New York Stakes international scouting report: Thundering Nights
Irish trainer Joseph O’Brien is sending two upwardly mobile contenders for turf stakes on Friday at Belmont Park. While the streaking Baron Samedi is the 8-5 morning-line favorite in the Belmont Gold Cup (G2), stablemate Thundering Nights brings top form as a 6-1 chance in the New York S. (G2).
Joseph absorbed the horsemanship of his parents, Aidan and Annemarie O’Brien, but it’s clear that he’s gifted in his own right. In just a few short years, the jockey-turned-trainer has achieved historic success on the international stage from the United States to Australia. He’s already made history as the youngest to ride a Breeders’ Cup winner, and he set a similar record in the trainer category when Iridessa captured the 2019 Filly & Mare Turf (G1).
Thundering Nights has yet to reach that level, but the four-year-old could be on her way. I've been intrigued by her for a while, after including her on my list of under-the-radar 2020 classic hopefuls.
Sire Night of Thunder, who famously upset Kingman and Australia in the 2000 Guineas (G1) in 2014, is off to a brilliant start at stud. A son of top sire Dubawi, Night of Thunder is responsible for a series of Group performers in both Europe and Australia, including Pocket Square who runs in Saturday’s Just a Game (G1).
Thundering Nights is out of Cape Castle, the winner of four handicaps over distances of 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 miles. Her modest race record didn’t reflect her pedigree. By Cape Cross (best known for siring the great Sea the Stars, Golden Horn, and Ouija Board), Cape Castle comes from the productive family of 2016 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf star Queen’s Trust as well as current multiple Grade 1 hero Domestic Spending (who runs in Saturday’s Manhattan [G1]).
Bred in Ireland by owner Shapoor Mistry’s Manjri Farm – one of India’s historic nurseries – Thundering Nights failed to sell in both of her appearances at auction. She brought the gavel down at €17,000 as a Goffs November weanling and €19,000 at Tattersalls Ireland as a yearling, but neither met her reserve price.
Thundering Nights needed three tries to break her maiden as a juvenile in 2019. An educational 16th on heavy ground over a mile at the Curragh, she was a better fourth in similar conditions at Gowran. The bay took a big step forward at Galway, outperforming her 14-1 odds to get up over odds-on Mazara. Thundering Nights was still learning as she had to be urged to get engaged from off the pace, and finally stayed on strongly on the soft-to-heavy going.
Reappearing in a July 18 handicap versus males at the Curragh, Thundering Nights thrived in her first try at 1 1/4 miles and almost sprang a 9-1 upset. She rallied along the inside to strike the front, only to be nabbed late by favorite Sonnyboyliston. The filly was carrying the same impost (133 pounds) as Sonnyboyliston, who also had the advantage of race-fitness. Sonnyboyliston followed up by taking a premier handicap on Irish Champions Weekend and most recently finished third to Ballydoyle’s high-class Japan in the May 6 Ormonde (G3).
Thundering Nights likewise won her next start, back among fillies over 1 1/8 miles at left-handed Leopardstown. Lying closer to the pace in a stalking second, the 11-8 favorite pounced and held the useful Amma Grace.
Group stakes performances
A class hike was warranted, and Thundering Nights passed that test in the 1 1/8-mile Snow Fairy (G3) at the Curragh. Again racing handy in the early stages, she traveled so well that she found herself in front perhaps a bit earlier than intended in the straight. Thundering Nights then forged clear on the soft ground and toppled even-money favorite Albigna. Granted, Albigna was a Group 1-winning juvenile who didn’t train on at three, but the Snow Fairy was her best effort of 2020. Note that third-placer Epona Plays has progressed since to take three Group races, including the May 22 Lanwades Stud (G2).
Thundering Nights couldn’t duplicate that performance in the Blandford (G2), where she was held up in midpack and closed for third to Cayenne Pepper and an improved Amma Grace. The top two were prominent throughout, so perhaps Thundering Nights should have been closer early. Her sophomore season ended with an anticlimax when stretching out to 1 1/2 miles for the British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1). She wound up a one-paced seventh, in a strung-out 12-horse field, in the Ascot bog.
But Thundering Nights raised her profile considerably in her four-year-old debut in the April 17 Alleged (G3) versus males. On good ground at 1 1/4 miles, she put more of a scare into Aidan O’Brien’s 1-2 favorite Broome than expected. The 9-1 Thundering Nights took up a more forward position early, drove to the fore, and made Broome summon a late surge to catch her. She carried 131 pounds - same as Broome - and the final time of 2:05.43 was faster than the Curragh’s standard for the distance.
The Alleged has been a key race so far. Broome and fourth-placer Helvic Dream came back to run one-two in the May 3 Mooresbridge (G2), and on May 23, Helvic Dream nipped Broome in a loaded Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1).
New York prospects
Thundering Nights turned in a career-best piece of form in the Alleged. That’s a sign of her physical progression, but tactics also played a role. She was reuniting with jockey Shane Crosse for the first time since her Snow Fairy victory. Crosse has conjured the best from her, often by putting her in a stalking spot, and they’ve never placed worse than second together. Thundering Nights has not had the same results with others in the saddle, although one can over-interpret that stat given the circumstances of those races. She picks up John Velazquez at Belmont, and the Hall of Famer will do his homework and try to place her well.
Since Thundering Nights promptly built upon her strong comeback last campaign, her second in the Alleged offers a similar signal going into the New York. She had a few options nearer to home, including the Duke of Cambridge (G2) at Royal Ascot. Yet the conditions of the New York fit her well, and the $750,000 purse certainly makes it worth her while to travel, albeit for no easy spot.
This transatlantic assignment might be viewed as a trial run to gauge her Breeders’ Cup potential. Thundering Nights holds Group 1 entries in the June 27 Pretty Polly (G1) and the Sept. 11 Irish Champion (G1) versus males, so O’Brien is putting loftier possibilities on the table.