Inspiral backed to turn over Big Rock in Lockinge showdown

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Inspiral backed to turn over Big Rock in Lockinge showdown

The roll of honour says more about a race than I ever can, and a glance through the former winners of the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes (3.35) speaks volumes about the status and significance of the race.

This year lives up to tradition, featuring officially the best miler in the world last year in Big Rock, as well as one of the few horses who managed to beat him, the magical mare Inspiral. Add in some fit-and-firing upstarts and a couple of Classic-placed restarts, and we have the makings of a memorable Lockinge. This is what Group 1 races should look like, live on Sky Sports Racing.

Audience

Jockey: R Havlin | Trainer: J & T Gosden

He’s neither a Group 1 horse nor a miler, which begs the question why is he here? In support of team-mate Inspiral is the obvious answer, and practical support at that, to provide the pace platform for her lift-off, not that such a role is required in a race with Big Rock. It may be that, in an ulterior motive, he’s tasked with upsetting the Big Rock railroading rhythm, but that’s far easier said than done – good luck putting your hand in the Big Rock blender.

Big Rock

Aurelien Lemaitre | Maurizio Guarnieri

In the Longines World Rankings of 2023, only three horses on the planet – Equinox, Ace Impact and Mostahdaf – were rated higher than Big Rock, following a signature showstopper in the QEII where he ridiculously covered the first six furlongs in 76.4 seconds – faster than the Group One speedsters completed the Champions Sprint that day – before maintaining the hostile gallop to come home six lengths clear of (subsequent Dubai Turf winner) Facteur Cheval, one of the few “wow” moments of last season.

Big Rock is all set to take on Inspiral

Image: Big Rock is all set to take on Inspiral

That was a supercharged version of the Big Rock who had succumbed to Inspiral in the Jacques Le Marois at Deauville, on less testing ground to Ascot, but he compiled an outstanding body of work in a year that highlighted what a difference a stable switch can make. And that’s in sharp focus again, only looking down rather than up this time, because only last month Big Rock was transferred from Christopher Head, the best-operating trainer in Europe in 2023 (his 35 horses won 33 races at a 28 per cent strike-rate and earned almost €4m), to Maurizio Guarnieri who so far in 2024 has had five winners at a five per cent ratio. Those hard facts are hard to ignore, thinking abstractly, but on ability Big Rock is the best miler in the world.

Charyn

S De Sousa | R Varian

A winless 2023 spent in pattern company (including five Group 1s) has seemingly steeled rather than soured him as he has suddenly cultivated an end product this year, first suggested at Doncaster and then signed at Sandown where he overpowered Poker Face, albeit in receipt of 3lb.

There’s more than a passing resemblance to Belardo, who won this for Roger Varian in 2016 having contested the same two races, though the favourite in Belardo’s Lockinge was Limato, by no means a heavy-hitter like both Big Rock and Inspiral, and Charyn still doesn’t have the look (nor the form) of a Group 1 miler.

Dear My Friend

J Fanning | C Johnston

Each year has so far followed the same pattern of starting with a bang before fizzling out, the bang lasting longer but the drop-off becoming sharper, this year reeling off three handicap wins on the All-Weather only to fluff his lines as favourite on Finals Day. He has one of the longest strides in training and, in theory, should be well at home on a straight mile, and on turf, but this company is a world away from what he’s been facing in the All-Weather season – too hot for him to handle.

Flight Plan

D Tudhope | K R Burke

Down the field in last year’s Guineas but the sharper he got, the more they figured him out, culminating with success in the Group Two mile on Irish Champions Weekend, a perfect storm for him, dictating around a turn, suited by such an emphasis on speed. Needs to raise his game again for a Lockinge like this, and a straight, searching mile probably isn’t his perfect playground for doing it.

Hi Royal

R L Moore | K A Ryan

Placed in the English and Irish Guineas, maybe a false positive in retrospect given the miling generation was shown to be fairly flimsy, but with a wind op and a winter off, he steadied the ship somewhat when third on his return in the Earl of Sefton, as incidentally Mustashry was before he won this in 2019.

