January 23, 2018

Top 7 international turf stories of 2017

Aidan O'Brien's record breaking win occurred in England's final Group 1 race of the season (Photo courtesy of Doncaster Racecourse Twitter)

As a follow-up to my colleagues’ year-in-review pieces in the Brisnet.com Features section, I’d like to offer my Top 7 international stories of 2017.

I’m restricting myself to developments on the international turf, or else the Dubai World Cup (G1) would have to be included. Since Arrogate’s peak performance and Gun Runner’s subsequent winning streak pertain more to the American dirt scene, however, we’ll keep the focus abroad.

Without further preliminaries, drumroll please:

7. Inaugural running of The Everest at Randwick. Inspired by the business model of the Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park, the A$10 million Everest came to life as the world’s richest turf race on October 14. The about six-furlong dash could have ranked higher if it had lured an international cast. Still, the intramural affair produced a worthy winner in Redzel, with a heartwarming storyline to match.

In the form of his life for Peter and Paul Snowden, Redzel has now won his past six. A Group 1 winner by virtue of the Doomben 10,000 (G1) back in May, Redzel added another in the November 11 Darley Classic (G1) in his latest.

6. Rapper Dragon tragedy in Hong Kong. The racing world lost a budding superstar when Rapper Dragon sustained a fatal pelvic fracture in the May 7 Champions Mile (G1) at Sha Tin. The John Moore trainee was heavily favored to extend his winning streak to five, after his unprecedented sweep of Hong Kong’s Four-Year-Old Series and defeat of top-class elders in the April 9 Chairman’s Trophy (G2). Bound for glory on the international stage, Rapper Dragon was robbed of the chance. He was posthumously honored as Hong Kong’s Horse of the Year, and a further tribute came in the December 10 Hong Kong Mile (G1) – the top four finishers had all been beaten by Rapper Dragon.

A look back at his Hong Kong Derby triumph:

5. Highland Reel becoming Europe’s all-time leading money-winner. That may be the best shorthand description of Aidan O’Brien’s globetrotter. Having burnished his resume with victories in the Coronation Cup (G1) and Prince of Wales’s (G1) in June, Highland Reel surpassed retired French star Cirrus des Aigles on the European earnings list on Breeders’ Cup Day. Unfortunately, his achievement was lost in the shuffle of his defeat, a hard-trying third to Talismanic as the defending Turf (G1) champion. But the son of Galileo got the send-off he richly deserved in the Hong Kong Vase (G1), regaining his title first won in 2015 and turning the tables on Talismanic.

Retired to Coolmore Stud with a bankroll of approximately $10.5 million, Highland Reel surely would have even more in his account but for an ill-timed setback this summer. He had to skip three of his expected targets, not only missing out on the prize money there, but also putting himself at a disadvantage heading to Del Mar. The Breeders’ Cup was his second start off the layoff, and that might have told for a horse who thrived on his racing. Highland Reel was pitch-perfect in his Hong Kong finale, collecting his seventh Group 1 trophy.

4. Emergence of Cracksman as Europe’s leading three-year-old colt. Unlike the fillies, the boys took a little longer to sort themselves out, a process reflected in Wings of Eagles’ 40-1 shocker in the Derby (G1) at Epsom. Cracksman, a close third as the favorite, was a big, raw type, and he was still learning on the job when going down by a neck in the Irish Derby (G1). Clearly his best days lay ahead, but even his biggest fans might not have foreseen just how spectacular he’d turn out to be. Positively imperious in the Great Voltigeur (G2) and Prix Niel (G2), the John Gosden pupil would have had a mighty chance in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). Connections passed, for reasons partly involving a certain stablemate listed below. Instead Cracksman concluded his campaign with a demolition job in the Champion (G1) at Ascot, evoking memories of his phenomenal sire, Frankel. Let’s hope he gets his belated Arc chance, back at the redeveloped Longchamp, in 2018.

