The list of 2019 Triple Crown nominees includes 11 sophomores in Europe, seven of them hailing from trainer Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle. Unlike last year when Mendelssohn loomed as a major contender over the winter, this time around, Team Coolmore is still sifting for a proper prospect.
Not surprisingly, the three O’Brien runners who won races on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby last fall – Magna Grecia, Japan, and Mohawk – are not among them. They’ve got European classics in view, not dirt experiments. Thus the “Ballydoyle seven” don’t rate as leading lights for the classic prizes at home, but rather represent a mix of aptitudes in search of the right platform.
Once-raced U S S Michigan is intriguing because he’s the least exposed of the lot, and he also has pedigree appeal. The War Front colt is a three-quarter brother to Lines of Battle, who won the 2013 UAE Derby (G2) for O’Brien, finished seventh behind Orb in the Kentucky Derby (G1), and went on to a productive career in Hong Kong (under the name of Helene Super Star). Another three-quarter sibling, War Flag, scored her signature win in the 2017 Flower Bowl (G1) at Belmont Park.
U S S Michigan may have inherited more dirt ability, being out of an Unbridled’s Song mare. That remains a theoretical argument since his full siblings – including Group 3 winner War Dispatch, third in the 2015 French Derby (G1) and subsequently toiling in Hong Kong – don’t provide any evidence for it.
In his only start at two, U S S Michigan was just mugged in the final strides of a June 30 maiden at the Curragh. But he showed the kind of cruising gear that’s helpful on dirt. Given the typical improvement for O’Brien runners second time out, U S S Michigan might well have won had he been seen again last season. Interestingly, he’s not nominated to the UAE Derby, suggesting that his agenda could involve upcoming races on the European Road. It makes sense for a colt so short on experience to stay closer to home through the spring.
Van Beethoven and Sergei Prokofiev also have dirt pedigree power. Both are by Scat Daddy, sire of Triple Crown champion Justify (and Mendelssohn), and from well-related mares. But the precocious types bring some stamina questions. Both were pre-entered in just one Breeders’ Cup race, the Juvenile Turf Sprint, where Sergei Prokofiev was a non-threatening eighth, and Van Beethoven didn’t draw in from the also-eligible list.
There are a couple of reasons to believe that Van Beethoven has the better chance of stretching out. Unlike “Sergei,” Van Beethoven has been given an early entry in the one-mile Irish 2000 Guineas (G1), and he twice raced over seven furlongs at two. He was also produced by a full sister to multiple stakes winner Exotic Bloom, who is herself the dam of $3 million-earner Stopchargingmaria. The 2015 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) heroine, Stopchargingmaria stayed as far as 1 1/4 miles to capture the 2014 Alabama (G1).
Van Beethoven has scored both of his wins at six furlongs, notably the Railway (G2). He did not have the finishing speed of the high-class filly Fairyland, his stablemate, when runner-up in the Marble Hill. Shortening up to five furlongs in Royal Ascot’s Windsor Castle, he finished fourth and shaped like one needing further. Unfortunately, his seven-furlong races are inconclusive, likely because of the effects of the virus that beset the whole Ballydoyle yard in the second half of the summer. Van Beethoven was a troubled fifth in the Vintage (G2) and a well-beaten fourth in the September 15 Champagne (G2) at Doncaster, his final start of the season.
Sergei Prokofiev, a $1.1 million Keeneland September yearling, is more liable to have distance limitations. It’s telling that O’Brien, who typically keeps his better sophomores engaged in a wide array of options, did not put him in the Irish Guineas. Although he’s out of a Tapit mare, his dam Orchard Beach comes from a speed-oriented family, and indications are that “Sergei” is in that mold. All three of his wins have come at five furlongs, including a romp in the Rochestown in May and a visually stunning last-to-first rally in the Cornwallis (G3) in October. His six-furlong record was presumably blighted by the summertime virus, but before it struck, he was a solid third in the Coventry (G2) at Royal Ascot.
Two of the Ballydoyle brigade, Sydney Opera House and Western Australia, are from the first crop of – who else? – Australia, the 2014 Epsom Derby (G1)-winning son of Galileo and Ouija Board. Hence their concern isn’t stamina but rather whether they can cope with dirt. Both were yearling purchases at Tattersalls October, Sydney Opera House commanding approximately $731,399 and Western Australia going for $362,216.
