The European Road to the Kentucky Derby is about to awaken from its winter hibernation, with the next scoring races just a month away.
It’s also about to get much more informative. That’s partly because the races are worth more points as we draw nearer to its conclusion. The main reason, however, revolves around the racing surface and connections’ intent.
Last fall’s points races were all on turf, featuring top-class two-year-olds with their eyes on the European classics. The three scoring races in March, on the other hand, are on all-weather (synthetic) surfaces. As a result, they’ll attract a different type of horse – one potentially more willing to entertain a whirl on the dirt at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
The current European leader, Saxon Warrior from the all-powerful Aidan O’Brien yard, illustrates the point. A Japanese-bred son of the great Deep Impact, Saxon Warrior captured the first scoring race, the Beresford (G2) at Naas, and the last, the Racing Post Trophy (G1) at Doncaster, to top the European leaderboard with 20 points. But those performances have propelled Saxon Warrior into clear favoritism for the June 2 Derby (G1) at Epsom, and O’Brien has already talked about running in the 2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket – on May 5, the same day as the Kentucky Derby – along the way. Saxon Warrior has a realistic chance of springing a prestigious Guineas/Epsom Derby double, so dirt experiments are not on his radar.
It’s a similar story for Roaring Lion. Second on the leaderboard after winning the Royal Lodge (G2) and just missing to Saxon Warrior in the Racing Post Trophy, the John Gosden trainee may seek a rematch in the Guineas. That again makes a world of sense, since Roaring Lion is by noted turf sire Kitten’s Joy.
O’Brien likewise has the British classics in mind for the filly Happily, who sits third in the European standings thanks to her historic victory over the boys in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1). The daughter of Galileo was most recently a troubled last in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1), where she was buried on the rail. Antepost bettors find it easy to forgive that blip, making her among the market leaders for the 1000 Guineas (G1) on May 6 and backing her into early favoritism for the June 1 Oaks (G1) at Epsom. As a full sister to European classic winners Gleneagles and Marvellous, Happily is naturally interested in following in their hoofsteps.
In fact, of the 14 horses who have earned points so far on the European Road, not a single one was made an early Triple Crown nominee. But other Europeans are interested in exploring the possibilities.
O’Brien has six nominated to the Triple Crown, led by Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) winner Mendelssohn. Yet to compete in a scoring race, he’s got options of pursuing points on the European Road, and/or venturing to Dubai for the UAE Derby (G2) on the main leaderboard. Kentucky-bred Mendelssohn has a dirt-friendly pedigree that encourages the idea. Topping the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale at a price of $3 million, the son of Scat Daddy is a half-brother to multiple Eclipse Award champion Beholder and hot American sire Into Mischief.
Stablemate U S Navy Flag, Europe’s champion two-year-old after turning the Middle Park (G1)/Dewhurst (G1) double, flopped when trying dirt in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). O’Brien’s other potential Kentucky Derby candidates are Sioux Nation, who earned his career high in the Phoenix (G1); Seahenge, winner of the Champagne (G2) at Doncaster (not the one at Belmont Park); Murillo, unraced since his third in the Railway (G2) on July 1; and Threeandfourpence, fourth to U S Navy Flag, Mendelssohn, and Seahenge in his lone stakes appearance in the Dewhurst.
Since the European leaderboard is wide open for newcomers to take control of the series, the upcoming scoring races, all at a mile, will determine who earns the invitation to Derby 144.
The next two – the March 1 Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions Race at Great Britain’s Kempton, and the March 2 Patton S. at Ireland’s Dundalk – are each worth points on a scale of 20-8-4-2 to the top four finishers. The Patton is a virtual home game for O’Brien, who’s won three times in its short five-year history, so look out for his runner(s) there. The final, and presumably decisive, race on the European Road is the March 30 Burradon S. at Great Britain’s Newcastle, offering a points scale of 30-12-6-3.
Although it’s too early to outline projected fields, you might want to keep an eye on these Kentucky-bred Triple Crown nominees who’ve shown plenty of promise on the British all-weather.
The Jeremy Noseda-trained Walk in the Sun, who sold for a record €1.4 million as a two-year-old at the French sales company Arqana, made a strong debut at Kempton January 26. The son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense would be no surprise to return there for the March 1 scoring race. Note that his owner, Phoenix Thoroughbred, also campaigns California-based Derby hopeful Mourinho and Kentucky Oaks (G1) threat Dream Tree, both trained by Bob Baffert. Noseda also nominated fellow Phoenix colorbearer Gronkowski, who bolted up at Chelmsford on November 9.
Three Weeks, a well-bred colt by top sire Tapit, has won his past two for trainer William Haggas. The Apple Tree Stud homebred overcame a tardy start to score at Lingfield December 20, and readily dismissed just two rivals at Newcastle January 11. That latter victory came at the same track and trip as the Burradon.
We’ll be getting to know many more fresh faces, so come along as we resume the journey on the European Road!