May 22, 2019

Top 5 international stories of 2018

Trainer John Gosden watching Enable gallop for the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs (c) Rickelle Nelson/Horsephotos.com

How to sum up an action-packed year on the international scene with an abundance of memorable developments?

A “Top 5” retrospective can try to hit the highlights, but not all. Among those left on the bubble were Sir Michael Stoute, who rewrote the Ascot record book twice over this summer, scoring a 76th win at the Royal meeting, and a sixth trophy in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1), both courtesy of a rapidly progressive Poet’s Word; the storybook ending for retiring trainer Luca Cumani, who won his final Group 1 with God Given, Postponed’s half-sister, appropriately enough in the Premio Lydia Tesio (G1) at Rome; Beauty Generation’s keying an historic local sweep of the Hong Kong International Races; the gritty determination of Laurens; the emergence of Alpha Centauri as a supreme miler; and the meteoric rise of Sea of Class from maiden to near giant-killer.

So without further preamble, here’s my view of the five most significant international stories of 2018:

5. The dominance of the Japanese three-year-olds over their elders. The record-breaking victory by Almond Eye in the Japan Cup (G1) ranks as the signal achievement of Japan’s 2018 classic crop, but it’s not the only one. Sophomores captured the last five open-company Grade 1s of the season. And in a display of strength in depth, five different three-year-olds did the honors, on both turf and dirt. One week after Almond Eye’s heroics, Le Vent Se Leve outclassed them in the Champions Cup (G1), advertising himself as a Dubai World Cup (G1) candidate, and promptly was flattered when Omega Perfume came back to take the Tokyo Daishoten (G1). Stelvio scraped home in the Mile Championship (G1), while Blast Onepiece upended older champion Rey de Oro in the prestigious Arima Kinen (G1).

4. The virus afflicting Ballydoyle. Remember the old line about Alexander the Great being felled by a mosquito? The parallel came to mind when the Aidan O’Brien army was laid low at the height of the summer, the whole yard stricken by a bug that left it vulnerable for a time. Horses incubating the respiratory illness suffered shocking losses, e.g. Magic Wand’s fifth as the odds-on favorite in the Irish Oaks (G1), and O’Brien had to tread very cautiously once they were in recovery mode. Although his soft approach led to some half-fit comebacks, e.g. Saxon Warrior’s fourth in the Juddmonte International (G1), it set the stage for a revival of fortunes in the fall.

3. Winx. The Australian supermare continues to defy time, the law of averages, and the competition as she extended her winning streak to 29 – while competing exclusively in Group 1 company in 2018. Along the way, she surpassed unbeaten compatriot Black Caviar’s streak that stood at 25 upon her retirement; eclipsed John Henry’s world record (on the Flat) of career Group/Grade 1s; and in arguably her greatest feat, won the Cox Plate (G1), Australia’s weight-for-age championship, for an unbelievable fourth time.

2. Godolphin in the ascendant. Sheikh Mohammed’s elite operation recaptured the glory days while reaching new heights around the globe. Trainer Charlie Appleby was responsible for two long-sought breakthroughs, with Masar scoring the first Derby (G1) victory in the royal blue silks, and Cross Counter becoming the first British-trained winner of the Melbourne Cup (G1).

Senior Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor also furnished several marquee wins, highlighted by Thunder Snow’s Dubai World Cup and dual-hemisphere Group 1 victors Benbatl and Best Solution. Appleby’s Jungle Cat likewise took major prizes on both sides of the equator and added to the team’s success in Australia, where Godolphin’s local trainer, James Cummings, prepared headliners ranging from veteran Hartnell to Kementari. Finally, Godolphin celebrated its first Japanese-based Grade 1 hero when Fine Needle landed the Takamatsumoniya Kinen (G1), and the Yoshitada Takahashi trainee later turned the double in the Sprinters S. (G1).

Team Godolphin is loaded for 2019 too with such rising three-year-olds as Appleby’s National (G1) hero Quorto and Line of Duty, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) victor, and bin Suroor’s French Group 1 winners Royal Marine and Royal Meeting.

And the number one international story…more like a sneaky way to roll a few into one:

The John Gosden juggernaut. Not only did Gosden train three titans of the European turf – Enable, Cracksman, and Roaring Lion – but all three demanded his artistry in varying ways.

Enable’s challenge was purely physical, a spring setback that put her campaign on hold. Gosden got her fit in time for one prep en route to a Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) title defense, and she spiked a fever in the interim. Her ability to win Europe’s fall championship second off the layoff, despite the additional hiccup, was a testament to herself and her trainer. But she wasn’t finished. Going on to defy the Arc winner’s jinx in the Breeders’ Cup, Enable captured an epic Turf (G1) to enhance her legend. It wouldn’t have happened at all if Gosden hadn’t navigated the rough patches so astutely.

Cracksman’s challenge appeared to be more psychological. After a sensational start to the year in the Prix Ganay (G1), he struggled to avert an upset in the Coronation Cup (G1), and again raced lazily before being overturned by Poet’s Word as the 2-5 favorite in the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot. Gosden kept him off the course until he got rain-softened ground, and added blinkers for his swan song in the Champion S. (G1). Which Cracksman would show up – the one who was imperious in the same race a year ago, or the one who lost his zest for the game? Gosden conjured the good Cracksman. His six-length tour de force propelled him up the world rankings as the joint leader alongside Winx.

If Roaring Lion’s challenge wasn’t as extreme as theirs, he was nevertheless a work in progress both physically and mentally at the beginning of the season. But Gosden honed the character he once described as a “Jack the lad” into a racing machine, firing off a sequence of victories in the Eclipse (G1), Juddmonte International (G1), Irish Champion (G1), and Queen Elizabeth II (G1). Gosden made it clear, albeit diplomatically, that the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) was the owner’s call, not his, and Roaring Lion’s unhappy day out on the dirt doesn’t count against him. He accordingly wrapped up honors as the Cartier Horse of the Year.

Incredible as it is, Gosden had superstars beyond the “Big Three.”

In arguably the most underappreciated story on this side of the Atlantic, Stradivarius compiled a perfect five-for-five campaign and collected the new £1 million stayers’ bonus. Gosden kept him ticking from the Yorkshire Cup (G2) in May, Gold Cup (G1) at Royal Ascot, Goodwood Cup (G1), and bonus-clinching Lonsdale Cup (G2), through the British Champions Long Distance Cup (G2).

Gosden’s embarrassment of riches extended to the juveniles. Unbeaten classic prospect Too Darn Hot lived up to his name in a superb Dewhurst (G1) and Champagne (G2), and don’t forget that the sidelined Calyx looked like a budding star in the Coventry (G2).

Even the heritage handicaps felt the Gosden touch. He lifted the Ebor with the veteran Muntahaa, but his upwardly mobile Cambridgeshire winner, Wissahickon, has scope to develop into a Group performer.

Except for the retired Cracksman and Roaring Lion, Gosden keeps the rest in his arsenal in 2019, so he’ll factor in our “Top 5” around this time next year too.