Can Beach resist Ocean in St Leger?

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

September 16th, 2017

Saturday marks the final British classic of the season, the 1 3/4-mile, 115-yard St Leger (G1) at Doncaster. If the 11-horse field doesn’t feature a single standout, I’d argue there’s strength in depth, and we’ll be hearing a lot more from several of these down the road.

Crystal Ocean (7-2) has long been well regarded by Sir Michael Stoute, who exercised his trademark restraint in not putting the immature colt through the Derby (G1). Judged not ready for the Epsom crucible despite a useful third in the Dante (G2), the Sir Evelyn Rothschild homebred instead awaited the King Edward VII (G2) at Royal Ascot. He was unable to emulate half-brother Hillstar, winner of the 2013 edition, when third again.

But last time out in the Gordon (G3) at Glorious Goodwood, Crystal Ocean took a substantial step forward on soft going. The Sea the Stars colt traveled readily, while relaxed, before powering 3 1/2 lengths clear. As a measure of his progress, he turned the tables on Khalidi, a reliable barometer who’d previously been runner-up in the King Edward VII. The Gordon third-placer, Mount Moriah, just finished third to top-class older stayer Order of St George in the Irish St Leger (G1).

Crystal Ocean fits the profile of his best half-siblings, the aforementioned Hillstar and Crystal Capella, as a marked improver with maturity. The one rub is whether he’ll be as effective on the step up from 1 1/2 miles to this trip. Ryan Moore, aboard for his Gordon romp, expressed uncertainty about his stamina – which likely is a factor in his choice to ride the Aidan O’Brien-trained Capri. Stoute, however, compared Crystal Ocean in broad terms to Conduit, who wasn’t a thoroughgoing stayer but got away with it in the 2008 St Leger (en route to back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Turf [G1] wins).

Class can carry you a long way, and if Crystal Ocean is simply the best in the field, he can quicken through this rain-affected ground much as he did at Goodwood. Jim Crowley, who has guided Ulysses to stardom for Stoute, picks up the mount.

Team Ballydoyle will presumably do its part to expose any weak links in his stamina, in the confidence that Irish Derby (G1) hero Capri (4-1) will enjoy the conditions and stay every yard of the distance.

Capri is easy to back as the last horse to beat the high-flying Cracksman in that Irish Derby. Yet he was the beneficiary of a heady Seamie Heffernan ride at the Curragh, and scraped home by a neck from a still-learning Cracksman. Also, the close third Wings of Eagles, the Epsom Derby upsetter, suffered a career-ending sesamoid injury in the race, and only missed by a gutsy half-length. Is it churlish to play what-if and ask if Capri still beats a sound Wings of Eagles?

Although Capri has the form in the book, and the right kind of profile, I just wonder if he can duplicate his Irish Derby here. For whatever it’s worth, he missed the Great Voltigeur (G2) at York due to an unsatisfactory scope, and pointed straight for Doncaster. That certainly hasn’t deterred the antepost market, or Moore, both of whom favor Capri over Crystal Ocean.

A more appealing O’Brien alternative is the 10-1 Venice Beach. A Galileo half-brother to 2011 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) star Danedream, Venice Beach has shaped up as a dour type all along. He needed 1 1/2 miles to break his maiden at Tipperary in April, and scored in the 12 1/2-furlong Chester Vase (G3) as his Derby trial. Venice Beach got the jump on Wings of Eagles at Chester, but the two went in wildly different directions at Epsom, where Venice Beach was all adrift in 12th. That’s his only unplaced effort in seven starts, and eminently forgivable around such an unconventional track.

Venice Beach has looked much better in his last pair. In the Grand Prix de Paris (G1), he hit a flat spot when the serious running started, then stayed on well for a late-gaining third. Venice Beach used the Great Voltigeur as his St Leger warm-up, with O’Brien making clear that he wasn’t exactly peaking on the day. Nevertheless, Venice Beach was six lengths best of the rest behind the surging Cracksman. Considering that Cracksman would be one of the top contenders for the Arc (if connections can be persuaded to go), that was a quite solid Leger trial.

Venice Beach’s effort was perhaps overshadowed by the deserved ink for the winner. Now he gets the added distance he’s likely wanted for some time, and the master tactician Heffernan in the saddle. If stablemates The Anvil, and possibly Douglas Macarthur, produce a searing stamina test up front, Venice Beach is just as likely to capitalize as Capri.

You could make a similar case for Rekindling. Trained by Aidan’s son Joseph and ridden by another son, Donnacha, the High Chaparral colt is already proven at 1 3/4 miles. After a one-paced fourth in the Dante and a 16th at Epsom, Rekindling has come on since stretching out. He rallied with a flourish to defeat veteran Wicklow Brave in the Curragh Cup (G2), part of a pattern of the sophomore stayers thriving versus their elders this summer. Last time out, Rekindling was second in the Irish St Leger Trial (G3) to Order of St George. That was even better than his Curragh Cup, since he was getting just five pounds from Wicklow Brave (down from a 14-pound concession in his victory) and beat him even more handily.

Two of his St Leger rivals have likewise won major races over older horses. Roger Varian’s streaking Defoe was cantering all over them in the Geoffrey Freer (G3), but ultimately had to work to put away Melbourne Cup (G1)-bound Wall of Fire. Third-placer Frontiersman didn’t run as well as when he was runner-up to Highland Reel in the Coronation Cup (G1) or to Hawkbill in the Princess of Wales’s (G2), but the formline is eye-catching. Now a perfect 4-0 this season, Defoe has yet to meet the leaders of his own generation, but he’s entitled to keep progressing.

