Hawkbill hands sire Kitten’s Joy first European G1 in Eclipse

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July 2nd, 2016

In a soggy renewal of the Eclipse (G1) that left more questions than answers, Godolphin’s Hawkbill (center) rebuffed Coolmore’s 4-6 favorite The Gurkha in a finish dominated by 3-year-olds. The Kentucky-bred winner thereby gave Ramsey Farm’s turf champ and leading sire Kitten’s Joy a milestone – his first Group 1 winner in Europe, with the promise of more to follow.

Hawkbill wasn’t originally made eligible for the Eclipse. But after his victory in the Tercentenary (G3) at Royal Ascot – likewise contested over 10 furlongs on soft ground – the Godolphin brain trust supplemented him to the Sandown feature. That proved an inspired decision for the progressive colt, who clearly thrives in these conditions.

The Gurkha’s change of plan, on the other hand, didn’t work out so well. The jaw-dropping winner of the French 2000 Guineas (G1), and somewhat unlucky runner-up in the St James’s Palace (G1), was supposed to stick to a mile for the Sussex (G1) at Glorious Goodwood.

Aidan O’Brien’s intended runner for the Eclipse was Deauville. Once the ground began to turn against him, Sandown appeared a less inviting target for Deauville, who has since come into the mix for next Saturday’s Belmont Derby Invitational (G1). Enter The Gurkha on the quicker-than-expected step up in trip to 1 1/4 miles.

Time Test, the best of the older brigade in the Eclipse, had missed his major objective – the Prince of Wales’s (G1) – due to unsuitably soft ground at Royal Ascot. Trainer Roger Charlton was on weather watch at Sandown too, but unless you’re Gleneagles, there are only so many times you can keep scratching. Although the going ended up being softer than Charlton first hoped, he allowed Time Test to take his chance on Saturday. He was pretty weak in the market for a horse of his caliber, going off at 6-1, precisely on account of the ground.

As feared, the usual gears just weren’t there for Time Test as he spun his wheels. In the circumstances, he deserves credit for checking in third while conceding Hawkbill and The Gurkha 11 pounds apiece. Let’s hope we finally get proper “summer ground” for the Juddmonte International (G1) at York, which would be the ideal race for the Juddmonte homebred – given a prerequisite of at least a good surface.

Time Test at least outperformed My Dream Boat, the 16-1 winner of the Prince of Wales’s who didn’t run up to that level in fifth here. I’m awfully tempted to say he was put back in his place, but to be fair, it paid to race handy and not try to rally from near the rear. Trainer Clive Cox also commented that his Royal Ascot heroics might have left their mark on My Dream Boat, who will now get a holiday.

Also disappointing was sixth-placer Western Hymn. As a horse-for-the-course who appreciates soft ground, forced Time Test to find extra in the Brigadier Gerard (G3), finished third in this race last year, and exited a third in the Prince of Wales’s, Western Hymn looked just the type to hit the board again at a price. Unfortunately, the John Gosden veteran looked uncomfortable at the rear, cocking his head a long way out, and jockey Frankie Dettori took care of him. Hopefully there’s nothing amiss.

Bravery, The Gurkha’s stablemate, finished a tailed-off last after an odd trip. Widely regarded as the Ballydoyle pacemaker, Bravery broke sharply but conceded the lead to Time Test’s rabbit, Countermeasure. Instead of maintaining a prominent position to keep tabs on Countermeasure, he was wrangled back and fought restraint.

Then again, maybe Bravery’s trip makes more sense than at first glance. In light of the testing ground, Team O’Brien didn’t want this to turn into more of a stamina slog for The Gurkha. Perhaps Bravery was there to ensure it didn’t turn into a falsely-run crawl, and as soon as Countermeasure was going on about his business, Bravery was superfluous. Of course, you could also argue that was foreseeable, so why pitch Bravery in anyway? An insurance policy just in case?

At any rate, Hawkbill was in the perfect position, as jockey William Buick slotted him into a tracking second. The course was playing favorably to this style, and the Charlie Appleby pupil had only the rabbit to pass. Ryan Moore was surely alive to this set-up, so he moved The Gurkha into a closer stalking spot alongside Time Test.

Down the straight, Hawkbill and The Gurkha confronted Countermeasure on either flank. Time Test was in contention too, but couldn’t match the 3-year-olds as they ratcheted up the tempo and pulled away. The Gurkha briefly appeared to poke a head in front, until the tenacious Hawkbill came again.

In a manner vaguely reminiscent of broodmare sire Giant’s Causeway, Hawkbill outdueled The Gurkha and edged a half-length clear. That made it six in a row for the $350,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase, who first stamped himself as a smart all-weather performer last fall. American fans may recall that Hawkbill shipped to Keeneland for the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), only to be scratched. He wintered in Dubai, where I waited in vain for him to turn up at the Carnival. Hawkbill was worth waiting for, capturing his reappearance in the April 30 Newmarket S. (at 14-1) en route to the Tercentenary.

“He has been a challenging horse,” Appleby told Racing Post, “but he has got some racing under his belt and mentally got stronger with each run.

“After Newmarket, William (Buick) said we were dealing with a proper horse. Since Ascot one thing we noticed was how much he had grown up from there.

“Normally he would be awash with sweat at home but this past 10 days he has not turned a hair and his rider has said he had come on again.

“He was being so good today I hoped it was part of growing up. He has arrived now.”

Given Godolphin’s global vision, it would be no surprise if Hawkbill turns up on this side of the Atlantic at some point. In the meantime, he’ll face stiffer tests in Europe, and it may be wise not to get too carried away just yet. The ground was a key factor here, making this something of a perfect storm for him. It's a definite cause for pause that 150-1 pacemaker Countermeasure, still only a maiden, held fourth. Moreover, Hawkbill has yet to meet the leading middle-distance horses of his own generation – e.g., dual Derby star Harzand, US Army Ranger, and Idaho. That said, Hawkbill remains very much on the upswing.

O’Brien believes that The Gurkha’s unproven stamina was sapped on the soft ground, and I’d agree. While he may be worth trying over this trip again on a firm course, The Gurkha is a top miler in the making. And he’s also got unfinished business at a mile, namely another crack at Galileo Gold, who upended him in the St James’s Palace. Thankfully, he’ll get that rematch in the Sussex.

Top photo by Dan Abraham/

Bottom photo courtesy of Champions Series via Twitter