July Festival Postscripts, Vol. II: The Two-Year-Olds

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July 11th, 2015

Royal Ascot juvenile form was eclipsed in the July S. (G2), where the John Gosden-trained Shalaa stepped up from a maiden win to score handsomely at 14-1. Traveling best of all, the Invincible Spirit colt bounded clear. He would have won by more than a length from Steady Pace if he hadn't hung left across the course, carried off a true line by his own momentum.

Gosden said afterward that Shalaa had "always been our fastest two-year-old," but the "nervous" colt needed time to learn how to settle. He credited rider Rob Havlin with getting him nice and relaxed in their work at home. Havlin only got the chance to ride him in the July because he was the lesser fancied of the two Al Shaqab runners, and Dettori had logically sided with Eltezam.

The third-placer from the Coventry (G2), Eltezam brought solid form. But the one quibble was that he already looked like a horse who wants seven furlongs. I'd have voted for him to run in Saturday's Superlative (G2) rather than stick to six for the July. As it turned out, Eltezam was outkicked in fourth here, and you'd have to wonder if connections didn't wish they'd gone in the Superlative. That thought only grew more forceful after stablemate Tony Curtis, whom Hannon had sounded very cautious about beforehand, rallied for a close third in the Superlative.

On the other hand, the Superlative proved to be another dent in the Coventry form. The two horses coming out of the Coventry -- Beaverbrook (fourth) and War Department (hampered last) -- were put firmly in their place here, finishing fifth and seventh respectively.

Superlative winner Birchwood was regaining his sparkling spring form after flopping in the June 1 Rochestown at Naas. Trainer Richard Fahey joked that the colt's head wasn't in the right place in Ireland, possibly on account of the Guinness! Although the softish ground might have been a factor, the form of that Naas race hadn't held up at all, and I wondered if maybe this was just a precocious type whose rivals had now outstripped him.

Totally wrong view of Birchwood. The Godolphin recruit proved that his victory in a loaded "Olympic Glory Conditions" event at Newbury May 16 could not be dismissed as a mere snapshot of where they stood that day. Indeed, Birchwood proved that he too had improved in the interim by dashing in a juvenile course-record time of 1:23.33 on Saturday.

Birchwood became the second alumnus of the Olympic Glory to win a Group 2 at this meeting. July winner Shalaa debuted in that race, checking in a green last.

And as far as a potentially key maiden goes, I've already scribbled about Muntazah's excellent effort in defeat first time out.

Among the fillies, Illuminate wasn't as convincing as she was in Royal Ascot's Albany (G3), but the Hannon trainee scraped home in the Duchess of Cambridge (G2) to remain unbeaten in three starts. All out to prevail in a three-way photo over Besharah and the 20-1 Blue Bayou, Illuminate might have had a safer margin if she hadn't drifted a little to her right. A bigger factor in the near-upset was the tactics. As jockey Richard Hughes noted, he had to adopt a more forward early position, so Illuminate was in the firing line a lot longer. Contrast that with her powerful late run from off the pace at Royal Ascot.

When Illuminate gets her preferred pace scenario, and returns to a less speed-favoring course, she can reclaim more authority. Hannon was effusive in his praise for Illuminate afterward, describing her as a "dreamboat" who's as good a filly as they've had. She has a fascinating pedigree pattern too: both her sire Zoffany and her dam are bred on the same cross, Danzig-line sires over Machiavellian mares.

Also noteworthy about the Duchess of Cambridge was the form reversal from the five-furlong Queen Mary (G2) at Royal Ascot -- Queen Mary third Besharah was seen to much better effect over the extra sixth furlong here, spearing through strongly late and missing by a whisker on the line, while Queen Mary runner-up Easton Angel was a troubled fifth (promoted to fourth). Because Easton Angel was hampered as an equine pinball, you could make the case that she deserves another shot at six furlongs. But even without the trouble, it's clear that Besharah had more than bridged the gap from the Royal meeting, so I'd prefer to see Easton Angel revert to five.

The final takeaway is that Blue Bayou, a debut maiden winner at Haydock last time, came within inches of overturning both Royal Ascot alumnae. Finishing like gangbusters after appearing outpaced, she was on top past the wire. Trainer Brian Meehan promptly called her "the best filly I've ever trained," and indicated that she'll now step up to seven furlongs.

But perhaps the most memorable developments in this division came in a couple of maidens. The Mark Johnston-trained Lumiere turned in an electrifying debut over six furlongs on Thursday. The daughter of Shamardal had been tearing up the gallops at home and accordingly ranked as the 6-5 favorite, but few could have been prepared for the way she dismantled this field. Cruising on the front end, the lanky gray suddenly went into turbo gear in the final quarter-mile. William Buick looked around in vain for sight of the competition as she spread-eagled them by six lengths.

Johnston later said that Lumiere had "kicked everything out of the way" in her home work, and her exercise rider called her the "quickest thing he'd sat on."

Still, the trainer didn't have a firm gauge on the merit of her workmates, since they're just getting started as well.

"We hoped it'd be this good but didn't know for sure," Johnston summed up.

Although Lumiere didn't have any fancy entries going into Newmarket, she'll surely pop up at a much higher level next time. Hopefully we'll have an enlightening clash between Lumiere and Illuminate.

On Saturday, the blueblood Ballydoyle finally broke her maiden at third asking for O'Brien. Her evident greenness had cost her when just missing versus colts in the Chesham at Royal Ascot. Much more professional this time, the 4-7 favorite lengthened stride, mastered Nemoralia after a brief tussle, and crossed the line an emphatic 2 3/4-length winner.

Ballydoyle looked stronger the farther they went in this seven-furlong maiden, and attacked the rising ground in a manner of a filly who'll come into her own over longer. That's predictable, as the Galileo filly is a full sister to multiple highweight Misty for Me, whose four Group 1 tallies include the 2011 Irish 1000 Guineas and Pretty Polly.