Flat season is beginning to awaken from its long winter slumber in Europe with Group races popping up in France, England, Ireland, Italy and Germany. The first classics of the season will take place in a couple of weeks, the most notable of those races begin the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, England, on Saturday, May 4.
Last weekend, Leopardstown ran the 2,000 Guineas Trial Stakes, a non-group race for three-year-old colts at a mile. Race favorite The United States (IRE), an Aidan O'Brien/Ballydoyle runner, ran poorly and finished a well-beaten sixth. Fort Knox (GB) won by almost two lengths over Don't Bother Me (IRE).
Dawn Approach (IRE), winner of the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes last October at Newmarket, is the current Guineas ante post favorite based on wagering in Great Britain. A winner of all six of his starts as a juvenile, Dawn Approach is a son of 2008 Epsom Derby winner New Approach (IRE).
On Wednesday, top 1,000 Guineas contender Sky Lantern (IRE), will make her season debut in the Group 3 Nell Gwynn Stakes at Newmarket. Sky Lantern was the 5/2 favorite in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf but suffered through a rough trip and a disappointing 8th place finish behind winner Flotilla (FR).
This Saturday, Newbury will run the Group 3 Greenham Stakes, a race many horses will use as a tune-up for the Guineas. Olympic Glory (IRE), winner of the Group 1 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp on Arc weekend last fall, and Moohaajim (RE), second in the Group 1 Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket in October, are expected to lead the field.
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner George Vancouver is also listed as one of the top betting interests for this year's Guineas but one has to wonder whether continuing to race in Europe will provide him with the best opportunities for success. George Vancouver is a colt that loves firm ground and it can be tough to consistently find courses in Great Britain to suit that preference.
The early season conditions in much of Europe are, as usual, much softer than what we are used to here in North America. The Curragh and Leopardstown in Ireland have run group races this spring over "Soft" and "Heavy" ground, while last weekend in France, Longchamp carded a pair of Group 3 races over turf rated "Very Soft", which can be quite testing at that course.
Speaking of course conditions and "going", the British Horseracing Authority has a wonder tool and website where you can get in-depth data behind the conditions of courses throughout the country. While we can throw around terms like "Firm" or "Good" or even "Soft", is can be challenging to really understand how one condition relates to the other.
At the BHA site, players can find an archive of the GoingStick ratings for courses going back a couple of years. For example, here is a link to the ratings at Ascot at the BHA (link), where not only can you find a list of designation such as "Good", "Soft", etc., but also the numerical GoingStick index that corresponds to each. (There is a cool video on the GoingStick page that describes the way the device is used around England.)
The numbers are specific to each course, so one course's "Good to Soft" might be different than another's, but the numbers also break out the condition at different points of the course (stands side, far side, round, straight, etc.), which can be helpful in assessing how a horse performs based on running style or position during the race.
Anyway, I'd love to see a GoingStick-type device used here in the U.S. for our turf courses in order to, at a minimum, standardize labels for individual tracks, and to compile a publically-available database of ratings where anyone can look up exactly how a particular course rated on a specific day.