While some thought a new Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I) favorite could emerge from the Oct. 8 Grand Criterium (Fr-I) at Longchamp, the real thing popped up 24 hours earlier at Ascot's one-race program.
A bomb scare forced the evacuation of the Surrey course after the running of only the listed Tom McGee Autumn Stakes, but as some 8,000 fans headed for the exits, they had a sterling performance by Nayef to mull over. The Marcus Tregoning-trained half-brother to 1989 Guineas and Derby (Eng-I) winner Nashwan simply slaughtered a field of six over one mile of "heavy" going, powering away under Richard Hills to win by six lengths from Hill Country.
"He's the best 2-year-old I've ridden and gave me the best feel any horse has ever given me," said Hills. "I knew I was going to win after half a furlong. Even as a yearling in Dubai he stood out...it's not just his size, but his grace."
Bookmakers offered as much as 10-1 on Nayef for the Guineas after the race but a deluge of money eventually found Sheikh Hamdan's juvenile Ladbrokes' 6-1 favorite for Guineas glory next spring ahead of two Aidan O'Brien-trained runners, Minardi (8-1) and Hemingway (10-1). One problem with betting Nayef this early is the fact he could end up racing for Godolphin next spring in the care of Saeed bin Suroor, and thus could be targeted at the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) instead of Newmarket.
Layers left Grand Criterium winner Okawango off their Guineas lists when trainer Criquette Head said after the Longchamp mile the Wertheimers' juvenile would probably stay at home. "He will be engaged in the Two Thousand Guineas and (Poule d'Essai des) Poulains (Fr-I), but I think the horse will stay in France," she said.
Okawango was one of four French runners in the Grand Criterium, all fielded by Madame Head with the exception of Greengroom, trained by her son-in-law, Carlos Laffon-Parias. Mick Channon sent CD Europe from England while the other two runners in the field of seven, King's County and Honours List, came from O'Brien's Irish yard. O'Brien was seeking his third Grand Criterium win in the last four years after Second Empire did the honors in 1997 and Ciro was promoted to victory last year on the disqualification of Barathea Guest.
Homebred Okawango, by Kingmambo, was held up near the back of the field as pacemaker French Tune cut out the running and turned for home in fifth position. Olivier Doleuze made good headway early in the 2 1/2-furlong straight, gaining the lead a furlong out and only needing to ride out his mount to score by a length from King's County, on whom Olivier Peslier dropped his whip a furlong out, with three lengths back to Honours List. The coupled winner, now three-for-three, paid 6-5 in earning 1-million French francs ($132,600), giving Head her second win in the race after Saint Cyrien in 1982.
"I've always thought he was my best juvenile colt and it's been a long time since I've had another in his class," she told the Racing Post. "He will improve and he proved today he can go on all ground, as it was very testing."
CD Europe finished fourth for Channon but the trainer had better luck in Italy, where Innit bagged the Premio Dormello (It-III). His Barathea Guest, however, could finish only third behind German-trained colts Faberger and Sumitas in the Premio Vittorio di Capua (It-I) over San Siro's mile course.
Gestut Etzean's Faberger was ridden out to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Sumitas with the same margin back to Barathea Guest. The victory provided trainer Erika Mader and jockey Lennart Hammer-Hansen with their first group I wins in paying nearly 12-1. The 4-year-old is finished for the season but will remain in training next year.