Tradition can be good or bad thing depending upon how it manifests itself. In the wrong kind of implementation it leads to sporting teams and athletes who can't win playing in front of grandstands that are dangerous to the people in them. It allows the older reader to spend time explaining to those younger how the Imperial weights & measure system is built around Base 3 & 8 numbers, oh, and base 12, and base 14, 16, 20, 22, and some others. Any Base 10?, er, no, like practising at sports and wanting to win, as well as taking part, that's something those abroad invented.
But, it can be a good thing and the start of the 2yo season in 2008 sees a very small piece of tradition returny. The tradition had built up that the first 2yo race of the season was on turf, at Doncaster and started with the Brocklesby Stakes. Leaden skies, soft ground, a big field of 2yos of varying physical set ups and ability. Many wouldn't be fit enough to see the race out but the best horses would still get to the front and the first 4-5 would include some solid winners. Younger southern trainers would 'ready one' for the race like Dow, Meehan & Noseda before moving on to better things or to spend more time contemplating what it all means. Bryan McMahon, pork pie hat at an angle, would win all the first races unless someone had a real good one. You couldn't be happier as the landscape of the new 2yo season began to form..
Then McMahon senior retired, Lingfield usurped Doncaster by putting a Class 3 event on the Winter Derby card to be the first 2yo event and the Brocklesby got moved a little later. More followed as Doncaster closed for redevelopment and the Brocklesby went on tour to Redcar & Newcastle along with the 'Lincoln'. The Redcar edition was a laughable shadow of the real thing although last year's at Newcastle was a better imitation.
Now, Doncaster has re-opened and Lingfield have dropped the Class 3 event which was ever a waste of money on mainly moderate 2yos. None of the Arena all-weather tracks have slipped in a juvenile race in the pre-Easter week and Doncaster returns with it's chance to reclaim it's normal position. But, what used to be a three day Lincoln meeting has become a single Saturday. The Brocklesby will return as a conditions event and the first race of the new turf season..
[Brocklesby Stakes - March 22nd, 2007]
The season starts with just 5f events and at an easy pace of one or two races a day. For the first few weeks the large majority of the 2yos running will be limited physical types and many pretty small. If you haven't seen a field of 2yos for a while it can be difficult to judge them and even a one pushing towards medium sized can look good in context. But the early season form is nearly always very low quality and the few horses with potential do tend to stand out by paddock review or manner of winning. Around 150 horses make their debuts by mid April and under half will win during the season even given their head start.
The season will take time to settle down, which trainers are well forward and are targeting early 2yo wins? If they have a winner the Market will probably over-react and their next, poorer horses, over-rated. A few of the maidens will produce surprise winners from unusual sources and a sure sign of a natural 2yo rather than the trainer having changed anything. Of the early 2yos in 2007 perhaps 10-12 could be thought of as useful with two up to Listed class (both Hannon trained debut winners at one of the times in the season he has them). Jamie Osborne showed three of them and the others came mostly from ready-on-debut trainers with the right material.
The usual 'early trainers' will get a mention and someone will do a media piece with Bill Turner about his early 2yos. They weren't very good in 2007 and they weren't even ready and in form in 2007 early on and a lesson to try to assess the nuances of the new season and not expect this year's landscape to be a faithful reproduction of the last. But, we can always look for some milestones at this time from more reliable trainers. Mick Channon usually has an early AW debut winner who isn't necessarily very good but will get a second win in the year through sheer persistence - [Early Lingfield AW ]. Richard Hannon is the King of the consistent approach and you can almost tell what type of 2yo a horse is from it's debut circumstances. Let's see whether the Kempton AW - produces a high class Hannon runner and best of his early group.
It's coming to mid April and around 25 races and a few stories a becoming clear but we haven't seen any races which we expect to show us the better class 2yos. The start of that pattern of races through to Royal Ascot in late June comes with the Newmarket Craven meeting. The weather and ground could be anything now and will have had some effect on how forward the bigger stables are. In 2007 it was some of the driest and hottest weather of a wet year. Go back to 2001 and it is zero degrees with horizontal sleet and the top brass from the Macau Jockey Club stood in summer suits presenting their trophy to a single person dressed for polar exploration before an audience of two. Baffling stuff and a lack of bang for the marketing buck.
