With its distance trimmed to a flat mile, the character of the Secretariat (G1) has changed, but Aidan O’Brien ensured that the Arlington Million Day fixture is still attracting notable international representation. The master of Ballydoyle has used the Secretariat in the past to showcase a few stable stars, including globetrotter extraordinaire Highland Reel (2015). The question now is whether the revamped race will be as happy a hunting ground for O’Brien, or tip the scales in favor of Chad Brown, as I wrote in the Million Day pre-entries blog:

O’Brien has had greater success in the three-year-old feature, scoring four victories in its former guise as a 1 1/4-mile test. Compare that tally to his *two in the Million (with an asterisk since Powerscourt was disqualified in 2004, or else O’Brien would have had three) and his shut-out in the Beverly D. In contrast, Brown has captured the Secretariat just once, compared to three Millions and five runnings of the Beverly D. (including the past four in a row). The reconfiguration might enhance his Secretariat prospects.
O’Brien’s Secretariat hopes are a study in contrasts. Never No More has loads of upside but returns from a layoff, while Van Beethoven is thoroughly exposed but coming out of much deeper races.

NEVER NO MORE

A €300,000 ($354,420) Goffs Orby yearling, Never No More hails from the first crop of No Nay Never. The Scat Daddy stallion has already made a splash by siring the brilliant Ten Sovereigns, who just dominated the July Cup (G1), and his second-crop includes Coventry (G2) hero Arizona. Never No More descends from the same female line as multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Winchester, conqueror of the 2008 Secretariat by 7 1/4 lengths in a time faster than the Million. Debuting over five furlongs at Naas last September, the chestnut was off a beat slow, raced a tad greenly, and finished well for second to streetwise stablemate All the King’s Men. Never No More learned enough to score next time on the Dundalk Polytrack, stalking the leaders before pulling away stylishly at the same trip. Jockey Donnacha O’Brien (Aidan’s son) commented to irishracing.com:
He’s smart. He impressed me there, I hadn’t ridden him a whole lot at home. He had a good run the last day behind a decent horse and he made no mistake today. He feels smart. He traveled smooth, he’s still a little bit raw, and when I hit him a flick he quickened up nicely.
Never No More accordingly was dispatched as the even-money favorite in the Legacy S. at Navan nine days later. His fans had an inkling early on that he wasn’t going to fire, for he never traveled with fluency and regressed to seventh behind old foe All the King’s Men. Reappearing at the beginning of the Irish Flat season March 24, Never No More rebounded with a convincing display in a premier handicap at Naas. He had no difficulty stepping up to seven furlongs on yielding-to-soft going, or toting 133 pounds, when slogging 3 3/4 lengths clear. Never No More then passed a serious class test in the April 6 Leopardstown 2000 Guineas Trial, collaring hitherto unbeaten odds-on favorite Madhmoon. Granted, he was capitalizing on race-fitness, while comebacker Madhmoon was merely prepping for his classic targets, and the three-pound weight break might have made a difference late. Still, Madhmoon was two lengths ahead of the rest, and it took some performance from Never No More to run down a colt of his quality in full flight. Madhmoon, who had dusted Broome in the KPMG Champions Juvenile (G2) in his prior start, has since held his own in classics from a mile to 1 1/2 miles. Sheikh Hamdan’s runner rallied for fourth in the 2000 Guineas (G1) (one spot ahead of the non-staying Ten Sovereigns) and missed by a half-length when second in the Derby (G1) at Epsom. Never No More would have been intriguing in the French 2000 Guineas (G1). Unfortunately, he was scratched from the May 12 classic and sidelined thereafter. O’Brien has given him a raft of Group 1 entries for the rest of the season, and even flirted with the July 31 Sussex (G1) at Glorious Goodwood – a Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) “Win and You’re In” – before opting for Arlington. The Secretariat isn’t an easy spot off the four-month break, especially being his first race outside of Ireland. But it’s not as brutal as tackling the Sussex or his alternative engagement this weekend, Sunday’s Prix Jacques le Marois (G1) at Deauville. Considering how well Never No More ran in his 2019 debut, he might be less in need of a race than a typical O’Brien off the bench. Nevertheless, it is his first try at a mile, and whatever he does in Chicago will bring him on for a fall campaign. Note that he’s untested on a course as firm as Arlington’s likely to be, but both his pedigree and action suggest he’d handle it fine.