Last fall, both placed to better-fancied stablemates in scoring races on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby. If they’re a notch below O’Brien’s leading European classic hopefuls, they’ve done well enough to merit some fancy entries themselves.
Sydney Opera House looks the type for the longest classic, the St Leger (G1) at Doncaster in September. A half-brother to 2017 Melbourne Cup (G1) winner Rekindling, Sydney Opera House hails from a prolific family also responsible for recent Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) runner-up Magic Wand. And he’s already raced over 1 1/4 miles – twice. After finishing second to stablemate Mohawk at 20-1 in the Royal Lodge (G2) and earning 4 points on the European Road, Sydney Opera House endured a tough trip when fifth in the Zetland S. at Newmarket. But he came right back to miss by a neck in the October 27 Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1), just denied by the filly Wonderment.
Western Australia, out of a full sister to seven-furlong Group 1 shocker Toylsome, was overlooked as the 50-1 pacemaker in the Vertem Futurity Trophy (G1). But almost like “uncle” Toylsome, he hung on far longer than expected and went down by only a length to favored stablemate Magna Grecia. Western Australia picked up 2 points on the European Road for his hard-trying third.
Concluding the O’Brien nominees are The Irish Rover, a grandson of Scat Daddy (by his champion son No Nay Never) whose patchy record features a third in the Phoenix (G1), and Blenheim Palace, a full brother to champions Churchill and Clemmie who is unplaced in three starts so far. Both need to improve substantially, but Blenheim Palace probably has more license to do so. Whether that progress involves dirt is another question.
Fellow Irish training legend Dermot Weld has nominated the promising Masaff, who holds engagements in a pair of Irish classics as well. The Aga Khan homebred by Raven’s Pass (also sire of Godolphin’s nominee Royal Marine) was leggy and unfurnished early last summer, but that didn’t prevent him from a smart debut victory at Leopardstown.
Given a holiday to develop into his frame, Masaff returned with a third in the KPMG Champions Juvenile (G2) on Irish Champions Weekend. That “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) turned out to be pretty salty. The well-regarded winner, Madhmoon, easily disposed of O’Brien’s Broome (later a close second to Royal Marine in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere [G1]). Finishing behind Masaff in fourth and fifth, respectively, were Western Australia and Sydney Opera House. In his final start of the season, Masaff stayed on relentlessly as the runner-up, beaten a half-length, in the Eyrefield (G3).
Two of the nominees are based in Great Britain, both winners in November on synthetic “all-weather” surfaces. Kentucky-bred Spanish Mission has plenty of upside for trainer David Simcock. By Frankel’s accomplished full brother, Noble Mission, Spanish Mission dusted a two-time winner going 1 1/4 miles on Chelmsford’s Polytrack. So convincing was his performance that he was privately purchased thereafter by shrewd operators in Earle Mack and Team Valor.
The other British nominee, Shir Khan, is by Leroidesanimaux – the same sire as Team Valor’s Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup hero Animal Kingdom. Co-owned by a partnership including trainer Paul Cole, Shir Khan upset a lesser race at Wolverhampton at odds of 33-1.
Admiral Rous, trained in France by Eoghan O’Neill, has improved since switching from turf to the all-weather scene over the winter. Although the son of Henrythenavigator has won two straight at Deauville and Chantilly by daylight, the form is questionable.
The next points races on the European Road are the March 1 Patton S. at Dundalk and the March 6 Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions S. at Kempton. Each proved significant a year ago, with Mendelssohn and Gronkowski the respective winners. The European Road concludes with a new race this year, the April 11 Cardinal Conditions S. at Chelmsford.
But by then, some of the contenders might have opted for Dubai. Seven of the 11 have been nominated to the UAE Derby on the March 30 Dubai World Cup card – O’Brien’s Sergei Prokofiev, Van Beethoven, Sydney Opera House, The Irish Rover, and Blenheim Palace, along with Spanish Mission and Admiral Rous.
Check out the companion features on the international Kentucky Derby picture:
Sergei Prokofiev photo (c) Churchill Downs/Coady Photography