Stradivarius famously foiled Big Orange’s three-peat attempt in the Goodwood Cup (G1), making his 13-pound break in the weights count in the final furlong or so of the two-mile marathon. The John Gosden pupil is no plodder, since he’d previously taken the 1 3/4-mile Queen’s Vase (G2) with a late burst at Royal Ascot. The form has stood up well, with a few significant winners emerging from the beaten pack (including Desert Skyline discussed below with Raheen House). As a Sea the Stars colt from the family of 2014 Melbourne Cup hero Protectionist, Stradivarius promises to be a presence in the stayers’ ranks for the long term.

Yet it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Frankie Dettori has opted to ride Gosden’s filly Coronet instead. Dettori explained it was largely on account of the softish ground that suits Coronet better than Stradivarius. And it’s true that the well-bred daughter of Dubawi relishes this going, and on her best day, you can envision her staying on relentlessly. She already beat males in last fall’s Zetland, a field that included ill-fated Permian, Wings of Eagles and Defoe. That said, her record this term is mixed, even if you draw a line through her unhappiness around Epsom and her fourth (left with too much to do) in the Irish Oaks (G1). Her up-in-time Ribblesdale (G2), while suggesting she’d love this trip, hasn’t worked out from a form perspective at all. Her second to Enable in the Yorkshire Oaks (G1) last time may not be as instructive as it looks on paper, since she outstayed Queen’s Trust on ground the latter despises, and fourth-placer Nezwaah was trying 1 1/2 miles for the first time.

Coronet would be an intriguing stab at a price, since conditions may bring out the absolute best in her, and it would be fitting in the “Year of Enable” for her understudy to beat the boys. Dettori’s vote, however, has depressed her value abroad, and her 8-1 morning line probably won’t hold. Watch her odds to determine if she’s value to you or not.

Raheen House gives Sea the Stars a third proper contender in this race, and the beautifully bred colt out of a Monsun mare descends from the great Height of Fashion. A workmanlike winner of the Bahrain Trophy (G3) during Newmarket’s July Festival, he was improving off a fourth (one spot behind Crystal Ocean) in the King Edward VII for Brian Meehan. The Bahrain Trophy was boosted by runner-up Desert Skyline’s subsequent efforts versus older stayers, placing third in the Goodwood Cup to Stradivarius and in the Prix Kergorlay (G2), prior to winning Friday’s venerable Doncaster Cup (G2).

Count Octave, a Frankel half-brother to 2011 Irish Derby victor and Epsom near-misser Treasure Beach, is an unexposed type capable of better. Fifth to Venice Beach at Chester, he was just nailed by Stradivarius in the Queen’s Vase. We could have learned more about him in the Great Voltigeur, but he scratched on account of the softish going, and that remains a concern on Saturday. Trainer Andrew Balding instead sent him to the August 26 March at Goodwood, where he was a solid second to The Queen’s Call to Mind. That formline puts him behind Defoe as well, illustrating how much he has to improve to factor. If the ground isn’t as slow as feared, or if he handles it better than expected, Count Octave may move forward in this second start off a two-month holiday. He and Crystal Ocean have the least experience (five outings), so perhaps he too has a breakout in him. But it might not come here.


Now for a couple of thoughts on the other Group action.

Dream Today (9-2 morning line but much shorter in Europe) has loads of upside in the Champagne (G2). A full brother to Prix Jacques le Marois (G1) winner Al Wukair (also a sneakily-good third to Churchill and Barney Roy in the 2000 Guineas [G1]), Dream Today showed good early speed before staying on strongly to lift Britain’s richest maiden at York. The Mark Johnston juvenile got distracted a bit in the stretch, zig-zagging before plowing straight with authority over this seven-furlong trip.

Frankel’s son Red Mist, from the all-star family of Fiorente and Islington, is coming in for support after his near-miss to Hey Gaman in the Denford (aka Washington Singer). Since that came fresh off his determined Sandown debut win, Red Mist is widely presumed to gain revenge here. But note that trainer Simon Crisford has been wanting good ground for him, believing the rain-affected courses he’s met so far have blunted his turn of foot. That could be an issue again.

American eyes in particular will be focused on Mendelssohn, the $3 million half-brother to Beholder, but he was even greener than Dream Today in his Curragh maiden score. O’Brien’s apparent change of plan to run him here, rather than a lesser race, could be taken as a positive, but I’m inclined to see it more as a learning experience. At least that’s what the market vibe hints. The Scat Daddy colt will have to be more streetwise not only on the class hike, but turning back from a mile. Things will be unfolding for him faster in this spot, and he’ll need to adapt. Stablemate Seahenge was fifth in a productive Vintage (G2) behind early Guineas favorite Expert Eye, and a couple of other beaten foes have gone on to perform well in stakes.

Godolphin’s Mythical Magic is favored after winning both of his starts, a good-looking Ascot maiden and the Prix Francois Boutin at Deauville, where he upstaged fellow colorbearer Cascadian. He ought to be involved at the finish too, but this looks a hot contest for the 2-1 favorite on the North American morning line.

In the Park (G2) over the same distance for three-year-olds and up, Aclaim and Home of the Brave deserve to head the market, but the 5-1 Nathra isn’t to be overlooked. Better down a straight course, as when second to minding in the 2015 Fillies’ Mile (G1) and to La Cressonniere in last year’s French 1000 Guineas (G1), she scored her signature win in the 2016 Nell Gwyn (G3) at seven furlongs. The Gosden trainee has been steadily rounding into form after reappearing in July, and further improvement off her third in the Hungerford (G2) (beating defending Park champion Breton Rock) puts her in win contention. Second in the Atalanta (G3) over a stiff mile at Sandown last out, she should prosper back down to a straight seven.

Happy Leger Day!

Crystal Ocean photo by Champions Series via Twitter

Venice Beach photo courtesy Chester Racecourse via Twitter