There are reasons he may spring up, remembering the jump from run one to two (second in the Guineas) last year, the booking of Ryan Moore, and the fact that Kevin Ryan pulled a rabbit out of the hat to surprise Inspiral with Triple Time in the Queen Anne last summer, but on balance, Hi Royal is 50/1 with good reason.

Poker Face

James Doyle | S & E Crisford

A solid, straightforward Group Two winner, but it’s hard to see him graduating to the next level unless landing on one of the thinner Group Ones, which this certainly isn’t. Entitled to reverse form from Sandown with Charyn, without a penalty and with that run behind him, but others will have to underperform for him to have any chance of making his first top-level appearance a winning one.

Real World

Oisin Murphy | S bin Suroor

Five six-year-olds have won the Lockinge but none older, and Real World looks to be winding down at the advanced age of seven, needing the drop to Listed level to end a long losing sequence in Bahrain in March, before being well and truly put in his place in the Group One Dubai Turf. He was second to the brilliant Baaeed in the 2022 Lockinge, but that was his peak and now he’s past it.

Royal Scotsman

J P Spencer | P & O Cole

If the “big two” don’t fire, for which there are legitimate reasons, then Royal Scotsman has the talent to take advantage, not that he showed it in the Irish Guineas (when favourite) or the St James’s Palace, but something was seemingly up with him back then, hence the long break, and how well he did for third in the Guineas, coupled with his two-year-old work, indicates that he does have Group 1 ability, which can’t really be said of anything in this race outside of Big Rock and Inspiral. Refreshed and reinvigorated, and fitted with a tongue tie for the first time, it’s now or never for Royal Scotsman to show he’s still got it, but the stable is going great guns and Jamie Spencer knows a thing or two about winning big races on straight tracks.

Witch Hunter

S M Levey | R Hannon

If there’s an apple cart, he often tips it over – 12/1 when springing a surprise in the Hungerford here and, before then, upsetting his 50/1 odds in the Buckingham Palace at Royal Ascot, last to first both times. He’ll be in the market for hoovering up any pieces, and that’s not the worst policy in a race featuring Big Rock.

Inspiral

K Shoemark | J & T Gosden

I normally thunder against people who say this horse or that horse is ‘underrated’, because our sport, more than any other, is founded on accurate assessment using cultivated calculations, intended for each and every horse to be rated in a refined way. But I think Inspiral may be a little underrated: underrated in clinical terms pertaining to her mark of 120, as well as underrated in an appreciative way as a six-time Group One-winning mare.

Maybe it’s because of her occasional misfires that she’s never been lauded and applauded quite as much as her CV would warrant, but she’s the best daughter of Frankel we’ve seen, and her second half of last season was pure perfection, blunting Big Rock in the Marois, embarrassing her own sex in the Falmouth, and then taking the show on the American road to light up the Breeders’ Cup courtesy of some crazy closing splits. The ground at Newbury mightn’t be as fast as ideal, and she wasn’t kept in training to be drilled for the Lockinge, while who knows what her life without long-time ally Frankie Dettori will be like, all reasonable reservations, but in simple terms she beat Big Rock the once they met and she’s peering down on all the rest in the line-up.

Jamie Lynch’s verdict:

For an older-horse Group 1 with a wealth of knowledge and understanding about all 11 contenders, the truth of this year’s Lockinge is that the answer is in the abstract, liable to be decided on an unquantifiable measurement; firstly, how ready and razor-sharp Inspiral and Big Rock are for their reappearance, and secondly, what’s the impact on the latter of the recent stable switch?

With that in mind, the temptation is to swerve both and take a flyer on Royal Scotsman reigniting his fire, but then again getting in excess of 2/1 about Inspiral against the likes of Charyn and Poker Face just seems plain wrong. Yes, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes version of Big Rock would be near enough unbeatable, even for her, but the chances of that are surely slim away from the mud, and away from Christopher Head.

Watch the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 519) on Saturday 18th May.

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