International scouting reports for 2021 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup
Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) winner Empress Josephine is the best of the trio of Europeans set for Saturday’s Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland. We’ll give a quick update on her before examining the stateside debutantes – fellow Irish invader Nicest and progressive British shipper Cloudy Dawn.
As discussed in her scouting report for the First Lady (G1), the Aidan O’Brien filly appeared to be returning to form upon her arrival at Keeneland. Empress Josephine followed through on her hint by rallying for third to First Lady pacesetter Blowout. Given a lovely ground-saving ride by John Velazquez, she tipped out and did her best work late to cut the deficit to a length.
Empress Josephine is taking a page from the playbook of another Ballydoyle alumna, Together. A closing second in the 2011 First Lady versus elders, that Galileo filly wheeled back a week later to beat fellow sophomores in the QEII Challenge Cup.
With the addition of blinkers, and an extra furlong, Empress Josephine promises to perform at least as well on her quick turnaround. Her summer races had been well spaced after a busy spring, so she should remain fresh at this stage.
Although untested beyond Group 3 level, Cloudy Dawn brings a consistent record and an upwardly mobile profile for in-form trainer William Haggas.
Bred by the partnership of George Strawbridge and James Wigan’s London Thoroughbred Services, Cloudy Dawn races for Wigan. She is a daughter of Kodiac and the Pivotal mare In the Mist, making her a half-sister to French stakes scorer Iromea. In the Mist is herself a half-sister to Group 1-winning miler Grey Lilas, the dam of dual French classic victress Golden Lilac.
Cloudy Dawn got up to win in her sole juvenile appearance at Haydock, despite totally fluffing the start and racing greenly in the six-furlong maiden. The gray was off a beat slow in her May 8 comeback in a Lingfield novice, but soon recovered and bounded 5 1/2 lengths clear as the 1-4 favorite. Cloudy Dawn justified favoritism again in her next step up the ladder in a June 1 Yarmouth handicap, where she had to work a bit harder to beat males under joint top weight of 133 pounds.
Up to listed stakes company for the June 23 Eternal S. at Carlisle, Cloudy Dawn sustained her first loss. The 15-8 favorite showed a fine attitude to keep plugging away for third without ever threatening to get closer.
Cloudy Dawn went to Deauville in pursuit of further black-type. In the about seven-furlong Prix Amandine on very soft going, she settled in a stalking role, lost her position as though possibly hitting a flat spot, then came again to take third. The winner, Irish shipper Loch Lein, went on to finish third in the Fairy Bridge (G3) (to Breeders’ Cup candidate Pearls Galore) and Sceptre (G3). Fourth-placer See the Rose had been competing in several notable events, including a close fifth in the French 1000 Guineas (G1).
Trying a metric mile in the Aug. 14 Prix de Lieurey (G3) proved the winning formula. Reserved in third early, Cloudy Dawn rolled up to engage odds-on favorite Just Beautiful turning for home, and the two dueled down the stretch. Cloudy Dawn wore down Just Beautiful by a half-length, the pair pulling clear of the rest. As a pointer to how much Cloudy Dawn had improved since her previous Deauville sortie, she emphatically reversed form with the Amandine runner-up, Pamouschana, who was a well-beaten third here.
Just Beautiful’s only other loss had come in the Falmouth (G1), where she was a decent sixth to Snow Lantern, Mother Earth, and Alcohol Free. The Lieurey form was franked when Just Beautiful came back to land the aforementioned Sceptre at Doncaster, beating Amandine winner Loch Lein.
Cloudy Dawn’s relentless finish at Deauville implies she can handle 1 1/8 miles, and she’s ground-adaptable with wins on good-to-firm as well as soft. Perhaps the biggest question is whether she can unwind in time at Keeneland, or if a longer stretch would be preferable. In any event, Cloudy Dawn has exotics appeal at 15-1 on the morning line.
Making her first start in the colors of Katsumi Yoshida, Nicest boasts an exquisite pedigree as a daughter of American Pharoah and 2013 Irish Oaks (G1) winner Chicquita. The Donnacha O’Brien pupil has been highly tried over further, making her a tough read as she shortens up off a break.
Nicest is a “niece” of Coolmore’s globetrotter Magic Wand, Chicquita’s half-sister, who won major races from Royal Ascot to Australia. Magic Wand placed as far afield as Hong Kong and the United States, where she was runner-up in the Arlington Million (G1) and in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) (twice).
Premiering over a mile at Leopardstown, Nicest uncorked a sparkling late run, altering course to split rivals and force her head in front. The juvenile exceeded expectations as a 6-1 chance that day, and accordingly went off as the 9-4 favorite next time in the Flame of Tara (G3). But she had to extricate herself from traffic and wound up laboring in fifth on heavy ground at the Curragh.
Nicest reappeared in the May 5 Cheshire Oaks at about 1 7/16 miles, where the 9-1 shot made a mild move into the stretch but then flattened in a one-paced third. Runner-up Zeyaadah has since won a Group 3 and placed in the Nassau (G1) in an otherwise uninspiring season.
Cutting back to 1 1/4 miles for the June 2 Orby S. at the Curragh, Nicest stayed on to finish a useful fourth versus males on a good-to-yielding course. The victorious sophomore Reve de Vol is now targeting big prizes in Australia, and older runner-up Patrick Sarsfield placed in Royal Ascot’s Wolferton S. in his follow-up.
Nicest likewise advanced to Royal Ascot. Up in class and trip for the 1 1/2-mile Ribblesdale (G2), the 28-1 outsider ground her way into contention, only to lose steam late and just salvaged third. Nicest threw a shoe along the way, if that had any effect. The winner, Loving Dream, just added the Prix de Royallieu (G1) on Arc weekend.
Her only subsequent start came in the July 17 Irish Oaks. A 10-1 chance, Nicest raced prominently in the main body of the field, behind the pacemaker, and waited for room in upper stretch. She was in no way unlucky, though, for Snowfall was leaving them all toiling as she drew off by 8 1/2 lengths. Nicest kept on but lost second late. Although I’d rather not begrudge classic form, the rest behind Snowfall are a forgettable bunch.
Off that evidence, Nicest could sustain her bid better going shorter. Yet 1 1/8 miles around Keeneland might be too sharp, unless she is herself a lot sharper off the freshening. I’m tempted to see this as an end-of-the-season roll of the dice.