Alice Springs, Roly Poly give O’Brien a Newmarket double; Very Special to Beverly D.

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July 8th, 2016

Trainer Aidan O’Brien swept both of Friday’s major events at the Newmarket July Festival, his fillies Alice Springs and Roly Poly enjoying the good-to-firm ground so much as to record new career highs. The sophomore Alice Springs bounded clear of older distaffers in course-record time in the Falmouth (G1), and 2-year-old Roly Poly captured the Duchess of Cambridge (G2).

It would be slightly impish to say that O’Brien won the Falmouth with his third best 3-year-old filly. But that’s not insulting to Alice Springs once you realize that the top two are Minding and Ballydoyle (who runs in Saturday’s Belmont Oaks [G1]).

While Alice Springs had yet to win a Group race, the chestnut daughter of Galileo has been competing honorably at a high level. Her catalog of placings includes a second to Catch a Glimpse in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1); thirds to Minding and Ballydoyle in last September’s Moyglare Stud (G1) as well as the May 1 1000 Guineas (G1); and most recently a troubled third in the June 17 Coronation (G1) at Royal Ascot.

Alice Springs had been in the mix for the Belmont Oaks until O’Brien decided upon the Falmouth. That move looked positively inspired after the Falmouth suffered a couple of major defections: Nemoralia opted to face the boys in Sunday’s Prix Jean Prat (G1) at Chantilly, and a tendon injury sent Euro Charline into retirement.

Of course, there was still the behemoth from Godolphin’s French operation, Usherette, who promised to be the next big thing off consecutive scores in the Dahlia (G2) and Duke of Cambridge (G2). Yet you should never duck just one horse, as they say, and the Falmouth proved the truth of the adage. Usherette failed to land a blow and beat only one – defending champion Amazing Maria – home. Connections didn’t think that the quicker surface posed a problem for Usherette, and racing manager John Ferguson told Channel 4’s Emma Spencer that “Everyone can have an off day.”

The nagging question is that Usherette has had only two “off days” in her career so far, and both came in similar circumstances: Group 1 races on better ground. She’d also flopped in Deauville’s Prix Rothschild (G1) last summer. Trainer Andre Fabre revealed she tied up before the Rothschild, so that was explicable. But unless more comes to light after the Falmouth, it’s difficult to ignore the fact Usherette was racing on her fastest surface yet, and just didn’t appear totally comfortable. Some on Twitter excoriated jockey Mickael Barzalona for a poor tactical show by holding her up at the back, but I doubt Usherette could have maintained a forward position even if he’d driven her on.

Alice Springs, however, carved out the ideal trip for herself. Jockey Ryan Moore had her parked behind Godolphin’s pacesetting Very Special, who was hounded by Irish Rookie. With wide open spaces on the July Course, and not held hostage by traffic as at Royal Ascot, Alice Springs readily overtook them on cue and drew 2 1/4 lengths clear. She blitzed the straight mile in a course-record 1:34.42.

Very Special, headed by Irish Rookie, came back to fend her off and salvaged second. Her stablemate from the Saeed bin Suroor yard, Always Smile, rallied to just miss nipping her by a nose. Irish Rookie faded late to fourth, acting as if a slight cutback in trip is warranted.

This was a bang-up reappearance for Very Special, last seen in Dubai over the winter. A half-sister to ill-fated Chriselliam, Very Special was a revelation at the Carnival. The Lope de Vega filly used her early speed to pull the Cape Verdi (G2)/Balanchine (G2) double, and she was last seen finishing sixth (after not getting the lead) in the March 26 Dubai Turf (G1). Considering her penchant for spurting away on the turn at Meydan, Newmarket’s straight mile was a tougher challenge, not made any easier by the pestering of Irish Rookie.

But Very Special’s style is well suited to US racing, so it was great to see bin Suroor already thinking along these lines. He mentioned the August 13 Beverly D. (G1) as an objective, and I can envision Very Special motoring around Arlington to her heart’s content.

As a fun counterfactual, how might Euro Charline have performed in the Falmouth? She would have gotten the strong pace to help her settle, and fast ground. Although she traded decisions with Very Special in Dubai, you’d have to give Euro Charline the edge in a head-to-head here in light of how the Falmouth unfolded. But could she have conceded nine pounds to Alice Springs and outkicked her in an even faster course-record time? That’s imagining a lot.

But what about Nemoralia, who would have gotten the same weight break as Alice Springs? The Falmouth figured to fit her like the proverbial glove. But trainer Jeremy Noseda didn’t believe she’s in love with the July Course; hence the jaunt to Chantilly. But she’d run well enough here last summer, notably when runner-up to Ballydoyle in a maiden, and trying males at Chantilly just imports a new set of variables. Might second thoughts swirl among the Nemoralia camp?

Roly Poly ranked as the first half of the O’Brien/Moore double when grinding out a determined half-length victory in the 6-furlong Duchess of Cambridge (better known as the Cherry Hinton). In the vanguard throughout, the War Front juvenile kept finding more to see off challengers on all sides.

Grabbing second to her inside was the 33-1 Magical Fire, who’d been beaten a little further by Roly Poly last time in the Grangecon Stud (G3) at the Curragh. Magical Fire had been even more convincingly dismissed by another O’Brien filly, Cuff, earlier at Naas. Unfortunately, Cuff sustained a knee injury in the Albany (G3) at Royal Ascot and was retired, so form boosts can’t benefit her on the racecourse.

The 16-1 Nations Alexander checked in a close third, arguably flattering the Frankel filly who’d dusted her a couple of starts back, Fair Eva. It can be hazardous to treat maiden formlines this way, though. After all, Godolphin’s exciting Nasimi had also defeated Nations Alexander in their mutual debut, only to disappoint here by finishing ninth of 10.

Also underperforming in the Duchess of Cambridge was 9-4 favorite Bletchley, the Albany near-misser. Despite traveling well in the early stages, the Ralph Becket filly couldn’t pick up inside the final two furlongs and wound up sixth. Perhaps it was a bit quick for her out there, or she might need a stronger test of stamina by now. The daughter of Makfi got going a fraction too late on the much softer going at Royal Ascot, a more demanding 6 furlongs than she encountered here. Although I’m not totally sold that the Albany form is a true bill (in its order across the wire), partly due to Cuff’s injury, neither am I discounting Bletchley off this run. More evidence is needed.

Roly Poly’s only two losses have come on the softest ground she’s encountered, when a distant fourth to Caravaggio in the Marble Hill at the Curragh and eighth behind the imperious Lady Aurelia in the June 15 Queen Mary (G2) at Royal Ascot. Those also happened to be 5-furlong dashes. On pedigree, she wants at least 6 furlongs as a daughter of multiple Group 1-winning highweight Misty for Me (who is herself a full sister to Ballydoyle).

Alice Springs (and Very Special with red cap) courtesy of Champions Series via Twitter