3. Winx unstoppable through Cox Plate (G1) three-peat. You could argue that Australia’s supermare deserves better than third on this list. After all, Winx made it an incredible 22 in a row while joining the immortal Kingston Town as the only three-time Cox Plate (G1) winners, and breaking her own Moonee Valley course record in the process. Maybe it’s because she did what she was supposed to do, and her prolific success just has us spoiled. Yet Winx created a bit more suspense for her global fan club this last preparation, culminating in a tighter finish than expected at Moonee Valley.

2. Enable’s historic march through the European majors. A season that began quietly with a third to stablemate Shutter Speed in a Newbury conditions race ended up becoming one for the ages. Enable rebounded from her lone loss to stamp herself a good-looking prospect in the Cheshire Oaks, but the Gosden filly had yet to supplant Oaks (G1) favorite Rhododendron in the public’s esteem. In hindsight, Enable’s 6-1 price in the Oaks was a gift. She streaked clear by five lengths, in stakes-record time at Epsom, and turned the classic double in the Irish Oaks (G1). Then Enable transcended her own division by defeating elite older males, including Ulysses and Highland Reel, in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1). No other three-year-old filly had swept those three prizes, and she kept piling on honors in the Yorkshire Oaks (G1) and ultimately the Arc.

Thankfully the Juddmonte homebred will be back to grace the racecourse in 2018. Can we be bold enough to hope for a clash with Winx on British soil? We’ll “settle” for a showdown with Cracksman for yard bragging rights.

And the number 1 story…

Aidan O’Brien’s breaking Bobby Frankel’s record of Group 1 wins in a single season. This feat ranks as the top story, not just for its intrinsic merit, but because the record chase furnished ongoing intrigue and suspense in the fall, and especially because O’Brien accomplished it despite losing several big guns early in the year.

How much more quickly might the master of Ballydoyle have tied Frankel’s 25, and reached the magical 26, if he’d had Minding, Alice Springs, Seventh Heaven, and ill-fated Somehow available all year? Factor in the summer hiccups for Highland Reel and Rhododendron, the sidelining of promising two-year-old Gustav Klimt, and the cancellation of two French Group 1s for juveniles on October 29, and you wonder how high O’Brien’s total might have been. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of his tough beats, e.g., a brutally unlucky loss for September in the Fillies’ Mile (G1), defending champion Order of St George’s near-miss to Big Orange in the Ascot Gold Cup (G1), and two close shaves for Johannes Vermeer in Australia, notably when denied by Rekindling – trained by Aidan’s son Joseph – in the Melbourne Cup (G1). (A result that could well have had its own place on this year-end list.)

Thus the record underscores O’Brien’s preternatural horsemanship. He had to conjure up substantial improvement to pull it off, thereby unwrapping a few pleasant surprise packages along the way. Aside from the unheralded Wings of Eagles in the Derby, the progressive Winter (inherited from the retired David Wachman) racked up four Group 1s herself, brave little Roly Poly contributed three, and Hydrangea stepped up to win both the one-mile Matron (G1) and the 1 1/2-mile British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1). The juveniles did their part too. U S Navy Flag improved markedly to turn a rare Middle Park (G1)/Dewhurst (G1) double, Happily proved the cleverness of her spotting in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1) to become the first filly to win in 31 years, and Saxon Warrior put O’Brien over the top by scoring the record number 26 in a thrilling Racing Post Trophy (G1).

O’Brien added two more to bring the new record up to 28. Mendelssohn, another remarkable case study of a turnaround, captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) for number 27, and Highland Reel closed the books in the Hong Kong Vase.

Since O’Brien just celebrated his 48th birthday on October 16, God willing he’ll have a few more decades to best his own mark.

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This being a somewhat subjective Top 7, which international stories would you want to add? Mention them in the comments!

3 Comments on Top 7 international turf stories of 2017

  1. Good list. I think Kitasan Black’s Tenno Sho (or just his season) might have been worth a shout, ahead of the (unoriginal made up race, with the terrible name) Everest at least.

    • Agree on the merits of Kitasan Black and thought about including him. His record-setting Tenno Sho Spring and tough win over heavy in the Tenno Sho Autumn were arguably Pyrrhic victories that left their mark in his next-out losses, and he ended on a high in the Arima Kinen. Perhaps I felt too obliged to mention the Everest!

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