BC Internationals: Turf contender Ulysses
“My suspicion is that this is coming a year too soon for him, but I wouldn't be shocked if he crashes the party.”
That was the concluding line of my international profile of Ulysses for the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), which did indeed come a year too soon. Now 12 months on, the Niarchos Family homebred has fulfilled his early promise and can conclude his career on a high note. As if his enhanced resume weren’t enough, he also brandishes the key Turf stat: coming off a commendable loss in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1).
Ulysses boasts one of the best pedigrees you can possibly have, being by a Derby (G1) hero – world colossus Galileo – and out of an Oaks (G1) winner in Light Shift. He’s got the reputation to go along with it. Indeed, his typically methodical trainer, Sir Michael Stoute, threw him straight into last year’s Derby off a maiden win. Inexperience, combined with bad racing luck, contributed to his 12th-place finish.
There was a similar sense that Ulysses just wasn’t the finished article yet in his three ensuing outings last season, culminating in a respectable fourth in the Turf. The chestnut traveled well while held up off Highland Reel’s pace, advanced into the stretch, then couldn’t lift any more. Watch how third-placer Found zooms by as though Ulysses is tied to the eighth-pole. He boxed on without ever looking dangerous:
Given his raw profile last November, it’s tempting to see his first Turf experience as something of a reconnaissance mission. Connections have freely revealed that the 2017 Turf at Del Mar has been the plan ever since, and Stoute is lethal when he lays out a program for a progressive older horse.
Ulysses already looked like a different animal in his four-year-old premiere in the April 28 Gordon Richards (G3) at Sandown. Improving his position in the stretch while still on the bridle, he lengthened well to overhaul pace controller Deauville. If Deauville isn’t Highland Reel, he was a race-fit customer who can be dangerous on the front end, and Ulysses had no problem tackling him off the layoff.
Ulysses picked up a new rider in Jim Crowley for the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot, and in midstretch, he appeared to be sitting with a handful of horse cruising up to Highland Reel and Decorated Knight. But then just as suddenly his move proved short-lived. Ulysses, who looked ready to forge clear, stalled and allowed Highland Reel’s superior stamina to prevail. He even lost the tight finish for second to Decorated Knight.
Crowley said that he learned a valuable piece of intelligence about Ulysses. Putting his knowledge to work in the Eclipse (G1) back at Sandown, he waited longer to produce his mount. Ulysses, breezing most of the way, quickened in a few strides to head Barney Roy. The sophomore regrouped and lunged again, but Ulysses held on, despite spotting his younger foe 10 pounds. Even so, he almost got there too soon. Ulysses also turned the tables on Decorated Knight, leaving him astern in a troubled sixth.
Now stretching out to 1 1/2 miles for the first time since last year’s Turf, Ulysses had the unenviable task of trying to give star filly Enable 14 pounds in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) at Ascot. If it was too tall an order, he acquitted himself admirably in second. Ulysses actually hinted that he had more up his sleeve than Enable as he shadowed her at the top of the stretch, but it was an illusion. She opened up by a couple of lengths before Ulysses played his hand. He tried to take a run at her but succumbed on ground that was softer than preferable for him at the distance. As a postscript, Ulysses finally found a way to beat Highland Reel, with an assist from the rain.
Ulysses shortened up slightly for the about 1 5/16-mile Juddmonte International (G1) at York. The softish going wasn’t an issue here, nor was conceding seven pounds to three-year-old colts Barney Roy and Churchill. Ulysses inhaled them. A bit more tactical and the last one off the bridle, he brushed them aside and pulled away.
After an active summer in which he won or placed in four majors, Ulysses didn’t need to get a prep in for the Arc. Of course, he once again had to give weight to Enable, if a little less at nine pounds, and slog through soft going over 1 1/2 miles. Ulysses played an even more pronounced tactical card than usual to secure position from his rail post. Crowley, not wanting Enable to fly the coop, asked Ulysses earlier in the straight. The filly still outkicked him, and he couldn’t salvage second when Godolphin’s classy Cloth of Stars outstayed him in the final furlong. Had Crowley ridden timidly to finish second, he might well have.
Since all roads were leading to Del Mar, I was slightly surprised that Stoute flirted with the October 21 Champion S. (G1). It was no more than that, though, and Ulysses kept his powder dry for the Breeders’ Cup. Connections knew they made the right call when Cracksman tore the field apart on soft ground.
An Arc loss is just about right if you’re dead-set on the Turf, with no fewer than 11 Turf winners rebounding in this fashion. And it’s also no hindrance to have been beaten in a previous running of the Turf. Theatrical (1987), Great Communicator (1988), Chief Bearhart (1997), Buck’s Boy (1998), Fantastic Light (2001), and English Channel (2007) all won in a subsequent attempt.
There’s a theory that Ulysses doesn’t truly stay 1 1/2 miles, and it’s true that his only win at the distance came in last summer’s Gordon (G3) at Glorious Goodwood. But even if its proponents are onto something in Europe’s more testing conditions, I’d argue his proficiency over 1 1/4 miles or so in Europe bodes well for 1 1/2 miles around Del Mar. With his high cruising speed, and instantaneous turn of foot, Ulysses is going to make his move in a hurry. At least
Crowley Frankie Dettori won’t have to worry about how long to hold onto him down such a short stretch. (Racing Post reported Sunday that Dettori, who rode him in the 2016 Turf, has regained the mount.)
From the family of 2014 Turf champion and dual Eclipse Award winner Main Sequence, Ulysses is to retire to stud at Cheveley Park in 2018. This could be a lucrative last hurrah.
Photo of Ulysses winning the Juddmonte courtesy of Breeders' Cup via Twitter