At the comparable midway stage last year on the inaugural European Road to the Kentucky Derby, Aidan O’Brien’s Saxon Warrior topped John Gosden’s Roaring Lion on the leaderboard, with no dirt prospects in sight. While only time will tell if the current principals turn out nearly as well on the European turf at three, at least the 2018-2019 European Road has already produced a plausible candidate for the Kentucky Derby trail in pro tem leader Royal Marine.
A Godolphin homebred trained by Saeed bin Suroor, Royal Marine prevented an O’Brien sweep of the fall’s four scoring races when collaring Broome by a neck in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1) on Arc Day. That was an auspicious stakes debut for Royal Marine, who was exiting a front-running Doncaster maiden score and once more showed good tactical foot to stalk.
Broome has been a work in progress, but a good start (for once) helped the son of Australia become the controlling speed. Freddie Head’s Anodor, third as the hitherto unbeaten odds-on favorite, found life tougher when meeting the invaders but figures to progress ahead of next May’s French 2000 Guineas (G1).
Given his connections, it’s no surprise that Royal Marine is wintering in Dubai, where he will get the opportunity to test his dirt aptitude during the Dubai World Cup Carnival. As I’ve mentioned in a KentuckyDerby.com story on Royal Marine, his pacey style suggests he could transfer his game to dirt. So does his pedigree, as a grandson of Elusive Quality via his versatile son Raven’s Pass, and as a half-brother to UAE dirt performer Secret Ambition, runner-up in the 2018 Burj Nahaar (G3) on Super Saturday.
Royal Marine earned 10 points in the Lagardere, same as the other three scoring race winners so far, but ranks on top thanks to his non-restricted stakes earnings. The same tiebreak had to be employed to separate the three remaining winners, as well as the respective runners-up, thirds, and fourth-placers.
With the exception of not having the overall leader, O’Brien otherwise dominated the leaderboard. Not only did the master of Ballydoyle come within a neck of winning all four scoring races, but he’s responsible for 10 of the 16 horses with points in the bank.
His Magna Grecia sits second after taking the most recent event, the October 27 Vertem Futurity Trophy (formerly known as the Racing Post Trophy) (G1). Previously just outdueled in the Autumn S. (G3) by Persian King (cue all the ancient military history references), Magna Grecia was supplemented to this Doncaster feature and narrowly justified favoritism. It was a messy contest, however, with a blanket finish and a stewards’ inquiry before the result was declared official.
Near-misser Phoenix of Spain was aggrieved, considering that he was likely compromised by Magna Grecia’s muscling his way out and brushing again nearer the wire. The Charlie Hills pupil, second to Too Darn Hot in his prior start in the Champagne (G2), brings loads of upside into his classic season. O’Brien’s pacemaker Western Australia boxed on longer than thought at 50-1 to salvage third, although fourth-place stablemate Circus Maximus still looked a little green when accosting him and coming up just shy in their photo.
Magna Grecia accordingly vaulted into the 2000 Guineas (G1) picture. Since he’s by Invincible Spirit and out of seven-furlong Group 3 winner Cabaret, who didn’t train on at three despite being a Galileo mare, a mile is probably his optimal trip.
O’Brien’s first two winners on the European Road are more in the mold of the middle-distance classics. Mohawk kicked off the series in the September 29 Royal Lodge (G2) at Newmarket. Presumably not one of his leading lights after a third in the Futurity (G2) and fourth in the Vincent O’Brien National (G1), the Galileo colt nevertheless prospered on the step up to a mile on quicker ground here.
Although Mohawk led the O’Brien trifecta, his stablemates are worth following closely as European classic hopefuls. Pacesetter Sydney Opera House (by Australia of course) stayed on dourly as if wanting more ground, fittingly enough for a half-brother to last year’s Melbourne Cup (G1) hero Rekindling. He’s since finished a close second in the 1 1/4-mile Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1) to reinforce his profile as a long-term St Leger (G1) type.
Third-placer Cape of Good Hope is the sneakiest of the trio, not just because he’s a full brother to Highland Reel and Idaho. Sidelined since chasing home Godolphin’s Quorto, the future National winner, in the Superlative (G2) during Newmarket’s July Festival, he ran as if needing this race. The hypothesis hasn’t been tested, for Cape of Good Hope has yet to turn up again, but he’s one to keep on the radar.
Mohawk’s ensuing seventh in the Dewhurst (G1) is forgivable. Cutting back to seven furlongs in a particularly hot renewal wasn’t going to suit, and O’Brien had reversed his initial instinct to put him away for the winter after the Royal Lodge.
Two of his obvious Epsom Derby (G1) candidates fought out the finish of the September 30 Beresford (G2) at Naas, where Japan mugged favored stablemate Mount Everest.
Both Galileo bluebloods were stepping up off maiden wins. Mount Everest, a son of 2003 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) champion Six Perfections, still didn’t appear to be mentally quite there yet as he tried to clear away in the stretch. That said, Japan has a robust turn of foot.
The sharp buyers in Hong Kong were certainly paying attention to the Beresford, for third-placer Power of Now has already been sold to continue his career there for trainer John Moore. He’s got a Derby in mind, only it’s the 2020 version for Hong Kong’s four-year-olds.
Japan, a full brother to classic bridesmaid and 2015 Beverly D. (G1) demotee Secret Gesture, commanded 1.3 million guineas as a Tattersalls October yearling. His early success encouraged Coolmore’s M.V. Magnier to go to 3.4 million guineas for his yearling full brother at the same venue last month.
When the European Road resumes on March 1, the action shifts to the all-weather for the final three scoring races, new faces will populate the leaderboard, and the next Gronkowski will come into view.
In the meantime, international avenues will not be wanting. The four-race Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby commences late Friday night U.S. time with the Cattleya Sho at Tokyo.