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Sunday 4 December 2016

Air Force Blue can fly in the Phoenix Stakes

History favours O’Brien looks to win the Phoenix Stakes for 14th time in 18 years

Air Force Blue
Air Force Blue

Mark Johnston was the last British trainer to win the Group One Keeneland Phoenix Stakes and that was when the race was held at Leopardstown in 1997 –and it is Johnston who spearheads a strong British challenge for Sunday’s renewal.

Gay Kelleway was bullish about her chances with Zebstar and the booking of Pat Smullen is an eye-catcher, but it is Johnston’s Buratino that deserves to be favourite following his Coventry Stakes win.

Royal Ascot form is hard to argue with and Buratino was a comprehensive winner in the Coventry Stakes for a trainer who is in terrific form this season.

But it’s history suggests that it is hard to come to the Curragh for this meeting and topple Aidan O’Brien in the feature. His record in the race is simply incredible and could well be even better by Sunday evening.

O’Brien entered Royal Ascot’s Windsor Castle Stakes winner Washington DC and the impressive Railway Stakes winner Painted Cliffs but a chance is taken here on Air Force Blue to cause an upset.

O’Brien’s juveniles are renowned for coming on from their first run so when Air Force Blue won his maiden first time out at the Curragh you had every reason to get a little excited.

His trainer admitted afterwards that making all on a successful debut isn’t always a positive as horses may not learn an awful lot, so there’s every reason to suggest that he may well step forward from his Coventry Stakes defeat of Buratino and reverse the form on this occasion.

As Mick Kinane pointed out in his column, jockey bookings will be very intriguing but I think it is worth siding with Air Force Blue to claim Europe’s first Group One two-year-old race of the season.

Also at the Curragh on Sunday some regular faces of the sprinting world renew their rivalry in the Qatar Racing & Equestrian Club Phoenix Sprint Stakes with Evanna McCutcheon bypassing other possible targets to run Group One winner Maarek here but it is Eddie Lynam’s Anthem Alexander who is picked to oblige on this occasion.

The high-class daughter of Starspangledbanner made a winning seasonal return at Naas in June and hasn’t been disgraced in either the Commonwealth Cup or the July Cup behind Muhaarar and this looks an ideal opportunity for Lynam to win this race again, having previously taken it with Slade Power in 2013.

Across at Deauville on Sunday, the Prix Maurice de Gheest is the stage for Muhaarar to confirm his status as the best sprinter around at the moment.

In doing so he’ll meet Gordon Lord Byron, who is worthy of an each-way bet, but Muhaarar is almost impossible to oppose and would be a good bet if the 6/4 currently on offer is still there on Sunday.

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