Saturday's Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket, the first race on the new "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring system, includes a half-brother to 2008 Kentucky Derby-winning champion Big Brown -- Afonso de Sousa. The son of Henrythenavigator is the lone entrant from the yard of Aidan O'Brien, who won last year's Royal Lodge with Daddy Long Legs and also finished third with Wrote.
The Royal Lodge is unique in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, as the lone juvenile race outside North America and the only grass race on the schedule. As with the other races during the first stage of the series, it will award points to the top four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 scale.
Although it's far too soon to discern if this test down the Rowley Mile will have any bearing on the 2013 Run for the Roses, the Royal Lodge could have a more immediate impact for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf as a "Win and You're In" event. Those who place in the Royal Lodge could also have a Breeders' Cup date, for Wrote went on to upset the 2011 Juvenile Turf.
Afonso de Sousa, a $300,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase, romped by nine lengths in a July 26 maiden at Leopardstown in his third try. Making his stakes debut in the Group 3 Acomb Stakes at York August 22, he set the pace before yielding to the well-regarded Dundonnell and Steeler.
Steeler once again looms as a dangerous opponent in the Royal Lodge. The Mark Johnston trainee has since come back to take the September 4 Stardom Stakes at Goodwood, over the same course and distance as his maiden win. Ironically, Steeler is by 2008 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Raven's Pass, the archrival of Afonso de Sousa's sire Henrythenavigator.
Trainer Jeremy Noseda sends out the unbeaten Fantastic Moon. A maiden winner over Newmarket's July Course, the Dalakhani colt showed a terrific turn of foot late when going last to first in the Group 3 Solario at Sandown September 1.
"He is proving to be a progressive colt and will appreciate stepping up from seven furlongs to a mile," Noseda said.
"It is another rise in grade for him but he has more than earned the right to be in the race. He has won both of his races on quick ground but I don't think it's an issue with him."
Godolphin will be represented by Artigiano, who is bred on the potent Distorted Humor/A.P. Indy cross. The Mahmood al Zarooni juvenile was last seen finishing a close second to the classy Olympic Glory in the Group 2 Vintage Stakes at Goodwood August 1.
Juddmonte Farms' homebred Excess Knowledge hopes to follow in the hoofsteps of the mighty Frankel, a dominating winner of the 2010 Royal Lodge for the same owner/breeder. Trained by John Gosden, the son of Monsun was most recently runner-up in the August 18 Washington Singer Stakes at Newbury.
Frankel's trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, fields a promising type in Al Waab, who captured his first two starts here on the July Course. He suffered his first loss last time out in the September 8 Ascendant Stakes at Haydock, beaten just a head by Havana Gold, who just won Thursday's Group 3 Somerville Tattersall Stakes.
Rounding out the group are Birdman, Mocenigo and One Word More.
The very next race on the card is the Group 1 Cheveley Park Stakes, a six-furlong contest for two-year-old fillies. The Gold Cheongsam comes off three straight victories, two of which came over six furlongs on Newmarket's July Course. On her latest start, the daughter of Red Clubs was successful over seven furlongs in a valuable sales race at Doncaster on September 13.
"I have been delighted with The Gold Cheongsam since Doncaster," Noseda said, "and I'm thrilled that we'll have Frankie Dettori back on board.
"I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that the ground continues to dry as she is a filly who would appreciate very quick ground, ideally.
"If the ground does ride on the fast side of good on Saturday, she will be very competitive and I believe she belongs in a contest such as this."
Topping the 12-horse field is the unbeaten Rosdhu Queen, successful in the Group 2 Lowther Stakes over six furlongs at York. Other top contenders include Sendmylovetorose and Maureen, who filled the first two places in the Group 2 Cherry Hinton Stakes over six furlongs at Newmarket's July Festival.
Rosdhu Queen's trainer William Haggas is hoping the highly progressive performer can maintain her momentum here, but is in a cautious mood.
"She's very well, but a slight worry would be that she is just beginning to turn in her coat," he told PA Sport. "I've been very happy with her work, though, which has been of a very good standard. Heading to York for the Lowther, I wasn't sure about her staying six furlongs, as she shows so much speed, but she got it well. She's won her Group 2 and is entitled to go for it. The fillies' division looks wide open, but I would have preferred to have seen the Lowther form work out better than it has."
Jockey Richard Hughes partnered Rosdhu Queen in the Lowther, and Winning Express to win the Dick Poole Fillies' Stakes, but opts for Maureen here.
"Maureen is giving me a great feel at home, but I have also ridden what I consider the two main dangers, Rosdhu Queen and Winning Express and, while they are two talented unbeaten fillies, if I had to choose between the three as to which I rode I would honestly still plump for Maureen," Hughes confirmed. "The great thing about my filly is that she is so uncomplicated; I can hold her up or ride her from the front. It makes no difference -- she is just very good."
Unlucky when second to Sendmylovetorose in the Cherry Hinton, the Richard Hannon trainee made amends with a comfortable defeat of Sandreamer and Hoyam in the Group 3 Princess Margaret at Ascot last time July 28.
"It was probably a blessing in disguise that Maureen missed the Lowther, as she has really thrived for the break and has even grown a little as well as thickening out in all the right places," her conditioner said. "She looks to have improved again since she won the Princess Margaret at Ascot two months ago, and we could not be happier with her."
Eight fillies and mares go postward for the Group 1 Sun Chariot Stakes, including Cecil's pair of Beauty Parlour and Chachamaidee and Gosden's Elusive Kate.
Cecil was handed charge of Beauty Parlour after her first reversal in the Group 1 Prix de Diane at Chantilly June 17, and the Ecurie Wildenstein homebred reverts to the mile trip over which she won the Group 1 Poule d'Essai des Pouliches at Longchamp May 13.
"Beauty Parlour joined us in mid-July and has had some time off since finishing second in the Prix Diane (for Elie Lellouche)," Cecil said. "She seems to be in good form and has shown us she likes plenty of cut in the ground."
Cecil also puts forward Chachamaidee, who was controversially awarded the Group 1 Matron Stakes over this trip on the disqualification of Duntle at Leopardstown last time September 8. Runner-up to Sahpresa as that French filly made history when taking this for the third time 12 months ago, Tony Evans's admirably consistent mare will need the ground not to deteriorate further over a trip that stretches her.
"Chachamaidee, who is happier on faster ground, has held her form very well all season and we are hoping that she can run another good race," her trainer added.
Last year's Group 1 Prix Marcel Boussac heroine Elusive Kate has returned even better this term, building on a return second in the July 13 Group 1 Falmouth on the July course here when winning the Group 1 Prix Rothschild at Deauville 16 days later. Third in that venue's Group 1 Prix Jacques le Marois on her third quick appearance last time August 12, Teruya Yoshida's diminutive starlet arrives here with stable confidence high.
"Elusive Kate is in fine form and has been freshened up a bit since Deauville," Gosden commented. "It looks a phenomenal race, but she's run well this year and is a tough little cookie."
Derrick Smith, Susan Magnier and Michael Tabor's Up is on a roll after wins in the Curragh's nine-furlong Group 3 Lanwades Stud Fillies Stakes August 26 and Group 2 Blandford Stakes over a furlong further September 9, and the Ballydoyle runner has only a length to make up on Beauty Parlour on their running in the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches.