SEPTEMBER 23, 2006
Fishing trip for Dylan Thomas
by Tim Holland
The sudden and slightly surprising news that the Aidan O'Brien-trained, Coolmore-owned Irish Derby (Ire-G1) winner Dylan Thomas (Danehill) may tackle Bernardini (A.P. Indy) and Invasor (Arg) (Candy Stripes) in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) on October 7 at Belmont Park, or alternatively may appear at Turfway Park a week early, raised many eyebrows. Indeed, it was even hinted by some that the Coolmore team, upset at being outbid by Sheikh Mohammed last week on many of the leading Keeneland September Sales yearlings, were simply taking a shot at derailing the Darley-owned Bernardini's quest for Horse of the Year. However, O'Brien's explanation that this is merely a "fishing trip" to see if the colt will handle the dirt as a preview to maybe running in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) makes more sense.
Five horses have represented Coolmore in the Breeders' Cup Classic, all since 2000 when Giant's Causeway (Storm Cat) came so close to winning. Giant's Causeway was nicknamed the "Iron Horse," and for good reason, having won five straight Group 1 races in England and Ireland that summer, all in hard-fought fashion, including victories over 10 furlongs in the Eclipse S. (Eng-G1) and the Juddmonte International (Eng-G1). His three defeats in that three-year-old season had come in the English Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-G1), followed by the Irish equivalent in the spring, and the Queen Elizabeth II S. (Eng-G1) in his start prior to the Classic. All three of these defeats were contested over soft turf. Being by Storm Cat and out of a Grade 2 winner on the dirt, it was expected that Giant's Causeway would take to the dirt. So it was little surprise to many that he ran a huge race from the 13 post to be beaten in a thriller by Tiznow, who would go on to repeat the following year.
In 2001, Galileo (Ire) (Sadler's Wells) was sent from Ballydoyle to contest the Classic at Belmont. Having already proven himself as clearly the best of his generation on the turf in Europe through wins in the English Derby (Eng-G1), Irish Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Diamond S. (Eng-G1), the connections may have been taking a calculated gamble that he would take to the dirt. Indeed, had he won, or even finished close in the Classic, the upside through the colt's desirability to American breeders (in addition to the Europeans) when he entered stud would have been enormous -- similar to that of Giant's Causeway. However, and as it turned out to be the case, if he did not run well, Galileo would not lose any popularity with the top European breeders, so there was little downside to this venture.
Hawk Wing (Woodman) represented O'Brien in the 2002 renewal at Arlington Park. By a sire who had been responsible for American classic winners Hansel and Timber Country, one might have expected him to be at home on the main track despite his female family being mostly turf-oriented. Top class over a mile in England and Ireland, Hawk Wing's best performance may have been a fast finishing second to Rock of Gibraltar (Ire) in the Two Thousand Guineas. This was followed by another second-place finish behind a stable companion, this time to High Chaparral (Ire) in the Epsom Derby run over very soft going. Hawk Wing achieved his biggest win in his next race, the Eclipse S. (G1) at Sandown Park, on soft ground and two subsequent defeats as the odds-on favorite over faster ground lent support to the theory that Hawk Wing might not be suited to the harder dirt surface he would face in Chicago. However, a poor break from post 10 and a subsequent wide trip at Arlington put an end to his chances whether he relished the dirt or not.
In 2003, there was little doubt that Hold That Tiger (Storm Cat), who had finished third in the previous year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and is a half-brother to Belmont S. (G1) winner Editor's Note, could act on the dirt. After three poor performances in England exposed him as below top class on the turf, the colt was sent to Belmont for the Woodward S. (G1) in which he put in a good showing to chase Horse of the Year Mineshaft home, beaten more than four lengths after showing much better early speed than was his usual style. However, he may have been flattered by this result since the best that finished behind Hold That Tiger was Grade 2 winner Puzzlement. This was indeed confirmed by Hold That Tiger's fifth-place finish in the Classic, in which he had trouble at the break and, as with Giant's Causeway and Hawk Wing, was caught wide.
After sitting out the 2004 Classic, Coolmore sent Oratorio (Ire) (Danehill) for last year's edition. By Danehill, like Dylan Thomas, Oratorio had proven his class at 10 furlongs through victories in the Eclipse S. and the Irish Champion S. (Ire-G1), beating the Epsom Derby winner Motivator by a half-length in both while enjoying soft going. However, Oratorio's preferred running style, while advantageous on the turf in Europe, was to settle toward the rear before making a strong late run, which would be his downfall at Belmont Park. Having drawn post 3, jockey Kieren Fallon had little choice but to rate his charge in sixth or seventh place toward the inside. While Oratorio did try to make a challenge, it was short-lived and he faded to a well-beaten 11th, beating only two home, and Fallon commented that his mount was intimidated while on the inside and was not used to the considerable kickback.
In addition to being by Danehill, who has proven himself as one of the best turf sires worldwide in recent years, Dylan Thomas is out of a mare by Diesis (GB) who is having a banner year as a broodmare sire. With his daughters previously responsible for grass-oriented millionaires such as Cetewayo, Honor in War (Lord at War [Arg]) and Manndar (Ire), they are also credited with this year's English St Leger S. (Eng-G1) victor Sixties Icon (Galileo [Ire]), who is set to take his chance in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-G1) in October.
After a two-year-old season in which he was rated far below the best of his stable, Dylan Thomas is now challenging George Washington (Danehill) (who is due to contest Saturday's Queen Elizabeth II at Ascot) as the top three-year-old at Ballydoyle. An easy victory in the Derrinstown Stud S. (Ire-G2) in his three-year-old debut earned the colt a place in the Epsom Derby, in which he put in a huge performance to finish third, beaten less than a half-length at odds of 25-1. While many do not rate the form of this year's Derby very highly -- it was run in a slow time over fast ground and many horses, including a maiden and another who had only just broken his maiden, finished very close up -- the staying performance of Dylan Thomas, who had taken the lead after just three furlongs, was outstanding especially when many had doubted his stamina.
In his next start, Dylan Thomas proved that his Epsom showing was no fluke with an easy victory in the Irish Derby over fast going, cementing the English form while beating the Italian Derby (Ity-G1) winner Gentlewave (Monsun) by more than three lengths with French Derby winner Darsi (Polish Precedent) a well-beaten fifth. While Dylan Thomas is probably best at 10 furlongs, doubts about his stamina were dispelled again. However, in his next race, the Juddmonte International S. (Eng-G1), his Achilles heel was exposed in the form of soft ground. After racing keenly early on sitting behind the moderate pace set by Cherry Mix (Linamix), Dylan Thomas never really got into contention and finished a one-paced fourth, a victim of the going and the pace. Following that disappointment Dylan Thomas returned to firmer ground at Leopardstown and, given an outstanding ride by Fallon, ran the race of his life to defeat Ouija Board (GB) (Cape Cross [Ire]) and Alexander Goldrun (Gold Away [Ire]) in the Irish Champion.
Dylan Thomas has proven that his ideal scenario is lying close to the early pace over firm ground at 10 furlongs, and of the five previous Coolmore runners to attempt the Breeders' Cup Classic, the closest to match this is Giant's Causeway. However, while the latter's pedigree suggested that dirt should be no problem, the same cannot be said for Dylan Thomas, so it will pay the connections to make this "fishing trip" before committing to the big race at Churchill Downs in November.
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