It was Royal Wedding Day. It was also FA Cup final day. But for racing buffs, Saturday represented something far more significant -- Al Shaqab Lockinge Day at Newbury and one of the most attractive cards in the build-up to Royal Ascot.
The meeting even provided lovely symmetry with the nuptials at Windsor Castle because the Lockinge itself was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its inaugural running, which was won by Pall Mall, a horse owned and bred by The Queen.
Her Majesty did not have any equine representatives on the day, but Harry and Meghan’s wedding was shown on most of the screens dotted around the course, all tuned in to the coverage of ITV, rather than the BBC, in deference no doubt to the channel’s support of racing.
Whether the feelgood mood created by the royal celebrations was responsible, I’m not too sure, but, thankfully, Newbury was not blighted by the fisticuffs of the previous two weekends. Security staff were visible and plentiful, and the track’s decision not to use those same TV screens to show the cup final once racing had finished was probably wise.
As a result, most of the 11,000-plus crowd could concentrate on the racing and, fittingly, they were treated to a regal performance from a true princess of the Turf, RHODODENDRON, to land the Lockinge spoils.
I have been a huge fan of Aidan O’Brien’s filly since she took apart the Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket in the autumn of her two-year-old campaign. And who can forget the epic duel she had with the mighty ENABLE in last season’s Investec Oaks as thunder and lightning enveloped Epsom?
Her burgeoning career was knocked sideways by the horrific burst blood vessel she suffered in the French Oaks at Chantilly a fortnight later. The worst O’Brien had ever seen and one so bad, he recalled after Saturday’s success, that it left rival horses and jockeys smothered in blood.
But the Ballydoyle genius responded with what, even by his lofty standards, was one of the training feats of the season by restoring Rhododendron to her best within 14 weeks. Not only did she win a Group One back at Chantilly, she ran a remarkable race from an impossible wide draw at the Breeders’ Cup, chasing home Godolphin’s brilliant WUHEIDA, whose premature retirement, announced last week, is to be much lamented.
O’Brien’s decision to even run her in the Lockinge, and plot a route to victory, is further testament to his training skills. Although she looked magnificent in the paddock, I felt sure she’d be compromised by the drop back to 1m, particularly against male opposition in such a competitive renewal. But she had been a luckless runner-up in last season’s 1,000 Guineas over 1m, beaten only by stablemate WINTER, who went on to be something of a superstar, and O’Brien mitigated expertly against any potential inconvenience here by saddling two other stablemates, DEAUVILLE and LANCASTER BOMBER. They ensured a strong gallop, which suited Rhododendron’s Guineas speed, and they also maintained it, which suited Rhododendron’s Oaks stamina. Many critics turn their noses up at such ‘team tactics’, but I feel they are perfectly legitimate providing they can be worked out beforehand by diligent punters and provided each horse concerned runs on his or her merits. Given the presence of Deauville over a trip short of his best, punters hardly needed to think like Sherlock Holmes to suss out what might happen, and given that the Ballydoyle trio all ended up in the first five, there was no room for arguments about validity.
Mind you, the Lockinge heroine had a rival for performance of the day at Newbury from another filly, the William Haggas-trained SEA OF CLASS, who evoked memories of her sire, Derby and Arc victor, Sea The Stars, when.winning the Haras De Bouquetot Fillies’ Trial over 10f.
As a maiden on only her second start, she unveiled a sparkling turn of foot to sprint clear, thrashing an O’Brien runner-up, and more tellingly, a Sir Michael Stoute favourite, CRYSTAL HOPE, who had beaten another Haggas filly, GIVE AND TAKE, on her previous start. Considering Give And Take went on to land the Musidora Stakes at York, one of the main trials for the Investec Oaks, the form at Newbury bears the closest scrutiny.
However, such enticing evidence is not necessarily persuading Haggas to pitch Sea Of Class into next week’s Epsom Classic. The view of many is that she would win it, especially as she is also open to any amount of improvement. But the Newmarket handler fears it would come too soon and she would be found wanting for experience, especially as she didn’t race as a juvenile. At this stage, he is preferring to rely on Give And Take.
By all accounts, Haggas might yet be overruled because Sea The Class’s owners, Sunderland Holdings, the breeding operation of the Tsui family who were responsible for her famous sire, seem keen to go to Epsom. Their view is ironic considering how strongly they were criticised for retiring Sea The Stars so early, at the end of his 3yo career, but there is little doubt that the presence of the filly in the Oaks would add to the excitement already building ahead of Classic weekend on the Downs.