The Al Basti Equiworld Dubai Dante Stakes looks very different this year with this traditional final Derby trial taking place five days after Serpentine slipped the field to Classic glory at Epsom at the weekend.
Yet the status of the race this year – maintained “in order to ensure the ongoing education of our top-class three-year-olds," in the words of the BHA's Resumption of Racing group - has made it more attractive to this year’s potential star act in Highest Ground.
Ruled out of a Derby tilt soon after his winning reappearance, this race was announced as the likely next rung on a ladder surely destined for the top. Genuinely, he could be anything.
After a muddling Derby last weekend, is it inconceivable we could be hailing the standout three-year-old colt so far by 3.30pm on Thursday?
Six horses have been declared and I have put each one under the microscope ahead of the Group Two contest.
1. AL MADHAR
Trainer: Richard Hannon. Official rating: 94. Odds: 9-1.
Positives: Unbeaten in two starts, his debut victory at the July Festival is one of the best pieces of juvenile form out there from last season (10 subsequent winners, five next-time out scorers) and he defied market weakness to make a winning return.
Negatives: Both victories so far have been by narrow margins and on official ratings, he’s superior to only Encipher here. Still inexperienced, he was coltish in the preliminaries on his return.
His debut form is outstanding, and the early hunch is that this laid-back, easy galloper may not be the type to streak clear by wide margins. This better race can see him to better effect, and he looks likely to step forward again.
Trainer: Aidan O’Brien. Official rating: 106. Odds: 13-2.
Positives: The £1m Kingman colt made a winning return in Group Three company, his best effort so far, and responded quite well in the first-time blinkers. Quick ground suits and he could get something like that, if the forecast proves correct.
Negatives: The Derrinstown form looks far from spectacular, he benefited from a cute ride from the front, and needs to prove the benefit of blinkers once again. The visual impression from last season suggested he is like other Kingman progeny in Sparkle Roll and Riot - given their make-up, left for as long as possible by jockeys before asking for maximum effort under a full drive. He’s not winning this on the bridle on the evidence so far and his potential finishing effort raises doubts.
He could improve again now as a three-year-old with the headgear, but his overall profile does not convince and he looks short compared to some of his rivals. Since 2010, Aidan O’Brien has a 7% strike-rate at York (15% overall in Britain) and his last 11 Dante contenders were all beaten. Cape Blanco was the last Ballydoyle winner in 2010.
Trainer: John Gosden. Official rating: 92. Odds: 12-1.
Positives: He looked better the further he went on his final start as a juvenile, winning nicely at Newbury, and shaped well on his return behind Al Madhar. He is an imposing sort, was keen last time and the trainer’s runners come on for their first run of the season, so the Siyouni colt could take a nice step forward now.
Negatives: He shaped like he’d improve, but ultimately had no excuses behind Al Madhar at Newbury and needs to reverse that form. He hits the ground hard and more ease underfoot looks preferable for him at this early stage.
A nice colt with a good future, he is set to improve - though he needs a big step forward here in conditions that may not be ideal. On official ratings, he is inferior to all here.
4. HIGHEST GROUND
Trainer: Sir Michael Stoute. Official rating: 107. Odds: 10-11.
Positives: He looks very exciting indeed, blowing the start but winning easily last season at Leicester before downing the highly-vaunted Waldkonig on his return – the runner-up representing red-hot form from a Listed race at Newmarket. The two pulled 11 lengths clear and he won well, with further improvement now likely. Since 2003, Sir Michael Stoute has had four winners from 15 runners in this race, his performance 46% above market expectation.
Negatives: This is the deepest field he’s contested so far and he’s still learning, nudged along with four furlongs to run at Haydock and coltish in the preliminaries.
If there’s a potential superstar here, it’s Highest Ground - and a repeat of his Haydock run may well be enough to take this.
5. JUAN ELCANO
Trainer: Kevin Ryan. Official rating: 110. Odds: 8-1.
Positives: He is top-rated here and ran a cracker in a strongly-run 2000 Guineas on his return. He also travelled well in a good Hampton Court at Royal Ascot last time. This looks a good spot for him now and this test should pose no problems.
Negatives: Several big-priced horses in recent years have run excellent races in the 2000 Guineas but not fully backed that up. Could that apply to this horse in time? The Hampton Court was not strongly-run, but the ten furlongs should have suited, and his finishing effort was a little underwhelming.
His fifth in the 2000 Guineas is probably the best piece of form on offer but he needs to confirm that Classic impression for the second time as a three-year-old. He was a decent juvenile, but you’d like his rating to have a bit more ballast overall and he could be vulnerable to some more obvious improvers.
Trainer: Mark Johnston. Official rating: 103. Odds: 7-1.
Positives: A real professional with a good attitude, he lost his unbeaten record last time but shaped encouragingly against an exciting big-money buy in Volkan Star with the two well clear. He stuck to his task well after coming off the bridle a long way out and, given the visual impression, above average improvement here would not surprise.
Negatives: This is the realms of guesswork, but he was under pressure five furlongs from home on his reappearance and hopefully this doesn’t come too soon just 12 days later. Since 2003, his trainer has only a 6.5% strike-rate at York with runners over a mile to an extended 10 furlongs.
Verdict: Whether he can live with Highest Ground is open to question, but he’s a likeable horse with more upside to his chance at the prices than not.
TOM’S BIG-RACE VERDICT:
Just six runners – and no Derby projections this time! - but we could see the next step to stardom here in the case of Highest Ground.
I thought he would be shorter in the betting than 10-11 and I can see that price contracting, but we can’t fully account for the extent of the ability of his rivals. I’m in no hurry to oppose him, but I can also let him go unbacked at odds-on.
Like Highest Ground, AL MADHAR is unbeaten in two starts and lightly-raced types with two career runs coming into this have a 28% strike-rate, performing 81% above market expectation.
His juvenile form is genuinely excellent – surely all the better for the fact his trainer has only a 7.7% strike-rate with first-time out two-year-olds - while on looks and breeding he was always likely to fare better this year.
This race looks priced up on official ratings, but Al Madhar can improve significantly for this type of test and he looks over-priced, given he also rates a very exciting prospect with plenty of potential. This is not an each-way race now, but look at ‘without the favourite’ markets.
Thunderous is a shorter price but also makes appeal, shaping as if he needed his reappearance run and assistant trainer Charlie Johnston revealing he had a setback in the spring. He stuck to his task admirably against Volkan Star, a good prospect who was race-fit from a red-hot Newmarket Listed race where he finished second behind subsequent French Derby winner Mishriff. He should be shorter than Cormorant in the betting.Get your free Racing TV fleece - the latest in our range of high-class Racing TV merchandise! Click here for more details.
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