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Sunday, 16 December, 2018

What the Flat season has taught us and what we should look out for

Jason Watson is all smiles after Stewards' Cup success with Gifted Master
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With Glorious Goodwood now in the rearview mirror, we are more than halfway through the 2018 Flat season. There's been plenty to take on board, and here Peter Scargill looks at what we have learned so far and what pointers there are for the rest of the year

What we have learned so far

Jason Watson is making a mark

It was clear coming into the new Flat turf season that apprentice Jason Watson was an improving jockey, after an all-weather campaign that provided him with winners as he looked more polished in the saddle.

Speaking in the Weekender in March, his determination was clear too. He said: “I’d love to be champion apprentice and I’ll be aiming at that. I’d love to ride a big-race winner this year as well. If you’re not ambitious with your targets then where’s your drive to succeed?”

Watch Jason Watson win the Stewards' Cup on Gifted Master

Watson in effect leads the apprentice championship, with David Egan now riding as a professional, and has claimed big-race success on Gifted Master in the Stewards’ Cup. He is certain to continue making great strides this season and beyond.

Making a rumble: Rumble Inthejungle emulates his sire Bungle Inthejungle in winning the Molecomb

Welcome to Thejungle

The first-season sire standings has something of a David v Goliath feel to it with No Nay Never and the might of Coolmore pitched against the little guy in Rathasker Stud's Bungle Inthejungle.

No Nay Never leads the way, but Bungle Inthejungle, who stands for just €5,000, is chasing him hard. Given Bungle Inthejungle was a fast two-year-old it is understandable that he has produced precocious juveniles. However, as well as being quick, they appear to be tough, hardy and talented.

Rumble Inthejungle is his top performer so far, having won the Molecomb at Goodwood, and his progeny are sure to be popular at the up-and-coming yearling sales in Europe.

Saxon Warrior: things have gone less well since he won the 2,000 Guineas

Three-year-olds are so-so – except for one . . .

We came into the season forecasting great things – Triple Crowns and the like – for Saxon Warrior and predicting some super clashes within the Classic generation.

So far, there have been flickers of brilliance, but not that much really. An injury to Derby winner Masar has sidelined him for this year and there has been much of a muchness to the races as Aidan O'Brien tries to unearth a star performer for his yard (more of which later).

More to read: The real Alpha Centauri

The one shining light has been the wonderful Alpha Centauri. The big, grey filly has been a joy to watch and produced some thumping performances – the highlight of which was her record-breaking Coronation Stakes win, and the latest of which was her magical Marois display on Sunday. She is head and shoulders above the rest.

Nothing can match an in-form Battaash

Battaash: put up an electric performance at Goodwood

He is not easy – the good ones rarely are – but when on song there is nothing around, possibly in the world, to match Battaash. 

His performance in the King George Stakes at Goodwood was one of those special days when it all came together. He burned off his rivals with unbelievable speed and heads for the Coolmore Nunthorpe next.

Blue Point, his Royal Ascot conqueror, is also set to go there but, away from his beloved Ascot, he will need Battaash to underperform to beat him. In fact, they all need that, because this horse is just too fast for them otherwise.

Funding structure makes selling inevitable

Credit to those who have struck a blow against the big battalions this season, but ultimately the prize-money levels in British racing make selling an inevitability.

Dark Vision: purchased by Godolphin after winning at Goodwood

The likes of talented performers Tigre Du Terre and Naval Intelligence have been sold to race abroad, where prize-money is so good that owners can afford to pay large sums for horses, while Vintager, Dark Vision and Signora Cabello have been snapped up by bigger operations from their previous syndicate owners, no doubt for significant sums. 

More to read

Dark Vision to remain with Johnston after Godolphin swoop
Thundering left to banish blues as Godolphin buy Vintager
Tigre Du Terre misses Goodwood following sale to Hong Kong

So why we all enjoy the little guy gaining some time in the spotlight, it is rare they are able to enjoy it more than fleetingly with the way things are set up right now.

Wouldn't it be lovely if that changed?

Pointers for the rest of the season

Pretty Pollyanna wins the Duchess of Cambridge Stakes in great style

Too Darn exciting

With Calyx sidelined we are looking for a horse to stand up and grab us for the second half of the season: step forward Pretty Pollyanna and Too Darn Hot.

Pretty Pollyanna has more substance to her form so far. She romped home in the Duchess of Cambridge Stakes and bids to build on that in the Prix Morny. If she does, she is exciting.

Too Darn Hot made his debut last week at Sandown, showing a lot of attributes a top-class horse needs. He was switched on, travelled smoothly into the race and up to challenge, and then stretched out and quickened smartly. These two could be the standout performers.

There are probably several good two-year-olds who are yet to race

But there could be some lurkers . . .

It was very hot and dry this summer (in case you forgot), which made training horses rather difficult.

This was especially the case for younger horses, who are more susceptible to injuries caused by immaturity, and trainers would probably have taken it a little easier than usual between mid-June and this month with the babies.

Backend two-year-old races are often well subscribed and often harbour stars of the future. That could particularly be the case this season as yards unleash horses they have had to wait with up until now.

Big Country with Silvestre de Sousa, trainer Mick Appleby and owners The Horse Watchers

Watching the Watchers

Move aside Godolphin, Coolmore and Qatar, the owners continually making an impact this season are The Horse Watchers – which includes Racing UK pundits Chris and Martin Dixon – and their trainer Mick Appleby.

They are already established as shrewd recruiters of horses, with the likes of Mithqaal carrying their silks, and this season has been another significant step forward in terms of the rapidity they are achieving their success.

The likes of Slipstream and Future Score all won on debut for new connections, while Big Country continues to excel. Their runners certainly merit close inspection in the weeks ahead, especially when ridden by Luke Morris or Silvestre de Sousa.

Withhold: favourite for the Lexus Melbourne Cup

This Cup is coming home

The Lexus Melbourne Cup toured around Britain and Ireland last month as part of the build up to this year’s race. You almost feel it should have been left behind to save the journey.

The betting for the race is dominated by European-trained runners who have been laid out for it: Withhold, Magic Circle, Cross Counter and Marmelo leading the way.

Given all bar one of the last eight runnings have been won by a European-trained horse or an ex-European (the exception being Prince Of Penzance) it would seem sensible to focus on the raiders again.

O'Brien not a spent force

After his heroics last year when breaking the worldwide record for Group 1 wins, it has been quieter season for Aidan O'Brien.

Yes, he has still bagged plenty of big wins (2,000 Guineas, Oaks, Diamond Jubilee, July Cup, for example) but the trainer admitted his team have having been behind owing to the spring weather.

Aidan O'Brien: sure to be a big player in the autumn

But you write off Ballydoyle in the autumn at your peril. The operation is geared around the big end-of-season contests around the world and O'Brien is sure to be carrying off plenty of prizes. 

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If you’re not ambitious with your targets then where’s your drive to succeed?
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