Donn's Articles » Classic generation

Classic generation

The Classic generation is traditionally the spotlight generation of the Flat racing season, the Maypole around which the racing year dances.

The Classic races are the exclusive preserve of the three-year-olds: the Derby, the Oaks, the Guineas, the St Leger, the headline-making races, designed to define the relative merits of the sophomores before the best of them step forward and take on the older horses in the all-aged championship races of mid-summer.

That’s the theory anyway.

Recent history has taught us to expect that the best three-year-olds will be better than the best of the older generations who are still in training. Sea The Stars beat his contemporaries in the Guineas and the Derby in 2009, then proceeded to beat his elders in the Eclipse, the International, the Irish Champion Stakes and, finally and heart-stoppingly, the Arc de Triomphe. The following year’s Derby winner Workforce also brought the curtain down on his three-year-old season by landing the Arc.

Frankel won the Guineas and the St James’s Palace Stakes against his fellow three-year-olds last year, then beat the best older milers around in the Sussex Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, while his more stoutly-bred contemporary Nathaniel, the sole representative of the Classic generation in the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, beat four older rivals to land the mid-summer Ascot showpiece.

This year, however, different story. Just about all the top all-aged races in Europe this summer were won by older horses. The only three-year-old in this year’s King George finished eighth, older horses filled the first four places in the Eclipse, and Frankel and Farhh led home a 1-2 for the elders in both the Sussex Stakes and the Juddmonte International.

It hasn’t been any better on the continent. The Prix Maurice de Gheest, the Prix Jacques le Marois, the Gran Premio di Milano, the Grosser Preis von Berlin, the top all-aged summer races in France, Italy and Germany, have been dominated by older horses. And the sprint division hasn’t been immune to this phenomenon. In all the top sprints run to date this season – the Diamond Jubilee, the King’s Stand Stakes, the July Cup, the Nunthorpe Stakes, the Haydock Sprint Cup – the three-year-olds have been out with the washing.

Before Irish Champion Stakes day this year, there had been 31 Group 1 and Group 2 races run in Ireland, Britain and France. Older horses had won 26 of them, three-year-olds had won just five.

Three-year-olds usually excel in the autumn as they mature, but that hasn’t been the case this year so far. In the Irish Champion Stakes – a race that had been won by a three-year-old six times in the previous eight years – a six-horse race this year split evenly numerically between the Classic generation and their elders, the three older horses filled the first three places, the three three-year-olds filled the last three.

Danedream led home an older-horses’ 1-2 in the Grosser Preis von Baden, the four-year-olds Moonlight Cloud and Farhh finished first and second in the four-runner Prix du Moulin while the three-year-olds Sarkiyla and Caspar Netscher finished third and fourth. Even the Prix Vermeille, the fillies’ Arc trial, which had been won by a member of the Classic generation six times in the previous seven years, was won by the four-year-old Shareta, with two other four-year-old fillies filling the minor places.

It is difficult to know to what to attribute this phenomenon. The evidence suggests that the three-year-old class of 2012 is a sub-standard class, but this is exacerbated by the fact that the quality of older horses who have been kept in training this year is unusually high.

Of course, the older generation is spear-headed by the unbeaten and just about unbeatable Frankel, probably the best racehorse in the world at present, possibly the best racehorse in the world ever. He is backed up by fellow miler Excelebration, who would be unbeaten in four runs this year were it not for Frankel, and who landed the Group 1 race this season that his talent deserves when he won the Frankel-less Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville last month.

The middle-distance division is also laden with top class older horses. Last year’s Arc winner Danedream, last year’s King George winner Nathaniel, last year’s Champion Stakes winner Cirrus Des Aigles, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf winner St Nicholas Abbey, top class middle-distance fillies Snow Fairy and Shareta – all still in training this year.

Antipodean So You Think stuck around Ballydoyle for long enough to bag a brace of Group 1s, while the European presence of fellow antipodean sprinters Black Caviar and Ortensia combined with indigenous entities like Society Rock and Bated Breath and Sole Power and Mayson and Moonlight Cloud to make it difficult for the three-year-old speedsters to make an impact.

The one potential shining exception to the three-year-old rule is Camelot. Guineas winner, Derby winner, he is the only three-year-old this year to post a performance that was worthy of a Racing Post Rating of in excess of 122, and his Timeform rating of 128 has him clear of his contemporaries.

However, defeat in the St Leger halted Camelot’s momentum-fuelled drive to superstardom. You can forgive any horse one defeat, and there is every chance that Camelot simply under-performed on the fast ground and over the extreme trip at Doncaster. Whatever the reason was for his eclipse, the son of Montjeu lost his shroud of invincibility that day. He may regain it, but for now his Timeform rating, while making him the best of his generation, stamps him as merely a top class horse in the broad scheme of things, not an exceptional horse. There are 13 older horses with a Timeform rating of 128 or more this year.

The implications for next Sunday’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe are significant. The Arc is generally recognised as the definitive all-aged middle-distance European championship race of the year, yet 15 of the last 18 renewals have been won by three-year-olds.

Because of this unusually strong statistic, and the fact that the Classic generation receive 8lb from their elders over a mile and a half at this time of year, the logical starting point in your search for the Arc winner is usually with the three-year-olds. However, Camelot’s participation in the race has yet to be confirmed and, the Aidan O’Brien-trained colt aside, the older horses appear to have a stranglehold on the race this year. Saonois and Masterstroke are the only other three-year-olds who are priced up at less than 25/1 in the ante post market.

We could be dancing to a different tune next Sunday.

© The Sunday Times, 30th September 2012