December 9, 2018

Gronkowski, Three Weeks square off in Kempton’s Road to Kentucky Derby Conditions Stakes

***Thursday update: Kempton’s card was canceled following the morning inspection, thanks to heavy snow. The Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions S. will now be held on March 7. Dundalk had already canceled Friday, postponing the Patton to March 9.***

With trainer Aidan O’Brien taking out all three of his possibles – Mendelssohn, Seahenge, and Threeandfourpence – from Thursday’s Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions S. at Kempton, a field of eight remains in the Derby points race on the European Road.

O’Brien initially figured to split up his team between Kempton and Friday’s Derby points race, the Patton S. at Dundalk. But this week’s wretched wintry conditions in Great Britain have prompted a rethink, according to irishracing.com. Several jumps cards have been called off, and although Kempton’s Polytrack has a much better chance of being race-suitable, its officials are on weather watch too. Hence the absence of any Ballydoyle representation at Kempton. That doesn’t imply they’ll all line up at Dundalk either, since O’Brien has cross-entered Mendelssohn, Seahenge, and Threeandfourpence to Saturday’s Spring Cup (not a scoring race) at Lingfield. Stay tuned as the Ballydoyle plans unfold. (And now they’ve all been removed from the Lingfield option too…)

Yet even without an O’Brien runner, Thursday’s scoring opportunity over the mile at Kempton still has relevance for the Derby trail. Not only will its 20-8-4-2 points structure alter the European leaderboard, but the Triple Crown-nominated pair of Gronkowski and Three Weeks lend plausibility to its impact.

Gronkowski hails from the yard of Jeremy Noseda, who dispatched Wilko to surprise the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and Awesome Act to capture the 2010 Gotham (G3). A similar transatlantic venture is in the works for Gronkowski. As reported by Racing Post, the Phoenix Thoroughbred colorbearer is expected to come stateside for a points race. It’s a measure of connections’ regard for him that he also holds engagements in the May 26 Irish 2000 Guineas (G1), June 3 Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) (G1), and July 14 Grand Prix de Paris (G1) – the only runner here with European classic entries.

A 300,000 guineas purchase at last year’s Tattersalls Craven Breeze-Up Sale, Gronkowski is a Kentucky-bred son of Lonhro and the Lookin at Lucky mare Four Sugars, herself a half to 2007 Stephen Foster (G1) winner Flashy Bull. After a slow-starting seventh in his debut in a Newbury novice, and a better second in a similar event at Newmarket next time, he took a leap forward moving from turf to synthetic. Adding blinkers at the same time, Gronkowski rolled by four at Chelmsford November 9 and crushed only two rivals in his Newcastle reappearance February 9. The early pace factor will likely go off favored with a returning Jamie Spencer.

Three Weeks, a Tapit colt out of a half-sister to Princess Highway and Royal Diamond from a superb Moyglare Stud family, enters on the upswing as well. Trained by William Haggas, the Apple Stud homebred was a green eighth in his Kempton debut, but knew his job better to win his two ensuing starts. Three Weeks took a few strides to organize himself out of the gate in a Lingfield novice December 20, readily worked into contention, and rallied strongly to reel in the longtime leader who gapped the rest by seven lengths. The Kentucky-bred gray again turned in his best work late to capture a three-runner novice at Newcastle January 11, splitting his foes and ultimately edging away by two. If the form doesn’t quite match up to Gronkowski’s, Three Weeks has scope to improve, and he lures all-weather maestro Adam Kirby into the saddle.

While Qatar Racing’s Fortune’s Pearl is the 2-1 morning-line favorite, that price probably will drift a bit considering this is his first try on synthetic, and at a mile. But he is the lone entrant with Group race experience, thanks to his fifth behind unbeaten Frankel colt Elarqam in the September 28 Tattersalls (G3) in his juvenile finale at Newmarket. That came on good-to-soft ground, as did his other loss, a fourth to future Acomb (G3) winner Wells Farhh Go and Laugh a Minute at York. The Andrew Balding trainee is otherwise two-for-two on a good turf course, winning a modest event first up at Chepstow July 4 and just lasting from Derby (G1) entry Thrave at Newmarket on August 25. Fortune’s Pearl is a Harbour Watch half-brother to smart Hong Kong performer Sunny King, a pedigree that implies this trip may be his upper limit.

Bobby Biscuit was bred by the Niarchos Family, but you’d never guess it looking at his $8,000 purchase price at Keeneland September. By Scat Daddy and out of multiple Group 3-placed stakes winner Poupee Flash, from the further family of champion Aldebaran and Good Journey, the Kentucky-bred apparently developed ahead of his next sales appearance. The successful pinhook realized 110,000 guineas at the Tattersalls Craven Sale, and he comes off a course-and-distance win second time out for Simon Dow. Bobby Biscuit was workmanlike in capturing the slower of the two novice divisions here on January 24. He put away his pace rival, then was all out to hang on. But the least experienced in the field presumably has more to give, especially with his deep pedigree.

At the opposite end of the experience spectrum is four-time winner Ventura Knight with 11 starts under his belt. Primarily a turf handicapper who makes an occasional gambit on synthetic, the Mark Johnston trainee so far has not been as effective on this kind of surface. Ventura Knight is cross-entered to a Chelmsford handicap on Friday, as is the Marco Botti-trained Jellmood, who has an additional option of a Saturday novice at Chelmsford too. The Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa homebred was gelded after going winless through his first four, including the Rose Bowl. Jellmood responded by opening his account at Wolverhampton in a first-time hood in December and has finished second in his past two. Although his top weight of 130 pounds may have been an anchor of late, his attitude can be questioned in light of his acting up last time at Newcastle.

The filly Morning Has Broken, by Dawn Approach and out of a full sister to Norse Dancer, is owned and trained by her “uncle’s” conditioner David Elsworth. She’s won two of four versus fillies on the synthetic this winter, including a Kempton novice in a romp back on January 6. But she was overturned by the boys as an odds-on favorite here in her latest. In her defense, she wasn’t well treated at the weights in that February 3 handicap, and now she gets a five-pound concession. The rub is that there are better males this time too. Ambient, bought by Jane Chapple-Hyam from Roger Varian’s yard after losing his first five, is now 0-for-6 following a third at Chelmsford February 15.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions S. is scheduled to go off at 2:30 p.m. (EST), and you can tune in on TwinSpires.com.