by J. Keeler Johnson
The 2019-20 European Road to the Kentucky Derby kicked off over the weekend with the Juddmonte Royal Lodge Stakes (G2) at Newmarket in England and the Beresford Stakes (G2) at the Curragh in Ireland. Fittingly, both races were won by trainer Aidan O’Brien, giving him a strong start in his ongoing quest to secure a Derby victory for the powerful Coolmore ownership group.
In the September 28 Royal Lodge, O’Brien saddled three starters, and surprisingly prevailed with 16-1 outsider Royal Dornoch. After tracking the early pace, the son of Gleneagles was headed by favored Kameko two furlongs from home. But under a vigorous ride from jockey Wayne Lordan, Royal Dornoch battled back through the uphill final furlong to edge his rival by a neck.
Aided by a strong tailwind over a “good” course, Royal Dornoch stopped the timer in 1:35.13, the fastest mile ever recorded by a two-year-old over the Rowley Mile course at Newmarket.
The following day, O’Brien needed only one runner – 4-6 favorite Innisfree – to secure his record-extending 19th victory in the Beresford, a streak that includes nine wins in a row since 2011.
With O’Brien’s son Donnacha in the saddle, Innisfree settled into second place early on in the one-mile test, about three lengths behind pacesetting Shekhem. The pair had been separated by a neck when finishing 1-2 in a July 29 maiden sprint at Galway, and Shekhem once again proved difficult to beat. Maintaining a slight lead down the stretch, Shekhem gave the favorite a worthy battle, but as the finish line approached, Innisfree gamely forged ahead to win by a neck.
A son of Galileo, Innisfree showed impressive stamina to slog his way over a “heavy” course and reel in the pacesetter. The slow final time of 1:50.06 was a testament to the challenging nature of the course conditions; in fact, O’Brien scratched his two other expected starters (Cormorant and Royal County Down) due to the heavy ground.
Royal Dornoch and Innisfree now rank at the top of the European Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 10 qualification points apiece. The seven-race series continues with the October 6 Qatar Prix de Jean Luc Lagardere at Longchamp and the October 26 Vertem Futurity Trophy at Doncaster, with O’Brien mentioning the latter race as a probable target for Royal Dornoch.