The Craven Meeting has been cut to two days and gives us a Conditions event and a fillies' maiden. The fields will be variable but there will be some useful runners and they will normally get to the front of their races. Barry Hills often gets active and gave us a Group 1 winner as a newcomer in one and a Listed race winner in the other. The rest of those fields
[Newmarket Craven Meeting - Conditions Race & Maiden Fillies', April 16-17th]
When should we be looking out for the better runners to start out? In general the high class runners who can run over 5-6f will tend to start relatively early because their better class ability shows up as precociousness. Of the five Group 1 winners in 2007 only two were British trained with Dark Angel (6f) starting as a Barry Hills rep at the Craven meeting and Ibn Khaldun (8f) missing his expected late August starts for the slow starting Godolphin team. Of the othe winners at Listed or Group level over 5-6f all but two made earlyish debuts and before Royal Ascot. The exceptions were with late starting trainers in Michael Stoute & James Fanshawe who do not aim for Ascot and both Visit and Sir Gerry were out soon afterwards and would probably have run at Kempton in April for Mr Hannon. Both trainers deal with mainly expensive horses and owner breds (like Visit and don't feel the need to get involved much before Roayl Ascot.
As we move on the second half of April lacks a real target race for 2yos and in general there are relatively few events and a lull as the racehorse cast grows and the form of early races gets tested. A couple of milestones to note before the lull will be the 5f maidens at Ripon and Newbury soon after the Craven meeting. The Ripon race if Tim Easterby's specific target for his best early filly and normally the source of, probably, his only debut winner of the season. The Newbury race often has a good field and Winker Watson made his debut there last year (along with a mixed bag who surprised B2yoR to varying degrees.....just leave it, you just have to remind yourself that you never stop learning and being wrong is a good way to learn.).
[Ripon 5f Maiden,
[Newbury 5f Maiden, April 18th]
Coming to the end of April and the season is six weeks old and the temptation is always there to feel that we ought to have seen a lot of really good 2yos by now. But, high class ability is rare and even truly useful runners very uncommon. By now we will have seen only the odd, real high class, 2yo and a range of precocious winners whom it is easy to get drawn into thinking is better than they are. These are the type of horses who will be some sort of 75-88 rated handicapper when they are 3yo+ but look much better than that in the early season when the real class to compare them against isn't there.
The next target race comes up at Ascot in late April with the Garter Stakes and will normally bring together a group of winners who have looked quite good. That need to try to identify a star means that this races often get a status beyond the actual quality. In general they are high points for the competitiors of whom many will have finished winning and others will come up short in Group races and finish 5th-7th.
[Ascot Garter Stakes, April 30th]
Into May and the number of races is increasing and the month provides a set of target races of varying quality for better class 2yos. The Salisbury conditions race for fillies on the first Sunday of the month usually has a small field and one of limited ability. A good proportion will be owner breds trying to get a place in a really weak 'Stakes' that they can stick on the young lady's CV when she goes to stud. The fact that the performance wouldn't be up to average nursery quality doesn't matter since sales' catalogues go for notional 'Race Quality' bands rather than cold numbers.
Whatever, the race relies on some quality from Richard Hannon who tends to target his best early fillies seond or third win in the race before she goes to Royal Ascot. They usually win at short odds before finishing unplaced at Ascot (Presto Vento & Cake for example) before being part of the second half of the season improvers for the trainers and win again at good level. The odd one wins at Royal Ascot if the Queen Mary is poor as Gilded did and perhaps like that filly disappear into a fantasy world of being sold for increasingly huge sums here and in the US without actually winning anything in between.
[Salisbury - Fillies' Conditions Race, May 4th]
The May stretch of the landscape could be subtitled 'From Lily to Hilary' and B2yoR has met Hilary Needler but hasn't the faintest who Lily Agnes was. The conditions race at the Chester May meeting is named after second of those ladies and will usually be the 'Olympics' for the competitors. A typical test which brings together early season runarounds with little future relevance. Hannon doesn't target the race and will send a second string if anything of the type he won it with in 2007. Usually run at a fast pace which separates out the OR85-90 horses from the OR75s and belows and a indicator of how the 2yos base 'Class Level' will be made visible in a real test.
[Chester - Lily Agnes Stakes, May 7th]
The 'Hilary Needler' (let's hope it doesn't become the 'Acme Ballast Stakes' registered as...' or some such nonsense) has, by recent tradition, been the first race of the season of Listed status. Depending how Easter fell the National Stakes might just come into view first. Whichever, the start of June seemed the earliest you would want to be classifying a race at that level. Within the last three years two new Listed races have been created with the 'Marygate' for Fillies' at the York May Meeting and the 'Aubigny' at Goodwood. The second of those began as a later May affair but moved up to be the first Listed race on the 10th in 2007.
What's the point in these new Listed races? Up to a week before the 'Aubigny' just under 300 horses had made a debut and it was getting towards 350 wat a similar point before the 'Marygate'. That is out of 3,000+ during the season and we have already established that the majority of the early conditions races aren't stuffed with later, better class, winners. There wasn't a need for races with these labels. Now, the labels wouldn't matter if they did not have some general relevance and this is where the real problem is.
