October 26, 2021

Ribchester versus Churchill in BC “Win & You’re In” Sussex

Godolphin's Ribchester will likely go for the QEII/Breeders' Cup Mile double (Photo courtesy Ascot via Facebook/Twitter)

Wednesday’s Sussex (G1) on day two of Glorious Goodwood features a superb intergenerational clash: top older miler Ribchester meets dual Guineas winner Churchill in a “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). For added zest to the match-up, they represent rival empires Godolphin and Coolmore, respectively.

The trend lines are with Churchill, since three-year-olds have won seven of the last 10 runnings. His trainer, Aidan O’Brien, was responsible for three in that time span – The Gurkha last year, Rip Van Winkle (2009), and Henrythenavigator (2008) – and his two prior winners were also sophomores, Rock of Gibraltar (2002) and Giant’s Causeway (2000). Both “Henry” and “The Rock” were dual Guineas winners, but Churchill hasn’t equaled their accomplishment of adding the St James’s Palace (G1).

Indeed, Churchill is the only one of O’Brien’s four dual Guineas heroes who failed to complete the sweep in the St James’s Palace. He threw in the worst performance of his career last out in the Royal Ascot feature, a mystifyingly lackluster fourth behind Godolphin’s course record-setter Barney Roy. Although Barney Roy improved in leaps and bounds since his badly troubled second to Churchill in the 2000 Guineas (G1), the fact that Churchill didn’t ever look like passing his pacemaker Lancaster Bomber and Thunder Snow puts the result in perspective. He’d routinely beaten both.

A conclusive reason wasn’t found for Churchill’s running so far below form. O’Brien reportedly mused about the heat perhaps affecting him, compounded by the exertions of travel. Anyone’s allowed a bad day at the office, but the lack of answers prompts the question: was it just a blip on the radar that’s already gone, or is it a harbinger of declining form?

Churchill draws off from Thunder Snow in the Irish 2000 Guineas (Photo courtesy Coolmore via Twitter/Facebook)

My own personal theory is that the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) may have taken more out of Churchill than thought at the time. Racing on yielding ground that’s not his preference, he produced a strong rally to dismiss rain-loving Thunder Snow. It looked handy, but maybe Churchill had to dig deeper to overcome the conditions than he let on, and felt the repercussions next time. If that’s the case, he’s entitled to be bang on form off a six-week break.

With Barney Roy subsequently stepping up to 1 1/4 miles in his Eclipse (G1) near-miss, we won’t get a rubber match with Churchill here. Plans call for him to remain in that vicinity for the August 19 Juddmonte International (G1).

But that’s just as well from Godolphin’s perspective, since this is the logical spot for Ribchester, who has unfinished business from the 2016 Sussex. A fast-finishing third here from off the pace, he did well to come so close in a tactical affair that played right into the hands of the top two.

Trainer Richard Fahey has made no secret of how highly he regards Ribchester, and his vindication was soon forthcoming. Ribchester came right back to beat older horses in the Prix Jacques le Marois (G1) and finished the year with a gallant second to O’Brien’s star filly Minding in the Queen Elizabeth II (G1).

Making a tough comeback in the March 25 Dubai Turf (G1), his first attempt at nine furlongs, Ribchester went down fighting by a length in third. He’s been superb since reverting to a mile at home.

Ribchester dominated the Lockinge (G1) in front-running fashion, an audible when his rabbit Toscanini missed the break. When Toscanini did his job in the Queen Anne (G1) at Royal Ascot, Ribchester swept to a new course record down the straight mile.

Between his versatility regarding tactics and ground conditions, and his career-best form, Ribchester may buck the trend against older horses. He’ll have to hope that Churchill’s off the boil, or else giving the Coolmore champion seven pounds will be a difficult task.

The other angle to consider for Ribchester is the rarity of a horse turning the Lockinge-Queen Anne-Sussex triple. The great Frankel achieved it in 2012, but he’s the exception. Ramonti almost pulled it off, but came up a head shy of Red Evie (the dam of Found) in the 2007 Lockinge. Prior to Ramonti, the last to have a shot was Noalcoholic, who won the bookends in 1983 but was third in the Queen Anne.

If you’re looking for a third option to crash the party at a price, French shipper Zelzal qualifies. Last summer, the Jean-Claude Rouget pupil looked ready to tackle the division’s best after a course record-setting triumph in the Prix Jean-Prat (G1). In his only subsequent outing at three, he was a closing third to the older Vadamos in the Prix du Moulin (G1).

Zelzal’s 2017 got off to a rocky start when he was among the first horses in Rouget’s yard to contract equine herpesvirus (EHV-1), but thankfully he had no problem getting over it. He resurfaced with a rattling second to classy stablemate Taareef in a stakes-record Prix Bertrand du Breuil (G3). As a counterfactual, it’s worth wondering if Zelzal might have won with a different trip. Taareef was forwardly placed, and a patiently handled Zelzal wasn’t even asked until too late. Frankie Dettori now takes over on the Al Shaqab runner, who will benefit from the presence of the Godolphin and Coolmore rabbits.

Lightning Spear, dismissed by Ribchester in a series of races, is at least a course-and-distance winner of last August’s Celebration Mile (G2). Zonderland hasn’t been seen since finishing second in that Celebration Mile, and Kool Kompany and Here Comes When look in deep.

Happy Like a Fool (right) was runner-up to Heartache in the Queen Mary at Royal Ascot (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

One race earlier on Wednesday, Wesley Ward’s Happy Like a Fool is a hot favorite versus the boys in the Molecomb (G3). Although the Keeneland debut romper was upset at odds-on in Royal Ascot’s Queen Mary (G2), Goodwood’s five furlongs should suit her warp speed to a tee. Mike Smith was originally named to ride, but Ryan Moore will now renew the partnership.

Her Molecomb rivals include Havana Grey, winner of the National S. and Dragon S. (the latter over To Wafij) at this distance at Sandown; Invincible Army, who was in the vanguard until the sixth furlong of the July (G2); Denaar, a Richard Hannon juvenile who drops back in trip after disappointing in the Coventry (G2) and July; Godolphin’s Sound and Silence, another July flop, who’d previously taken Royal Ascot’s five-furlong Windsor Castle; Koditime, who adds blinkers after an eighth in the Norfolk (G2); and O’Brien’s Battle of Jericho, a son of War Front and Together who shortens up to five for the first time.

Watch and wager on Goodwood at TwinSpires.com