NO British Flat trainer has been more consistent, or prolific, in the past decade than Mark Johnston – the Middleham maestro and his team have recorded a double century of winners in six of the last seven completed campaigns.
The only omission is a domestic Classic victory, though Johnston’s Jukebox Jury did dead-heat with Duncan in the 2011 Irish St Leger. However, the trainer remains hopeful that his in-form stable can set the record straight at Newmarket this weekend.
His best hope appears to be Lumiere who is second favourite, behind the all-conquering Aidan O’Brien’s Minding, for tomorrow’s Qipco 1000 Guineas, a one mile championship test for three -year-old fillies.
The canny Johnston knows what it takes to win this race – he won the 2004 renewal with the brilliant Attraction – and the lightly-raced Lumiere, a gallant grey who invariably sets the pace, confirmed her Classic credentials when rounding off the 2015 campaign with victory in the Group One Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket last September under William Buick.
Even though the Cheveley Park race was run over six furlongs, Johnston does not believe the extra quarter of a mile will be a problem. “While some sceptics question her getting one mile, I am not one of them. There is no doubt in my mind that she will stay the trip,” he said last night.
“She has so much early speed, I can see why some may doubt her, but I can report she has been very settled in her work at home.
“Lumiere is one of my favourites. He is right up there in my top three two-year-olds of all time; now we shall see if she can graduate to the same bracket as a three-year-old. She is already a Group One winner, and a very exciting filly.”
Johnston also saddles a second string in the unheralded Fireglow, who has been working on the gallops alongside Lumiere and Buratino who represents the stable in today’s Qipco 2000 Guineas for colts.
A horse that burst onto the scene when winning last season’s Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot ahead of the highly-regarded Air Force Blue, it was the latter – trained by the aforementioned O’Brien who is seeking a record eighth 2000 Guineas today – who came out on top when the pair clashed again in Ireland’s Keeneland Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh.
Though the reputation of the Coolmore-owned Air Force Blue remains sky-high and the colt is a deserved favourite for today’s test, Johnston believes the step up in trip will play to the strengths of James Doyle’s mount.
“He won the Coventry over six furlongs at Royal Ascot, but I never saw him as an out-and-out sprinter,” said Johnston whose Mister Baileys won the 1994 Guineas before finishing fourth in the Epsom Derby.
“He has been working well since his first gallops early in the year. He is a very easy horse. He has done very well in a couple of racecourse gallops, over seven furlongs and a mile.”
Unlike National Hunt racing where Yorkshire and the North is now the poor relation, it is indicative of the Flat’s resurgence in these parts that Buratino is not the sole White Rose representative in today’s big race.
Hambleton trainer Bryan Smart saddles the rank outsider Kentuckyconnection, who will bid to provide young jockey Connor Beasley with a fairytale win – this is the rider on the comeback trail after suffering life-threatening injuries in a hideous fall at Wolverhampton last July. His confidence has been boosted by two victories this week, his first successes since his incredible return to saddle.
Meanwhile Malton’s Richard Fahey, who enjoyed a career-best campaign last season, runs Ribchester, who caught the eye when winning Newbury’s Mill Reef Stakes last September.
That Fahey has compared this horse to Wootton Bassett, who provided the trainer with a first Group One success in 2010, is noteworthy praise as his yard continues to go from strength to strength and attract owners like Sheikh Mohammed, whose royal blue colours will be carried by Ribchester.
“He’s very fit and very well. We’ve got the favourite to beat so we’ll take our chance and see what happens,” he said. “I think we’ll go on any ground and I think he is on a par with Wootton Bassett – we do like him.”
As for the rest, Marcel will be seen in competitive action for the first time since his shock Group One victory in Doncaster’s Racing Post Trophy last October.
Trainer Peter Chapple-Hyam said: “I’ve been very happy with him over the winter, but he does need to improve and he needs to find a bit more speed.
“I watched Air Force Blue win the Dewhurst the other day and it did make me choke on my tea, but beside him it’s an open race.”