BC Internationals: Filly & Mare Turf contender Rhododendron

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

November 1st, 2017

It seems like a lifetime ago, but Rhododendron was the top fillies’ classic prospect for Ballydoyle this season. A commendable runner-up when bumping into two unexpected stars in the 1000 Guineas (G1) and the Oaks (G1), the Aidan O’Brien trainee is just now returning to her best after a summer hiccup.

Rhododendron is by Galileo and out of Halfway to Heaven, a three-time Group 1 winner for O’Brien who was unplaced as the 5-2 favorite in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1). Two of Halfway to Heaven’s marquee wins came at a mile, in the Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) and Sun Chariot (G1), and her victory at 1 1/4 miles in the Nassau (G1) was more by chance, thanks to the unlucky trip by near-miss runner-up Lush Lashes. That was her only career attempt at the distance before venturing to Santa Anita, where she found it stretched her a shade too far.

The irony is that Rhododendron’s dam would have been grateful for a Breeders’ Cup race at 1 1/8 miles, but I’m not sure the same can be said for Rhododendron. As a juvenile, she progressed like a classic filly, and her Guineas effort looked for all the world like a proper Oaks contender.

Rhododendron, who broke her maiden second time out at Glorious Goodwood, promptly landed her stakes debut in the 2016 Debutante (G2) at the Curragh (click link for replay). She stayed on relentlessly to edge a stubborn Hydrangea, in a foreshadowing of their most recent clash.

In the Moyglare Stud (G1) over the same track and seven-furlong trip, the Debutante form was overturned. The 25-1 Intricately outdueled Hydrangea, and Rhododendron was a lugging-in third on a day when it was hard to catch the leaders on the Curragh’s round course.

Rhododendron left no doubt next time in last October’s Fillies’ Mile (G1) at Newmarket. Encountering good-to-firm ground for the first time since her maiden win, she convincingly outkicked Hydrangea, and there was a six-length gap to third in the strung-out field. That sent her into winter quarters as the one to beat in the 1000 Guineas this spring.

Dispatched as the 5-4 favorite for the May 7 Guineas down the same Rowley Mile, Rhododendron endured traffic trouble and lost momentum as she abruptly altered course. Yet she wasn’t an altogether unlucky loser, since the winner, her overlooked stablemate Winter at 9-1, was forging ahead with gusto. Rhododendron gathered momentum for an eye-catching second, but it’s questionable if she would have joined Winter for a battle with a clear trip.

Winter turned out to be a surprise package, for she added three more Group 1s – the Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) and Coronation (G1) over Roly Poly and the Nassau (G1). Rhododendron’s Guineas effort looks even better in hindsight.

The odds-on favorite for the Oaks at Epsom, Rhododendron ran into a certain Enable. She threw down a stiff challenge to Enable, but just couldn’t stay with her as the future Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) heroine drew off in Oaks-record time.

You had to feel sorry for Rhododendron after being denied in two classics by rapidly progressive fillies, and her season was about to get worse. Shortening up to about 10 1/2 furlongs for the French Oaks (G1) appeared the smart play to get her a deserved win, only she never made it to the end of the race. Watch Ryan Moore as he looks around to ensure he’s easing her safely out of their rivals’ way on the far turn. She was pulled up, reportedly bleeding visibly from the nose, while fellow Filly & Mare Turf contender Senga (whose profile is forthcoming) went on to victory.

Rhododendron was rested until the September 9 Matron (G1) on Irish Champions Weekend. Her comeback was apparently designed as an easy day out, to get her back in the flow, because she was considerately handled in seventh behind stablemates Hydrangea and Winter.  

The Matron had the desired effect. It set her up for the Prix de l’Opera (G1) on Arc Day back at Chantilly, where Rhododendron exorcised the French Oaks from her memory. Grappling with Hydrangea down the stretch, she outdueled that superbly game opponent to get her head in front for the first time as a three-year-old. Filly & Mare Turf rivals Wuheida, Queen’s Trust, and Senga were all behind her.

Rhododendron had to fight, second off the layoff, on ground that was plenty soft enough for her. How will she react to that effort? We already know that Hydrangea took it well, wheeling back to capture the British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1) in her first try at 1 1/2 miles. Rhododendron has had more time to refresh herself, and without too many miles on the clock, she may actually be toughened up for this. And as a filly with a well-publicized bleeding episode in the past, Rhododendron might derive greater benefit from first-time Lasix.

Firm ground will also bring out the best in her, although cutting back to a sharp nine furlongs after a slog going longer could leave her a bit more dour than usual. Another obvious concern is the outside post 14, which poses the problem of either trying to secure a stalking position, possibly using too much energy early and getting parked out wide anyway, or taking a hold to save ground and leaving yourself too much to do.

Nevertheless, as a filly with outstanding form in two British classics, and a victory in the premier race for distaffers over Arc weekend, Rhododendron has the requisite class if she can navigate the trip.

Photo courtesy Longines Equestrian via Twitter