Last seasons Northumberland Plate was a bit of an anomaly, with horses rated as low as 84 getting into the race. Usually, you would need to be in the 90s to make the cut, so that’s where I’m focusing my attention.
The one sticking out to me off a mark of 94 is Andrew Balding’s Opera Gift. The son of Nathaniel has only had five runs, which wouldn’t be the typical profile of a Northumberland Plate winner. The main reason being, there wouldn’t be many unexposed types ready to tackle the valuable two mile handicap so soon in their careers, but this shouldn’t be the case for Opera Gift.
Andrew Balding has been patient and it has certainly paid off thus far. Not making his racecourse debut until the September of his three year old campaign, Opera Gift won two of his four starts in the space of six weeks before being gelded.
Those runs culminated with a runner up effort against his elders, sandwiched between Ocean Wind (now rated 112 having been runner up to Stradivarius in the Sagaro Stakes) and Hiroshima (an Ascot winner already this season). That was a mature performance for such an inexperienced horse.
Opera Gift was back on the racecourse at the beginning of May, when winning a handicap over 1m6f at Salisbury, beating subsequent Epsom winner Midnight’s Legacy by what was a comfortable two-length margin at the line.
It was the final half furlong that impressed me most there, he really powered through the line, suggesting that stamina really is his forte and that he certainly hasn’t reached his peak yet. This is a smart stayer in the making whose RPR’s have improved with every run.
He’s on the up and providing he gets in (currently 39th on the list so needs a number to come out), but history suggests he will likely sneak in at the bottom of the weights, I really like him to carrying on his progression in this and take the valuable pot.
Back Opera Gift @ 14/1 Each Way
The Eclipse is the first middle distance race of the year where the three year olds meet the older horses, and with that comes a 10lb weight-for-age allowance. That’s a hefty tilt in favour of the classic generation, so when there is a good three year old, the more seasoned campaigners have to be of a supremely high standard and on their A-game.
Only a single three year old has taken the opportunity in the past couple of seasons (Telecaster finished down the field in 2019). But Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior fought out the finish in 2018 as did Hawkbill and The Gurkha in 2016, Barney Roy went down a nose in 2017 and Golden Horn was victorious in 2015. So, in recent times when the classic generation have taken their chance, they have delivered.
I envisage a similar outcome if St Mark’s Basilica lines up at Sandown on the 3rd July – giving Aidan O’Brien a first win in the race since 2011.
His last three runs have resulted in three Group 1 victories, the latter two being in the French Guineas and Derby this season. The form of those races wouldn’t be the strongest in this Eclipse field, but you can only beat what’s in front of you, and St Mark’s Basilica has done that without hitting top gear.
His turn of speed, particularly in the Prix Du Jockey Club, was exceptional and he was just comfortably better than everything else in the race, simple as that. All three top level wins have come on ground with soft in the description, but I don’t see any reason why he won’t be as effective on a quicker surface, that’s the only small unknown really.
Mishriff heads the market and has been saved for this contest and is clearly a top horse, but I don’t think he’s unbeatable by any means. He’s been well placed in my opinion and I don’t think he’s good enough to concede 10lb to St Mark’s Basilica.
This appears the logical next step for the Ballydoyle colt and I believe he should be favourite.
Back St Mark’s Basilica @ 4/1
King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes
Year in, year out, this is one of, if not the highest quality race in the British racing calendar and it doesn’t look any different in 2021.
Derby winner Adayar has this earmarked as his next target, and it could also feature record winning Oaks heroine Snowfall, Coronation Cup winner Pyledriver and last seasons 1000 Guineas and Oaks champion Love (to name a few).
This could be a really high quality, high quantity field, so splitting them is very difficult. But looking at the odds, there is a good bet at the prices that just screams value to me – Al Aasy.
He won a pair of Group 3s at the start of the season in what can only be described as a canter. Then the Coronation Cup was his first big test. He sweated up beforehand and hung down the camber when making his challenge but was denied by a very narrow margin by the game Pyledriver.
If Al Aasy had of won that race by a neck, rather than losing by a neck, he would probably be third favourite for the King George. So how he’s 12/1 I don’t know.
Ground doesn’t seem to be an issue for him and on a more conventional track, now we know he can do it at the top level, he could be a real force as he seems the finished article now.
The way he travels just shows how much raw ability he has and it’s not as if he doesn’t find for pressure either.
He’ll have to concede a lot of weight to the three year olds which will be very tough, but he’s grown into his big frame and is only now really fulfilling his untapped potential.
This is a really good value bet and I can’t let him go unbacked at that price.
Back Al Aasy @ 12/1
Featured Image: (CC BY 4.0) – Focus | Goodwood Race course | Andrew Campbell | Flickr