Both races similar in quality to the early conditions events. The 'Marygate' with the focus on fillies' has tended to be a little better class but last year the places horses were OR85-88 handicappers and typical in that way. The 'Aubigny' has a moderate history and a useful winner in 2007 doesn't hide the shortcomings and the placed horses weren't even up to OR80s level. That need not matter, they were interesting races of their type and enjoyable for that. The problem comes with the general relevance issue.
In sales catalogues horses which won or placed in Listed races still get printed in bold with capitals for winners. This means that a buyer looking at the page likes to see lots of bold text in the 'family' (another misused concept, but that's for another time..) of the horse they are looking at. Twenty years and more onwards those limited handicappers will be sitting on the page in bold as a shorthand testament to what high quality runners they were. The advisors and commentators will be taking the bold text at face value because catalogues don't want numbers they want positive effects to aid sales. The relevance issue is bothersome more immediately in our landscape as the pundits bang on about form with "ran in a Listed race last time.... must think something of her.." formulations common. Race labels don't matter, pundits and catalogues should be trying to get at proper measures of the 'Class Level' and capabilities of the horses, both for punting and breeding purposes. Enough, let's walk on.
[Goodwood - Aubigny
Stakes (Listed), May 8th]
[York - Marygate Stakes (Listed), May 16th]
So far we have only been dealing with 5f races and a speciality distance in some ways and one treated by racing as less important than the 6-8f range. There's no Group 1 championship race for 5f later in the season and this partly goes back to a 1960's bias against promoting precocious 2yos. That battle has already been lost and in the current times of new Listed races and upgrades between Group levels the Flying Childers being promoted to Group 1 level may yet occur.
Just before the York May meeting the 6f races will start and make things more interesting and more tricky. The interest comes because a range of trainers don't run their sprint 2yos over 5f and not early in the year. The 6f start means we will see runners from more of the bigger stables and more of better quality with longer term futures. Before this time you are very reliant on Hannon, Channon & Barry Hills, plus perhaps Meehan & Johnston if they have a 'sharp' one, to provide the real quality with the 5f start outs. Last year's 6f maiden at the York May meeting was an interesting example of that with the 5f division champion making his debut and failing to stay and the winner placing in a Group 1 over 8f in late season
[If we stop here for a moment we should perhaps touch on why 5f is a 'specialist' distance. One of the current vogues pieces of punditspeak is "running on one breath" and like"flat spot" it is one B2yoR would happily admit to not understanding it. The pundit is using them as shorthand - but for what? - and could they explain it in less than 150 words. 5f sprinters might well be running on 'no breath' in one sense. When a horse exercises it can get the energy to contract the muscles from three areas. One is the small amount of stored energy reserves in the muscle cells which is close at hand and can be used pretty much immediately. But it only lasts 10 to 15 seconds and not much more than punching out of the stalls and getting past the first half furlong.
The next is to burn up nearby reserves, in an inefficient way, without making use of the extra oxygen from increased respiration. This carries the sprinting horse through 40-50 seconds but fatigues the muscles as lactic acid builds up as a by product. If nothing else was available the horse would come to a halt, exhausted, after this time and just into the fifth furlong. Remember that the last furlong in a 5f race is run slower than the preceding three as the horse 'tires' and rolls home and horses aren't usually quickening at the finish as the pundits will say. They are slowing down less than the horses around them which, visually, you will judge their speed against.
The final method is to use an efficient, oxygen using, method to produce the method which takes time to kick into life. This is beacuse extra oxygen from the lungs has to work its way around the body and the chemical production process is more complicated then the other two 'dirty' methods. This will start taking over as the main energy producer for the muscles arond 50-65 seconds and, depending on the horse, sometime in the last furlong or after the 5f race has finished. Either way, the horse will already be fatigued from the previous high level exertions.]
The 6f maiden at the Newbury late May meeting has a traditional place as one were the bigger stables will produce their better 6-7f 2yos and some that they expect to run at the Royal Ascot meeting, probably in the Coventry Stakes. The meeting also contains a 5f conditions event which used to be the natural place for the southern 5-6f fillies to gather but now clashes with the Marygate event at York to thin both fields.
[Newbury - Fillies'
Conditions Stakes, May 16th]
[Newbury - 6f Maiden, May 17th]
Into later May and the targets for better 2yos are well set into the landscape. The 5f Class 2 race at Windsor has a solid record in attracting a strong field and who will often compete well in the Royal Ascot. Hannon will usually target the race with a 2yo who can win at (better class) Listed level at least. Last year was peculiar with the race a bit thin on quality while the Novice race at the course two weeks later over 5f contained a later 7f Group 3 winner (Channon running horses over 5f that most trainers would not) and the Coventry Stakes third. On the Friday evening of the same Pontefract stages a 6f conditions race which usually has a small field but can produce a good class winner from a bigger northern stable (Johnston, Smart, or similar).
