Article Date: 16-July-2012
Blake’s Blog: St Nick Ain't Too Shabby
St Nicholas Abbey is a horse that tends to divide opinion. Flawless in an unbeaten juvenile campaign, he has been to the bottom of the barrel and back again since then, losing and gaining fans along the way. This season will be the making or breaking of his legacy and the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on Saturday presents him with an opportunity to secure his career-defining success.
Such is his relatively short price for the race, the question of whether St Nicholas Abbey represents value in his bid for the prize essentially comes down to whether one thinks he is better than he was last year. This corner feels that he is and the main reason behind this opinion is that tactics that show him to best effect have only recently become fully evident and he is still relatively unexposed in such circumstances.
St Nicholas Abbey’s brilliant juvenile campaign was achieved under patient rides that put the emphasis on finishing speed, but after the disappointment of the 2000 Guineas under a more positive ride, much of his four-year-old campaign seemed to be one of experimentation with regard to riding tactics. Four different jockeys were employed over the course of this seven-race campaign and the riding tactics varied from exaggerated patience in the King George to hitting the front over three furlongs out in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Interestingly, amongst all the experimentation, not once did he have the services of a pacemaker to ensure a solid pace to run at during his four-year-old campaign.
The minds of his connections were perhaps not made up as to how best to utilise this colt’s talent until the final start of that campaign, the memorable Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs in November, when Joseph O’Brien reverted to patient tactics and put the emphasis on the horse’s turn of foot, with the result being an impressive success.
It was no surprise that patient tactics were again adapted on his seasonal reappearance in the Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan in March, but unfortunately circumstances conspired against horse and rider. The steady early pace gave the top-class Cirrus Des Aigles the positional edge and despite the pair still finishing with a notable flurry, they came up a neck short of that rival. While the defeat was undoubtedly frustrating, it will have left his connections in no doubt that a solid pace would show a patiently-ridden St Nicholas Abbey to even better effect.
Unfortunately, the first attempt at combining these factors ended in a controversial defeat at the Curragh five weeks later, as St Nicholas Abbey’s pacemakers got away from the field on ground that was softer than ideal for him and he was set too much ground to make up, failing by a length to do so.
However, every reversal is a lesson learned and it all came together for St Nicholas Abbey back on his preferred sound surface in the Coronation Cup at Epsom in June. Ridden patiently off a solid pace set by his pacemaker, he produced an admirably balanced and classy performance to record a visually impressive success that was arguably a career-best in form terms.
Now that the best tactics for St Nicholas Abbey have been established, one can be sure that Aidan O’Brien will be honing his training of him to accentuate the finishing speed that he has always possessed and thus, the potential for further improvement is clear.
So, will that improvement be shown at Ascot on Saturday? At this stage it is worth addressing a theory that is doing the rounds that St Nicholas Abbey doesn’t like going right handed. While a quick thumb through his form seems to support it, the theory doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny.
Sure, five of his seven career defeats came around a right-handed bend, but that fact in isolation is misleading. Two of those defeats came on unsuitably soft ground (and under an overly-patient ride on the latter occasion) at the Curragh and two came in top-class contests at Longchamp last year where he actually ran admirably close to his best despite being given much more aggressive rides than ideal on both occasions. His other right-handed failure came in last year’s renewal of the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes, but that race was run at such an unsuitably sedate early pace that it would take a brave man to put it forward as solid evidence of anything.
All told, while it would be ill-advised to presume anything with regard to the weather during this particular summer, if good ground prevails at Ascot on Saturday, St Nicholas Abbey can be expected to gain his revenge on Nathaniel and secure the career-defining success that his abundant talent deserves.
Inconsistent Stewarding Once Again In Focus
The seemingly ever-present issue of apparent inconsistent stewarding once again came into focus at Roscommon last week.
The horse in question was Mulleady, a four-year-old filly trained by Tony Martin that was running in a 2m maiden hurdle. Having been beaten a long way in her two previous starts over hurdles and being trained by a man well known for success with his handicappers, she would have been dismissed by most as being best watched until acquiring a mark and indeed, was sent off at 33/1.
Townend settled his mount in mid-division off what was a brisk gallop. Mulleady had a lot of ground to make up approaching the third-last flight, but the leaders were beginning to pay for their early exertions and came back to the field. Townend rode the horse out with most of his usual vigour using his hands and heels, but the focus of the subsequent stewards’ enquiry was the four apparent strikes of the whip that he used, none of which were adjudged by the stewards to have made contact with his mount.
Townend’s explanation for the “air shots” was that he had “got caught in two minds between hitting his mount or going easy on the mare, because he felt he was always going to obtain his best possible finishing position of third place”.
Whether the stewards accepted this explanation is not clear from their report, but the outcome was that Townend was banned for three days for breaching Rule 272 in that “his conduct and behaviour was prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct and good reputation of horseracing.”
Paul Townend is an exceptional rider that has an excellent disciplinary record to match, but even taking the latter into account, as the stewards did, one can’t help but feel that he got off lightly for what was deemed a serious breach of the rules. To put the ban into context, the luckless Paddy Flood was banned for five days for what was a very slight misjudgement in dropping his hands for third place in a race later on the card. Just as puzzling was the fact that the stewards didn’t see fit to call Tony Martin in to ask him the relevant questions with regard to the running of the horse.
In this writer’s view, the run, the enquiry into it and the punishment dealt out were all unsatisfactory and it seems that The Real Article debacle last year has failed to teach the lessons that it should have. As with The Real Article case, this was an unusual and tricky case to work through and no one would envy the race day stewards the task of doing so in the somewhat limited timeframe they have to operate within. Thus, it would surely have made sense for them to refer the matter to the Turf Club so it could be given the time and thought that it warranted. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and as a result, those that seek to fire shots at the stewarding of Irish racing have some new ammunition to call on.
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