind the menace of that one, bullying his way to the top at home in Ireland, but suspiciously short on substantial timefigures.
Stradivarius still has lengths on him, and the rest, on Timeform ratings, and his standards didn’t dip in this race last year, which was sixth appearance of a full-on campaign, and his career has been one of both class and courage, the latter compensating for any shortfall in the former, which means he can win ugly, as may be required in the Long Distance Cup.
CHAMPIONS SPRINT STAKES
There has been a different winner of every Group 1 sprint across Britain, Ireland and France this year, yet only one of them is coming here, The Tin Man, that stat alone making sense of the fact he’s favourite, but you’d never be afraid to take him on, and the same goes for the next two in the betting, Librisa Breeze half the price he was when winning the 2017 Champions Sprint, without so far looking the same horse, and Harry Angel’s temperament, like his reputation, is now hanging by a thread.
This is definitely a race to look deeper down the market, perhaps even as far down as Projection, whose case relies on some projection, rather than a rating. He’s had only three runs on ground softer than good, the first when badly drawn in the Stewards’ Cup, then unlucky in the 2017 renewal of the Bengough (over this C&D), before making amends this year, against only three rivals, but he’s the sort of horse for whom the act of winning could do something for him, having gone for so long without.
His only other visits to Ascot resulted in a third in the 2017 Wokingham and a fifth – beaten just 2 lengths – in this summer’s Diamond Jubilee, the track becoming to his style of doing more on the bridle than off it, perhaps also chiming with softer ground. There’s little in his form but plenty in his profile to think that Projection could sneak his way into the top three at big odds.
CHAMPIONS FILLIES & MARES STAKES
Think of a number, double it, add six, divide it in half, and subtract the number you started with.
This race has the same feel, as in whichever way you approach it, or how you cut it, or where you start from, the answer is always Lah Ti Dar, just as the answer is always three in the above numbers game.
She has the best form and most potential, which makes for a simple equation, made complex only by the philosophical factors, in the abstract, to do with the hard race she had at Doncaster and the naivety which left her playing catch-up that day.
Aidan O’Brien fielding six, and two front-runners amongst them, is music to the ears of Kitesurf, who needed every last yard of the Vermeille to get on top, looking stamina-loaded at best and lazy at worst, not the playbook for Ascot whatever the ground, but is the race sets up for Kitesurf then it surely sets up for Lah Ti Dar, too, as her St Leger silver medal was a show of not just power but staying power. Dar Re Mi was three from three on ground softer than good, and Lah Ti Dar motored through such conditions on her debut.
The third of four short-priced favourites on the day for Sir John of Gosden, and, while there are grey areas with the others, this is a black-and-white issue, of whether or not you believe Roaring Lion will be as effective at a mile. Because if he is then he’s too hot for the rest to handle.
All season long, with the electric exception of Alpha Centauri, we’ve seen how the milers are much of a muchness, more middle than upper class, ripe and ready to have their collective pocket picked by an end-of-season arriviste who has been to places they never have. A little over 34 seconds for the final three furlongs of both the International at York and the Irish Champion at Leopardstown is a time check on a miler’s speed for Roaring Lion, suggesting he’s packing the right tools for this one-off job.
‘The great horses like Northern Dancer and Secretariat consistently ran in blinkers and we thought nothing of it.’ But that was then, in America, and this is now, in Britain, and John Gosden’s downplaying of the blinkers for Cracksman would carry greater weight if he practiced more of what he’s currently preaching, but, since the start of 2013, he has reached for headgear only once for a horse already established as Group-class, namely Wings of Desire who was put in cheekpieces (to no avail) in the 2017 Princess of Wales, a last resort indeed, as he never ran again.
Regarding all trainers, British and Irish, there have been only 22 examples in the last six years of horses rated 120 or higher having headgear applied, so it is a big deal, therefore it is a big day for Cracksman, to determine how history will judge him, as either an exceptional horse who had good days or a good horse who once had an exceptional day. That he’s wearing blinkers isn’t so much of an issue as the reason he’s wearing blinkers, an admission, at last, of partial power cut that has seen his stock depreciate in 2018.
Cracksman’s best performance of this season isn’t a match for Crystal Ocean’s, the pair both bowing to Poet’s Word in those instances, but one went down all guns blazing while the other surrendered shrinkingly. And the third-quarter power by Crystal Ocean in the King George, that got Poet’s Word in the stretch, is exactly the strategy that will expose the Cracksman chinks if his heart or mind isn’t really in it.
It’s a small cast of A-listers for this year’s Champion Stakes, but the plots and the sub-plots means you won’t take your eyes off it for a second, and where it will be won and lost won’t be at the start, nor the finish, but in that third-quarter, when Crystal Ocean will pile on the pressure and Cracksman will either power up or give up.