EVEN though jockey PJ McDonald remains in the form of his life, he’s under no illusion about the scale of the task as he seeks a landmark Group One win aboard the flourishing filly Laurens.
For, while the exciting two-year-old confirmed her promise when winning at Doncaster’s St Leger meeting, she’s up against three high class rivals from Ballydoyle in today’s Fillies Mile, as master trainer Aidan O’Brien hunts down his 24th top-level success of the year.
O’Brien’s triumvirate is headed by dual Group One winner Happily – further testament to the bloodstock riches at his disposal – as he closes in on Bobby Frankel’s world record 25 wins that were accrued in 2003. The late American trainer’s name – and record – was honoured by Sir Henry Cecil’s champion Frankel.
The freakish quality of the race is illustrated by the fact that O’Brien’s second and third strings, magical and September, would be more than worthy winners as the trainer leaves nothing to chance in his quest for history.
Yet, while today’s test is a reminder of the progress that the modest McDonald has made since switching from the National Hunt sphere to the Flat 10 years ago, victories at the highest level are the benchmark that today’s top jockeys are measured against.
Owned by North East businessman John Dance who has set up his own breeding operation, the filly is trained at Leyburn by Karl Burke who is enjoying incredible success with his exciting crop of juvenile prospects like Laurens who made a winning racecourse debut at Doncaster in the summer.
Second on her next start in Deauville, she then showed tremendous resolution when returning to Town Moor to win the prestigious May Hill Stakes in a head-bobbing photo-finish from Dark Rose Angel. The winning line came just in time for McDonald’s mount, prompting wild scenes of jubilation, and enticing quotes for next year’s 1000 Guineas.
“I can’t wait,” McDonald told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview as he drove from North Yorkshire to Ayr yesterday for three rides, including a winner, before contemplating the trip to Flat racing’s HQ at Newmarket.
“She seemed in great nick when I sat on her last week. Lucy, Karl’s daughter, rides her all the time and she’s happy. That’s good enough for me – she knows the horse inside out. If we had decided not to go to Newmarket, and wait for next year, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. That’s why we left it until last Friday, before making a decision.
“If she wasn’t in the form that she was in before the May Hill, or better, she wouldn’t have been entered. I gave her a little squeeze on the gallops and I couldn’t think of a reason not to run her.”
That said, McDonald – who is now on a career-best 94 winners for the year and who is amongst the elite riders now used to promote the Qipco British Champions Series alongside the likes of Frankie Dettori and Happily’s jockey Ryan Moore – believes the slow early pace at Doncaster did not entirely suit Laurens.
“She’s got to improve again to be competitive,” said McDonald, 35, who, like his former trainer and mentor Ferdy Murphy, hails from County Wexford. “We’re under no illusions going there, but our filly has earned the right to go there.
“Group One horses are hard to come by. When you get one that is good enough, you are competing against the best in the world. Aidan O’Brien’s record speaks for itself. He’s got the best horses in the world to work with, but you have to get the best out of them and put them in the right races. He’s just going from strength to strength – all of us have to work harder to keep up.”
Rivals to Laurens include stablemate Ellthea who bounded clear at Doncaster under top apprentice Clifford Lee. She will be ridden today by the experienced Colm O’Donoghue who is not required by O’Brien.
Yet it’s clear that the Burke stable favour Laurens over Ellthea in a race that also features Nyaleti from the Middleham yard of Mark Johnston.
“I think it’s probably the highest class two-year-old fillies race run so far this year, but Laurens is a high-class filly, we know that,” said Burke, “Whatever she’s achieved this year and achieves at Newmarket, we know she’ll improve again next year.”
Ellthea was heading to France after winning in Ireland but there was a change of heart. “The owners were keen to go for a Group One and I think she’ll run well,” added Burke. “Of my two she’s definitely the more mature, she’s very tough and she’s on a steep upward curve. I think she’ll have to improve on what she’s done so far to finish in the first three, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
As PJ McDonald testifies, making the start is an achievement in itself.
“You would’t want to miss it – you’ve got to be in it to win it,” he added.