Schoolground bully or the real deal? Star sprinter or a Guineas winner in the making? Little Big Bear was a scintillating winner of the Phoenix Stakes but his runaway win left plenty of unanswered questions.
The imposing colt stood out in the Curragh parade ring on Saturday, much like his sire, No Nay Never, often did when he dazzled as a two-year-old in 2013. Swift from the gates, Ryan Moore had no reservations about letting him call the shots and the way the colt galloped through the line, as strong opposition wilted, was hugely impressive.
He thumped some of the best early-season juveniles around, in a time almost identical to that of the year older Go Bears Go (I’m sure plenty did the double) in the Group Three race earlier on the card, carrying only 1lb less . A massive performance that no doubt will have had the clock-watchers drooling.
Little Big Bear has been cut to a top-priced 5-1 for the QIPCO 2000 Guineas nine months from now and the way he saw his race out on Saturday, coupled with the fact that his seven siblings include ten-furlong winners, will encourage those who believes he has Classic pretensions.
O’Brien, above, and Moore, below, give their verdicts on Little Big Bear with Gary O’Brien
But to my eye he is cut very much from the same cloth as his Dad, with sprinting always likely to be his forte. He has the potential to dominate a division that, in Britain and Ireland at least, is crying out for new faces.
Aidan O’Brien used the words “speed, fast and pace” six times in rapid succession in his post-race interview on Racing TV, and suggested Little Big Bear’s options include dropping back to the minimum trip for the Coolmore Wootton Bassett Stakes at York on Friday week. The very fact he was entered in the first place tells you something.
The young colt kicking a wall before his win on Saturday is unlikely to help him make that quick turnaround – O’Brien said as a consequence he might feel a bit “ouchy” for a brief period – but you can understand the logic, as he would receive as much as 24lb from his older rivals in a race sponsored by his owners.
O’Brien is a creature of habit and his 17 winners of the Phoenix Stakes have, by and large, been speedsters. Just five have subsequently lined up in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket and, of those, only George Washington has done the double.
The vast majority of his Phoenix winners have stuck to sprinting, or ended up reverting to sprinting. Several have been out-and-out two-year-olds: the best example being Johannesburg, who carried all before him as a youngster in 2001 (unbeaten in seven starts with his Phoenix win being the first of four Group One triumphs) before failing two wins in three starts the following year.
How O’Brien and Coolmore campaign Little Big Bear between now and the end of the season will be intriguing, and give us a clue about ambitions for next year.
It’s unlikely when we will see any champions in action on a low-key Monday, but here are four suggestions.
1.30 Kempton: Bulleit at 10-1 with bet365
His past three efforts on the July Course at Newmarket and Yarmouth have been nothing to shout about but I’m hoping the return to Kempton will revive him.
His record at the track reads 112 and he is arguably unlucky not to be unbeaten here as Phantasy Mac got first run on him when beating him by a neck here last time. That filly followed up off a 3lb higher mark at Nottingham, whereas Bulleit is able to run off a 2lb lower mark because of his subsequent average efforts on turf.
Rab Havlin is 2/2 on him at Kempton and is reunited, having not been on board for his past four runs. If it’s simply a case of Bulleit being at his best on the all-weather, which is what the evidence suggests, then the early 10-1 on offer could be a gift.
3.30 Kempton: Crema Inglesa at 15-2 with bet365
She’s yet to add to the three wins she achieved last year but all but got up on her return at Ascot in May, when beaten a head by a Godolphin rival who was completing an early-season hat-trick.
The pair pulled more than five lengths clear so a 5lb rise was more or less inevitable for Crema Inglesa but she showed that mark was not beyond her when beaten about a length in a race not run to suit her at Goodwood a fortnight later.
The daughter of Lope De Vega was also in the process of running well at Ascot last time when she had to be pulled up in the closing stages because of a slipping saddle. She’s overdue some better fortune and is a decent price to get it.
3.45 Wolverhampton: Rose Fandango at 5-2 with bet365
This filly has made a bright start since being switched to Scott Dixon earlier this year.
She won easing up over course and distance under 5lb claimer Jonathan Fisher last month and lost little in defeat when edged out off a 5lb higher mark at Haydock ten days later.
Rose Fandango has been nudged up 2lb but Fisher is back on board and, like the last time here, the combination will jump from stall 2. I’ll be backing here to master Prenup, one of four rides on the card for Hollie Doyle.
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6.45 Ripon: Lily In The Jungle at 5-1 with William Hill
The form of selling races can be misleading but Lily In The Jungle was impressive when running away with one over course and distance last month.
First-time cheekpieces seemed to have a galvanizing effect and the clock backed up the visual impression she created in surging more than seven lengths clear.
Not surprisingly, the headgear has been retained and we know the track suits. If in the same form, she will take some pegging back.