Crack northern jockey PJ McDonald has shared his views on York’s superb Ebor Festival, which gets under way on Wednesday, and has disclosed his exclusive thoughts on some of his best rides.
The four-day Welcome To Yorkshire meeting is one of the most popular of the Flat season, attracting large crowds to the Knavesmire and highlighted this year by record prize money for the 25 races, which include three Group Ones.
McDonald said all the jockeys look forward to riding at the meeting and added: “The atmosphere is always brilliant and if you’ve got some nice rides to look forward to, it’s one of the best meetings of the year to be competing at.
“It’s a beautiful track to ride -- a big, open, galloping course -- and nine times out of ten, the best horse will win the race. It is also a track that invests in its facilities, whether it’s for the horses, the jockeys or the racegoers. I can’t speak highly enough of the work they do there.
“Going into the Ebor Festival, I always like to have at least one ride a day which has a really good chance, and it looks like I’m in luck this year.
“On Wednesday, I ride SWEET SELECTION in the Fine Equinity Stakes (4.20) for Hughie Morrison. I won on her at Musselburgh in June and then she won her next race at Newbury last month. She’s a lovely, progressive filly, and she’s going to York in good form.
“On Thursday, I ride a two-year-old for Ann Duffield called RAINWBO MIST in the Goffs Premier Yearling Stakes (1.55). I’ve ridden him in all four of his races, and we won over 5f at York last month. He’s one of Ann’s nicest two-year-olds, so I’m hoping he’ll give me a great spin round.
“On Friday, I’ve got CLEVER COOKIE in the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup, and I’m so pleased to be riding him at York. The public and racegoers really get behind him as he’s a locally trained horse. I’ve won twice on him at York, I hope he’s in good order, and if we get a bit of rain during the week, he should have a great chance.
“However, my best tip of the week is to get along to the racecourse if you can. It’s a cracking week of racing. Plus, I know it’s the school holidays at the moment, so you might be worrying about what to do with the kids. But under-18s go free, so take them too!
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MEANWHILE, trainer Roger Varian is confident that hot favourite POSTPONED is back in peak condition for the week’s first big race of the meeting, the Juddmonte International on Wednesday. And he says he has no qualms about his stable star dropping in distance for the near-£1 million Group One showpiece that forms part of the QIPCO British Champions Series.
Postponed confirmed his status as one of the world’s leading middle-distance performers with a superb four-and-a-half-length defeat of FOUND in the Investec Coronation Cup at Epsom in June, but had to miss his defence of the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot last month after being laid low by a respiratory infection just four days beforehand.
A number of Varian’s string remain affected by the condition and, as a consequence, he has had only ten runners this month (last year he had 68 in August). But he insists Postponed has suffered no lasting effects.
“Half the battle is recognising it and not doing too much with the horses if they are slightly under the weather,” Varian said. “We’ve been cautious with what we have run, but we managed to get a nice winner at Doncaster on Saturday and hopefully we are close to hitting form again.
“It’s challenging but, hopefully, Postponed can give us a boost. He’s been training well over the last few weeks, looks great and seems right back to himself.
“Horses are no different to people in that one person might take longer to get over an illness than another living next door. Postponed is a big five-year-old with a good constitution and he looks to have recovered more quickly than some.
“He’s in his prime and one of the best around. It was disappointing to miss the King George, but by no means the end of the world and we are looking forward to running him in the Juddmonte International.”
Postponed’s winning sequence of five wins stretches back more than a year, but those victories have all been achieved over 12f and his four previous runs over the International trip of 10f have all ended in defeat.
Asked if Postponed running over a shorter distance gave him any concerns, Varian said: “It doesn’t really. This year, he has travelled very strongly in his races and, most importantly, Andrea Atzeni, who gets a number one feel of the horse, thinks he will handle himself down in trip very comfortably.
“Also, the majority of the horses in the field have perhaps shown their best level of form at 12f, so he is not the only one with it to prove at 10f.”
He added: “We wanted to try and win a Group 1 over 10f with him and York was always top of the list. The Coral-Eclipse, run at Sandown on July 2, would have come a bit close to the King George, so the Juddmonte was always the 10f race we were keen to have a go in.”
In a strong field of 13, Postponed will have the assistance of a pacemaker in KING BOLETE, who is in the same ownership and is also trained by Varian.
The betting suggests the highly progressive HAWKBILL, who extended his winning sequence to six with victory in last month’s Eclipse, and globetrotting HIGHLAND REEL, who made all in the King George when he had WINGS OF DESIRE and stablemate SIR ISAAC NEWTON behind, will pose Postponed the most problems.
However, there is plenty of depth with three other Group 1 winners also declared. THE GREY GATSBY, winner of the 2014 French Derby, has gone almost two years since his last victory, in the QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes, but he has run a string of excellent races in the interim and will be looking to make it third time lucky in the International, having finished second and third in the past two renewals.
MY DREAM BOAT landed the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot in June and might still have been feeling the effects of that battle when only fifth behind Hawkbill in the Eclipse last time.
France will be represented by DARIYAN, who won the Prix Ganay at Saint-Cloud this year and is trained by Alain De Royer-Dupre. MUTAKAYYEF will be contesting his first Group 1 but the manner in which he quickened clear of DUTCH CONNECTION in the Group 2 Fred Cowley MBE Memorial Summer Mile at Ascot last time suggests he is well worth his place in the line-up.
Sir Michael Stoute has trained a record-equalling five International winners and will attempt to add to his tally with EXOSPHERE, who will carry the Juddmonte colours last carried to victory in the race by Frankel in 2012, and ARAB SPRING, who returned from 14 months off with an encouraging effort at Haydock this month.
The field is completed by the ALMODOVAR, who was far from disgraced when third behind DARTMOUTH and Highland Reel on his first venture into pattern company in the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot.