David Cleary runs the rule over the seven entries for Saturday's Eclipse Stakes at Sandown...
"The Hardwicke is a Group 2 with Group 1 pretensions and her form in landing that wouldn't require her to improve much. Wonderful Tonight has raced mainly at around a mile and a half of late, but her style of racing suggests she'll be fine dropped in trip."
The Eclipse, the midsummer mile-and-a-quarter classic and the start of the second half of the Flat season, the first championship race in which the best of the three-year-olds take on the cream of the older generation. Just seven have been left in Saturday's Sandown showpiece, but among the number are the last two winners of the Prix du Jockey Club, the French Derby, St Mark's Basilica and Mishriff, and a fascinating clash of the generations is in store.
But first the ground. Heavy rain on Sunday evening has put the official going back to Good to Soft (Soft in places). An uncertain forecast, involving showers, possibly heavy ones, makes predicting what the going on the day will be problematic.
The make-up of the field also suggests a potentially tactical affair, most of the seven still involved ridden handily but not necessarily a potential pace-setter. However, Aidan O'Brien has three of the seven, so one of those might be used to ensure a proper test.
Mishriff: Better than ever on his travels the last twice
So, having got those uncertainties out of the way, let's look at the actual horses, starting with last year's Jockey Club winner Mishriff. He has won five of his last six races, victorious in the Saudi Cup and Sheema Classic in the Middle East earlier this year.
Mishriff will be having his first start in three months on Saturday, but that shouldn't be an issue. Neither should the ground be, whatever it is. Although Mishriff ran his one poor race to date in the Champion Stakes at Ascot on soft, he has two wins to his name on heavy. Whatever happened at Ascot, it seems unlikely the ground was the issue.
Mishriff looked to have improved from three to four in his two wins. The form of his win at Meydan last time has been boosted since, with both the second and third home, Japanese-trained mares, winning at Grade 1 level next time out. Mishriff is clearly a strong contender.
St Mark's Basilica: ready to take on his elders
This year's Jockey Club winner St Mark's Basilica flies the flag for the younger generation. He ended his two-year-old campaign with success in the Dewhurst and has scored on both outings this year, winning the Poulains, the French Guineas, on his return. His form doesn't look so good as Mishriff's at this stage, but that is a case of opportunity, as much as anything.
St Mark's Basilica won both French classics in stylish fashion, though everything went ideally for him in the Jockey Club. Although not all his wins have been in well-run races, they have all been in double-figure fields, so a tactical affair might pose a different test for him.
Armory a potential danger as O'Brien second string
Aidan O'Brien's other two contenders are Armory and Japan. Japan finished third in last year's Eclipse, behind Ghaiyyath and Enable, but that has been his best effort since his three-year-old days, his one win in that time coming in the Ormonde at Chester back in May. Japan isn't likely to be up to the task, any more than he's been in the Coronation Cup and Prince of Wales's Stakes on his last two outings.
Armory is of more interest. His effort in the Irish Champion last September reads well, and though a 66/1-chance that day, he has essentially repeated the form in three subsequent outings. He was third to Love in the Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot, doing well in a race that wasn't run to suit him. The trouble is that the Eclipse isn't sure to be either.
The second three-year-old among the seven. El Drama, has a lot to find on form - his standout effort came in winning the Dee Stakes at Chester - and he was well behind St Mark's Basilica in France last time.
Addeybb: best form puts him right in the mix
That leaves Addeybb and Wonderful Tonight. Addeybb hasn't been seen in action since winning a second Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick in April. His last track appearance in Britain came when landing the Champion Stakes at Ascot last autumn, the race in which Mishriff flopped. Addeybb's best form is close to the pick of the others in the race and he's unlikely to be troubled by a tactical affair.
Wonderful Tonight: drop in trip unlikely to be a problem
Wonderful Tonight is a smashing filly. She won the Fillies & Mares on Champions day at Ascot in the autumn and returned to land the Hardwicke Stakes at the same track at the Royal meeting two weeks ago. The Hardwicke is a Group 2 with Group 1 pretensions and her form in landing that wouldn't require her to improve much. Wonderful Tonight has raced mainly at around a mile and a half of late, but her style of racing suggests she'll be fine dropped in trip. She handles very soft ground well, so more rain would be good, but not essential.
In summary, then, the right two horses, St Mark's Basilica and Mishriff are at the head of the market, but they take out a huge chunk of it. It's hard to fancy Japan and El Drama has loads to find. The other three were all at similar prices, though Addeybb has been nibbled already at the time of writing. While she does need to improve a little more, Wonderful Tonight has plenty to recommend her, still with untapped potential at this level. She's available at 8.07/1 with Betfair Sportsbook and should be backed.
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