The mighty Stradivarius will face a fresh challenge on Tuesday when he bids for an unprecedented third successive win in the Qatar Goodwood Cup, success in which would leave him with just one more hurdle to overcome in order to claim a second Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million.
At first glance, Tuesday’s race on the first day of the Qatar Goodwood Festival (Glorious Goodwood) might look broadly like a re-run of the Gold Cup at Ascot, where Stradivarius beat last year’s Epsom Derby second Dee Ex Bee, with Melbourne Cup winner Cross Counter in fourth. The difference here, though, is that there are 3-year-olds in the line-up, and, while representativies of the Classic generation feature only intermittently in the race’s history, there is no question they add considerable spice to the mix owing to the massive weight allowance they receive.
Stradivarius took advantage of a 13lb allowance to deny the recent Gold Cup winner Big Orange a hat-trick of Goodwood Cup wins two years ago, when Desert Skyline, the only other 3-year-old, chased them home in third to underline the benefits young stayers can enjoy under light weights. Twelve months later Stradivarius found it harder work seeing off Torcedor, and there were no younger challengers to worry about.
There are no obvious grounds for expecting either Dee Ex Bee or Cross Counter to reverse Ascot form, although the latter’s trainer, Charlie Appleby, is looking forward to the rematch over the half-mile shorter trip on a track at which he thumped Dee Ex Bee in course-record time in the Qatar Gordon Stakes 12 months ago.
However, it remains to be seen if Stradivarius can concede weight for age to Queen’s Vase winner Dashing Willoughby and the Aidan O’Brien pairing of South Pacific and Harpo Mark.
The handicapping team at the British Horseracing Authority have tinkered with the weight-for-age scale in recent years in a bid to reduce the advantage 3-year-olds enjoy when they start meeting their elders over middle distances and beyond from the summer onwards, but most educated punters believe they still have not gone far enough. You only have to look at recent results to see the evidence for yourself.
In what might turn out a crucial twist, this year’s 3-year-olds have to carry two pounds less than Stradivarius did, for Tuesday’s race falls in July, whereas two years ago it was in August, and the official weight-for-age scale changes on a month by month basis.
A difference of two pounds might sound trivial on the back of half a ton of Thoroughbred, but received wisdom dictates that it equates to around two lengths over two miles, so it’s not so insignificant after all.
Stradivarius, though successful already in Royal Ascot’s Queen’s Vase, was officially rated only 100 when he beat Big Orange. That mark clearly underestimated him, but it’s interesting to note that Dashing Willoughby is already on 113 after a good subsequent run in another G2 at Newmarket, while South Pacific is on 101 and Harpo Marx 97.
Charles Hamilton, CEO of Weatherbys Hamilton, commented, “Seeing this year’s classic generation challenging an undoubted champion in Stradivarius for the first time adds a fascinating dimension to the Qatar Goodwood Cup. The Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million is all about focusing more attention on the stayer and Tuesday’s race will be sure to do just that.”
Of course, that’s not to suggest Stradivarius faces an insurmountable task, and remember he has made a career out of winning when circumstances have conspired against him and that he beat 3-year-olds - albeit in receipt of a much smaller allowance - at Ascot last October.
However, Andrew Balding, who is enjoying a wonderful season, quite fancies his chances of causing an upset with Dashing Willoughby, and when asked at Ascot on Saturday if the 3-year-old allowance was a big attraction, he answered “very much so”, before pointing out that, because the Queen’s Vase is a G2 now, he’s not easy to place without a penalty.
Of course those who underestimate Stradivarius do so at their peril.
When the Stayers’ Million bonus was launched in the spring of 2018, most thought it a thoroughly worthy incentive but pretty much unachievable. Stradivarius proved them wrong then with a spectacular clean sweep, and success in Tuesday’s race, for which he is a firm odds-on favourite, would leave him requiring to add just the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup at York again in order for owner Bjorn Nielsen and the John Gosden team to enjoy a second monster windfall.
It might seem hugely optimistic to think that the weight-for-age scale and a quirk of the calendar might come to the rescue, but that’s not quite what the mathematics say.
We shall see.