[Windsor - Conditions
Race, May 19th]
[Pontefract - 6f Conditions Race, May 23rd]
Late May and early June and the 'traditional' start of the established 5f Listed race. With the earlier 5f Listed events and the fact that they clash these races can often produced moderate fields and at Sandown small ones. Variable quality from year to year but usually fascinating races in their own right and the layout of both courses usually has an effect. Both are uphill and at the straight Sandown course the early pace is usually too strong and often collapses and leaves the outpaced horses to come through and win comfortably in slow times. Beverley is an even stiffer climb and turning to the right throughout and the same early-pace-collapsing can occur but tends not to be as obvious as at Sandown. The draw bias on firmer going is the more pronounced feature at Beverley and especiall when the 'Hilary Needler' has a big field.
Needler Trophy (Listed), May 28th]
[Sandown, National Stakes (Listed), June 5th]
Late May and into June and still time to breathe. The season is just over two months olds but there have been just over 120 races and 650 horse have run. More importantly there is time to digest... the horses and the races and to think about what Class level they are and which were the better performances. Horseracing is difficult to assess and even when the system is in place to follow it it still has the card of sheer quantity to play. Having had 120ish races to date the month of June will bring the same number and the three months after that will bring the rates up to nearly 200 a month. The time to breathe and digest has just got limited.
The same period through to early June is also one of the most exciting of the year. While Royal Ascot isn't dominate in the way that Cheltenham is for the NH it does provide a natural target for the first phase of the 2yo season landscape. It also affects the shape and lie of the season and if a large stable has a quality 2yo it thinks is 'Ascot class' they will need to run it on debut in this period. This means they have at least the normal 14-21 days to leave for preparation for the Ascot race. Because many of these trainers do not want to take a maiden to Ascot they will try to get a debut win with the 2yo get newcomer successes when they normally do not.
A time to look out for the trainers who follow this route for example Barry Hills who will produce a batch sometime in early June and the best will win (Goodwood 6f Maiden). Karl Burke is a good northern example and produced three debut winners in a row in 2007 at Ayr, Carlisle & Ripon. But, the recent star has been Jeremy Noseda and tracking almost any of his debut runners through later May into June has been fascinating in the last few years.
The next target race is the first 6f Listed race with the Woodcote Stakes at Epsom. The unusual downhill course around Tattenham Corner and the cambered straight provide a tough test for the juveniles and some major trainers will not send better 2yos there. It tends to attract the more of natural 5-6f precocious 2yos than the longer term stars. The most common sight is the race is one of the better runners getting miles behind during the fast downhill part and then coming storming home in the last furlong to finish third, or fourth if you back it each-way.
[Epsom, 6f Woodcote Stakes, June 6th]
After the Woodcote the pre-shadow of Ascot starts to take effect and there is a lull in racing. In this period up to Ascot in 2007 there was only one race above the normal run of Class 4-5 maidens and a Division of the Class 3 6f maiden at Newbury saw a later 7f Group winner make his debut. The big news in this period is the start of the 7f races. This begins at the lowest end of the scale with a seller as the 'Home of the juvenile Seller' that is Yarmouth. Early season rabbbits who have proved too slow for 5-6f having a go over 7f, grisly stuff. In general the early 7f races are lower quality and tend to feature limited horses whom the trainers have identified are really pretty slow. The best of the early maidens is usually at Sandown but this can be a mixed quality affair. In general the 7f events improve after Ascot and Mark Johnston, in particular, bring out some better types in late June and into early July.
Which brings the journey to the end of phase 1 of the 2yo seson with the Royal Ascot meeting and six 2yo races including the first of the Group races. After Ascot we are 200 races into a 1,000 race season and the remaining 800 races are packed into four months after those 200 in three-and-a-half. The next target is the Newmarket July meeting in the first week of that month and the pace is about to get seriosly quick.
[Ascot - 6f Coventry
Stakes (Group 2), June 17th]
[Ascot - 5f Windsor Castle Stakes (Listed), June 17th]
[Ascot - 5f Queen Mary Stakes (Fillies' Group 2), June 18th]
[Ascot - 5f Norfolk Stakes (Group 2), June 19th]
[Ascot - 6f Albany Stakes (Group 3), June 20th]
[Ascot - 7f Chesham Stakes (Listed), June 21st]
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