With the first four scoring races on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby in the books, and the next not until March 1, it’s time to take stock of the pro tem leaders.
Godolphin’s Royal Marine, hero of the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1), tops the list in more ways than one. Although four colts each earned 10 points for capturing one of the designated races, the tiebreaker – earnings in non-restricted stakes – puts Royal Marine comfortably ahead of fellow winners Magna Grecia (victorious in the Vertem Futurity Trophy [G1]), Mohawk (Royal Lodge [G2]), and Japan (Beresford [G2]), the respective second through fourth on the leaderboard.
But Royal Marine is significant for a far more practical reason: he’s also the most (only?) logical Kentucky Derby candidate to emerge so far on the European Road. This fall’s points races were all staged on turf, and accordingly hold greater relevance for the European classic scene than for the Churchill Downs dirt on the first Saturday in May.
Thus horses on the European Road leaderboard weren’t competing in those races to earn points; rather, they were aiming to beef up resumes ahead of next spring’s major turf prizes for three-year-olds. Indeed, Japan is a natural type to go for the Epsom Derby (G1), along with Mohawk, while Magna Grecia is earmarked for the 2000 Guineas (G1), scheduled for the same day as the Kentucky Derby – May 4, 2019 – at Newmarket. All three are trained by Aidan O’Brien, who’ll look elsewhere among his Ballydoyle riches for a possible “Run for the Roses” contender.
While Royal Marine also has the Guineas option, trainer Saeed bin Suroor will give him a dirt audition during the Dubai World Cup Carnival. A bold show at Meydan, especially in the March 30 UAE Derby (G2), would likely propel him into Kentucky Derby consideration. If the dirt doesn’t agree with him, Royal Marine can always regroup back on the European turf.
Royal Marine’s pedigree offers hope for the surface switch. Sire Raven’s Pass expressed his versatile bloodlines as a Group 1-winning turf miler who scored in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) on the old synthetic track at Santa Anita. Raven’s Pass is a son of Elusive Quality, best known for siring 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness (G1) champion Smarty Jones as well as Quality Road. Royal Marine’s maternal side is turf-oriented, but half-brother Secret Ambition is a veteran dirt campaigner in Dubai. Another close relative, Secret Number, was accomplished on both turf and synthetic, and might have been a triple-surface threat had he tried the dirt too.
A stronger case, however, relies on his forward running style. Royal Marine has a tactical posture reminiscent of fellow bin Suroor pupil Thunder Snow. We’ll never know what “bucking bronco” Thunder Snow might have done had the 2017 Kentucky Derby been run on a dry track, but his fine third in the November 2 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill makes the question more pointed.
If Royal Marine passes the surface test in Dubai, his UAE Derby points would count toward the main Derby leaderboard, not the European Road. Then we’d have a situation similar to Mendelssohn in 2018 – a brief European Road leader who ultimately earned his Derby qualifying points in Dubai.
In any event, we’re going to have fresh contestants emerge on the European Road as the scoring races transition to all-weather tracks. The March 1 Patton S. at Dundalk, won by Mendelssohn last year, awards 20 points to the winner, as does the March 6 Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions S. at Kempton, which first thrust Gronkowski into the spotlight. European Road leadership may well come down to the wire in its newly minted finale, the Cardinal Conditions S. at Chelmsford City in April, with its point structure of 30-12-6-3 to the top four finishers.
Just as Gronkowski progressed through the all-weather scene to top the inaugural European leaderboard last season, so will the horse who earns his 2019 Kentucky Derby ticket by way of the European Road. Who’ll come from the woodwork to be this year’s Gronkowski? That is a tale to unfold over the winter!
Royal Marine photo by Frank Sorge/Horsephotos.com