By Kelli Reilly / Brisnet.com
The European Road to the Kentucky Derby resumed from its winter hiatus last week with a pair of scoring races. Although Godolphin’s Highland Avenue and Scott Heider’s filly My Generation turned in winning efforts, neither is Triple Crown-nominated, and it remains to be seen if the European Road will produce a contender for Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
No Triple Crown nominees so far on European Road scoreboard
Indeed, none of the points earners through the first six races on the European Road is eligible for the Triple Crown at this stage.
High Definition, winner of the Sept. 26 Beresford (G2), is the early favorite for the Epsom Derby (G1), and trainer Aidan O’Brien has indicated he’ll prep in one of the usual classic trials. European classics are likewise on the agenda for his Irish compatriot Mac Swiney, hero of the Oct. 24 Vertem Futurity Trophy (G1) for Jim Bolger.
Two other early European Road winners – Sealiway, who romped in the Oct. 4 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1), and New Mandate, hero of the Sept. 26 Royal Lodge (G2) – actually had an American venture already, in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) at Keeneland. Sealiway fared better in a rallying fifth than New Mandate, who wound up last after a tough trip. They’re headed in different directions this term as well. New Mandate, as a gelding, is not allowed in Europe’s prestigious classics. Sealiway is using the Prix de Fontainebleau (G3) in April as his springboard to the French 2000 Guineas (G1).
While it’s expected for the fall turf races to produce more European classic contenders than Kentucky Derby hopefuls, once the action shifts to the all-weather in the winter, horses of different profiles come to the fore.
My Generation and Highland Avenue each earned 20 points for their respective wins to surpass the previous European Road leaders. The tiebreak, non-restricted stakes earnings, favors My Generation since her victory came in the listed Patton S. at Dundalk Friday. Thus she ranks first on the European Road standings. Highland Avenue, who won last Wednesday’s Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions race at Kempton, has yet to compete in a black-type stakes event.
Highland Avenue adds to a Godolphin army that is already loaded with unbeaten champion Essential Quality, Proxy, and Prevalence stateside – not to mention the firm’s Triple Crown nominees abroad like Rebel’s Romance (Dubai) and Lemon Pop (Japan). But the homebred son of Dubawi and champion British juvenile filly Lumiere is a neck away from being unbeaten, and as a measure of his home reputation, he’s been the heavy odds-on favorite in all three starts.
Since just missing on debut, Highland Avenue has won two straight over a mile on Kempton’s Polytrack. The Charlie Appleby trainee wired a Jan. 30 maiden by 5 1/2 lengths, then rallied from last to impose his authority in the Road to the Kentucky Derby race.
“He is very much a work in progress sort of horse,” Appleby told Kempton publicity. “He is a big raw horse and Hollie (Doyle) has given him a lovely ride. He was a bit slow from the gate and he just missed the beat there. They’ve gone a nice sensible gallop and he has picked up well. He is a horse that we hold in high regard.
“I’m pleased as well in the fact that he made all last time and he has come from behind tonight so he is learning on the job. I think he is going to be a nice horse for the season.
“He has got a few entries as everyone can see,” Appleby added regarding his European classic engagements, “but he is one of those horses that we will see how he comes out of it before making a forward plan for him.
“Whatever he does in the first half of the year is going to be a bonus as he is a second half of the season type of horse with very much a four-year-old career ahead of him.”
Highland Avenue was not originally nominated to the Mar. 27 UAE Derby (G2), and Godolphin has Rebel’s Romance (and the filly Soft Whisper) on the scene for that Dubai World Cup night prize. An improving sophomore at this time of year, however, might prompt a re-think from the team. If Highland Avenue is deemed ready to try such a gambit, it wouldn’t be a total shock for the UAE Derby to emerge as a potential target. Even so, those points would apply to the main leaderboard, not the European Road.
A half-sister to last year’s Patton winner, Crossfirehurricane, My Generation kept the Dundalk stakes in the family and for the same connections. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Speightstown is herself a Heider homebred trained by Joseph O’Brien and ridden by Shane Crosse.
Unlike Crossfirehurricane, who had won both starts going into the 2020 Patton, My Generation was breaking her maiden here. She had run just once before, closing for third in her Feb. 19 unveiling over the same Polytrack mile, and took a leap forward in the Patton. Considering that the stakes came up pretty light, it was a clever piece of spotting by young O’Brien to gain all-important black-type for the filly.
My Generation put herself in better early position than on debut, tracking the leader. The 11-2 chance showed a fine kick upon angling out in the stretch to roll by five lengths and led home an all-filly trifecta. Stablemate Messidor, the 5-4 favorite, was a lackluster third.
Brendan Powell, deputizing for her trainer, commented to irishracing.com:
“She’s obviously learned a lot from her first run. Her half-brother won it last year and he’s a nice horse so she’s going to be a valuable prospect as a broodmare in time.
“She can only improve. I loved the way, when he gave her a back-hander, she quickened up and galloped away from them. She can only go forward from this as well.
“There will be plenty of races for her and we’ll take it step by step. She’s got her black-type now.”
Cardinal will provide clarity as final race
Hence the European Road invitation remains up in the air at this writing. The turf aficionados of last fall are sticking to their programs, and the promising Highland Avenue and My Generation are still developing their potential, with targets to be determined.
If a European representative has designs on the Kentucky Derby, we’ll find out in the seventh and final scoring race of the series, the April 1 Cardinal Conditions S. at Chelmsford. The Cardinal is worth 30 points to the winner, who would leap to the top of the leaderboard.
If the Cardinal doesn’t produce a viable contender, it would mark the third straight year that the European Road invitation went unused. Only Gronkowski, the winner of the European Road in its inaugural year of 2018, was intent on the U.S. Triple Crown trail. Although he had to miss the Derby due to a setback, “Gronk” made the Belmont (G1) and finished a hard-charging second to Triple Crown champion Justify. We’re still waiting for another Gronkowski to declare himself.