The first points on the European Road to the 2020 Kentucky Derby are up for grabs in Saturday’s Royal Lodge (G2) at Newmarket. Aidan O’Brien has three of the eight entrants but not the top choices in the betting market. (He also has three in the next scoring race, Sunday’s Beresford [G2].)
The clear Royal Lodge favorite, Kameko, hails from the yard of Andrew Balding. As a Kentucky-bred son of Kitten’s Joy purchased at Keeneland September for Qatar Racing, he has points in common with 2017 Royal Lodge hero Roaring Lion. There are differences, however. Roaring Lion brought an unbeaten record into his stakes debut for John Gosden in this spot, while Kameko just missed in his first stakes try.
Bred by historic Calumet Farm, Kameko was produced by Grade 3 winner Sweeter Still and sold for $90,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. After scoring in his debut over seven furlongs at Sandown, Kameko returned to the same course and distance for the August 31 Solario (G3) and nearly upset odds-on favorite Positive. He got going a little too late, showing signs of inexperience, and figures to appreciate the step up to a mile here. Jockey Oisin Murphy, who also guided Roaring Lion as Qatar Racing’s retained rider, will be back aboard Kameko.
The early second choice, the Paul Cole-trained Highland Chief, was last seen finishing third to superstar Pinatubo in the Chesham in juvenile course-record time at Royal Ascot. That form ties in with Kameko, since the horse who edged him in the Solario, Positive, had finished a distant second to Pinatubo in the Vintage (G2) at Glorious Goodwood. Highland Chief was a promising debut winner at Newbury in his only prior start back in April, and the son of freshman sire Gleneagles resumes with a new rider in P.J. McDonald.
The best of the O’Brien trio, Year of the Tiger, didn’t fare as well in the Chesham when seventh, but the blueblood son of Galileo and top juvenile filly Tiggy Wiggy was still on the learning curve as a maiden. A smashing winner next out at Naas, Year of the Tiger made a one-week turnaround in the Superlative (G2) and flopped. O’Brien told Racing Post that the colt was “under the weather” that day, and that he’s back in good shape now. It would be no surprise to see him bounce back with Ryan Moore in the saddle.
O’Brien swept the trifecta in last year’s Royal Lodge, but a repeat of that feat appears unlikely unless his other two improve markedly. Iberia hasn’t built upon his debut maiden score at the Curragh, winding up unplaced in both the Futurity (G2) and Vincent O’Brien National (G1). Royal Dornoch is the most exposed of the lot with six starts already. His best stakes performance was a third in the Richmond (G2), and he’s since failed to hit the board in the Prix Morny (G1) and Champagne (G2).
Perhaps the best value is China Horse Club and Ballylinch Stud’s Surf Dancer, who enters off back-to-back wins for William Haggas. The Lope de Vega colt suffered his lone loss on debut, but that fifth-place effort came in a hot maiden at Ascot. The winner, Mums Tipple, later demolished a lucrative York race by 11 lengths, and runner-up Molatham has won his next two, including the Flying Scotsman at Doncaster over O’Brien’s smart Wichita.
The only two Royal Lodge entrants with experience at a mile, Pyledriver and Sound of Cannons, ran one-two in the Ascendant S. at Haydock. But the rematch might work out differently. Pyledriver had the benefit of a prior stakes education, having finished fourth in the Denford. Sound of Cannons, coming straight off a debut victory, was also the only pace factor to hang around at the finish. By Nathaniel – the same sire as the great champion Enable – Sound of Cannons can turn the tables.
As is the case with all four of this fall’s scoring races on the European Road, points are allocated on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the respective top four. After Sunday’s Beresford come the October 6 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1) on Arc Day at ParisLongchamp and the October 26 Vertem Futurity Trophy (G1) at Doncaster. The European Road then goes on winter holiday until early March, when the points increase and the scene shifts from turf to the all-weather for the Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions race at Kempton and the Patton S. at Dundalk. The series concludes with the Cardinal Conditions race at Chelmsford in April.
Aside from commencing the European Road, the Royal Lodge also serves as a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). The Newmarket opener (post time 8:50 a.m. EDT) kicks off a superb Saturday card. Next comes the Cheveley Park (G1) for two-year-old fillies, pitting Raffle Prize against French raider Tropbeau and O’Brien’s long-awaited Etoile. The six-furlong Middle Park (G1) promises to be one for the ages as a summit of unbeaten juveniles – the aforementioned Mums Tipple, Earthlight, and Siskin. O’Brien’s Monarch of Egypt, the first winner sired by American Pharoah, was most recently second to Siskin in the Phoenix (G1), and stablemate Lope Y Fernandez impressed in the Round Tower (G3) last out once finally getting away from Pinatubo. Following the Middle Park, older horses take the stage for the time-honored Cambridgeshire Handicap.
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