VAN BEETHOVEN

By Scat Daddy and out of a full sister to Exotic Bloom, the dam of 2015 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) winner Stopchargingmaria, Van Beethoven looked like one who could emerge on the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail. A slow-starting ninth in the UAE Derby (G2) ended that speculation, but continued the enigma of a colt who hasn’t built upon his initially promising efforts at two. Van Beethoven, a debut third at Newmarket, improved to wire a six-furlong event at Naas with authority. Odds-on in the Marble Hill at the Curragh, the dark bay was outpaced by talented stablemate Fairyland and eventually ground his way into second. I thought he was looking for another furlong, but O’Brien dropped him back to five for Royal Ascot’s Windsor Castle, where he made up ground on the far side to take fourth. Back up to six for the Railway (G2), Van Beethoven got the job done as the odds-on favorite. He was workmanlike in a less-than-stellar renewal, again prompting questions about his optimal trip. The rest of Van Beethoven’s record is anticlimactic. After sweating up badly in his poor seventh in the July (G2) at Newmarket, he had his chance to try seven furlongs in the Vintage (G2) at Glorious Goodwood. A frustrating trip didn’t help as he kept having to maneuver for room down the stretch, but he gained belatedly to snatch fifth. Not seen again until the September 15 Champagne (G2) at Doncaster, Van Beethoven passed a couple of rivals to finish fourth, but nowhere near the imperious Too Darn Hot or second-best Phoenix of Spain. He entered the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint but failed to draw in from the also-eligible list. Van Beethoven’s trajectory could simply be the familiar story of a precocious juvenile who was found out as the season progressed. Yet his pedigree has made me want to resist that conclusion. Might last summer’s virus at Ballydoyle have been a factor in blighting his second-half resume? Either way, it’s a moot point by now because Van Beethoven hasn’t hit the board in five tries this term. He returned with a fourth in the Patton S. on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, a creditable enough effort off a nearly six-month layoff under top weight of 134 pounds. But hopes that he’d move forward have been misplaced. Never involved in the UAE Derby once he broke slowly and took the scenic route around Meydan, Van Beethoven has been highly tried back on the European turf. He finished sixth to Persian King in the French 2000 Guineas on heavy going, but no better on good-to-firm in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) as he reported home seventh behind Phoenix of Spain and Too Darn Hot (the reverse of the Champagne exacta). Van Beethoven might have been the type to drop in class for the Jersey (G3). Instead he was pitched back in among the heavyweights in the St James’s Palace (G1) at Royal Ascot, and unsurprisingly wound up a non-threatening eighth. In a telltale sign of loss of confidence at Ballydoyle, Van Beethoven sports no more Group 1 entries in Great Britain, Ireland, or France. For a horse who had good tactical speed once upon a time, it’s possible that being held up off the pace has only taken him out of his game. If he’s more of a cruising speed/galloping type, he wouldn’t have the turn of foot to make up ground from too far off the pace. The Secretariat offers Van Beethoven an opportunity to turn things around, although it’s fair to ask how many more chances he can get. Beyond Saturday, I’d love to see my pet hypothesis – that he’s a dirt horse at heart – tested by his remaining stateside. Other Arlington scouting reports: Million: Magic Wand, Hunting Horn, Intellogent, Pivoine Beverly D: Magic Wand, Fleeting, Awesometank Never No More stretches his legs (c) Coady Photography/Arlington Park