The winning margin may only have been three quarters of a length, but it’s hard to think of a better example of a great horse fulfilling their potential than when It’s A Dundeel won Saturday’s $4-million Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2000m, Group 1, weight-for-age) at Randwick.
It was his sixth Group 1 and his second at weight-for-age but this is the victory that will define the career of It’s A Dundeel.
In the second richest race in Australia and against a complete line-up of Australasian middle distance weight-for-age stars, the New Zealand four-year-old stallion answered the three questions that threatened the health of his legacy: Can he a run a strong 2000m? Can he win off a fast pace? Can he fire at the end of a preparation?
The answer to those questions, finally, is an emphatic ‘yes!’
The Queen Elizabeth was the sort of weight-for-age contest I dream about. The speed was genuine from the outset, the field was strung out and the best horses were left to fight the race out.
Tommy Berry, who won two Group 1s on Saturday, rode an aggressive race on Carlton House in the lead. Carlton House has always struggled to finish off a tough 2000-metre race, so in that sense Berry’s ride can be criticised but I thought the daring tactics made the Queen Elizabeth memorable.
A truly run mile and a quarter is the platform for a great race because it asks questions of a horse’s speed and stamina. Lacking in either department spells defeat. In my opinion, a tough 2000 metres at a track like Randwick, is the ultimate thoroughbred race.
It’s fitting then that the Cox Plate (2040m, Group 1, weight-for-age) at Moonee Valley and Queen Elizabeth are our two richest weight-for-age contests.
It’s A Dundeel sat just off the speed in transit and then, once topping the famous rise, went for glory. He had Carlton House, the eventual third place-getter, beaten inside the furlong marker before showing his fighting qualities in the last 100m to stave off an old rival in Sacred Falls.
It was a perfect ride from 22-year-old James McDonald. From the inside gate, he allowed It’s A Dundeel to travel close to the lead. In such a staying contest, it was the place to be.
With the exception of the dual Doncaster (1600m, Group 1, handicap) winner Sacred Falls, those that chose to bludge out the back were completely out-paced.
It’s A Dundeel was in the firing line all the way but he was also in best position to take control of proceedings at the key moment in the straight. McDonald’s ride was so good it allowed It’s A Dundeel to showcase his true quality.
On a drying dead track, It’s A Dundeel was finally able to assert his superiority over the great mare Silent Achiever, who was shooting for four Group 1s in succession this autumn and was a brave fourth throughout.
When It’s A Dundeel won the Australian three-year-old Triple Crown last autumn by a combined margin of 13.5 lengths he had the world at his feet.
He had completely dismantled his opposition in the Rosehill Guineas (2000m, Group 1, three-year-olds) and Australian Derby (2400m, Group 1, three-year-olds) with a display of unmatched speed at the end of slowly-run classics.
In the Rosehill Guineas, It’s A Dundeel beat Sacred Falls by six lengths. When Sacred Falls won the Doncaster three weeks later, many were happy to call It’s A Dundeel a champion in waiting.
Then, in the 2013 Queen Elizabeth, at the end of a long autumn, It’s A Dundeel, the $1.28 favourite, was found wanting at the end of a taxing 2000-metre affair.
Reliable Man, a horse that was a length or so inferior to Carlton House in Europe, had It’s A Dundeel’s measure by more than two lengths.
It was a defeat that exposed chinks in the armour of the colt. And until Saturday’s victory in the 2014 Queen Elizabeth, those chinks remained exposed.
Last spring, It’s A Dundeel showed his quality in the Underwood (1800m, Group 1, weight-for-age). On a slow track and off a slow pace, he wore down the previously untouchable Atlantic Jewel to force the mare into her only career defeat.
James McDonald had It’s A Dundeel breathing down Atlantic Jewel’s neck and the Kiwi proved too strong at the death.
It’s A Dundeel was always fantastic in a close race. He loved to fight and that courage took him to six career victories – four at Group 1 level – by a margin of less than a length.
In the Cox Plate, the stiffest test in It’s A Dundeel’s career, he was sent out favourite in ‘the weight-for-age Championship’ despite missing some trackwork and his final lead-up race because of a hoof abscess. Wearing race plates for the first time and racing off a 35-day break, It’s A Dundeel finished eighth.
It was the only time It’s A Dundeel truly disappointed. Even when he was beaten favourite other times – the 2013 Queen Elizabeth or the 2012 Victoria Derby (2500m, Group 1, three-year-olds) stand out as examples – It’s A Dundeel always gave his supporters hope. He wasn’t a winning chance at any stage in those races but he showed positive signs in the straight.
After the Cox Plate failure, It’s A Dundeel was quickly spelled. This autumn he raced four times, improving on each occasion.
First-up in the Chipping Norton (1600m, Group 1, weight-for-age), when – by retrospective stable reports – he was underdone, It’s A Dundeel raced clear at the 200-metre mark before being run down by three-time Group 1 winner Boban at the death.
Then in the Ranvet (2000m, Group 1, weight-for-age), when he never looked a winning chance, he at least showed great strength in the final furlong to hold third from a charging Hawkspur.
In the BMW (2400m, Group 1, weight-for-age), It’s A Dundeel was ridden cold in last place to help him stay the distance. And while, he couldn’t match the turn of foot of Silent Achiever on the slow ground, he showed great tenacity by stealing second from Fiorente at the very end.
It was his best performance since the Underwood victory and it laid the platform for his Queen Elizabeth success.
It’s A Dundeel’s retirement to stud may be announced on Tuesday morning. A trip to England to race at Royal Ascot in the Queen Anne (1609m, Group 1, weight-for-age) on June 17 is the only other option.
The Queen Anne is arguably the best mile race in the world and It’s A Dundeel deserves a chance at a race of such quality. If he was to win, it would quite possibly double his stud value.
But there is a lot of romance in announcing the retirement now. The timing is perfect because for the first time, the racing fraternity finally understands the quality in It’s A Dundeel.
He belongs with the great horses. Those that weren’t quite champion class but good enough to live in the memory of racing fans for a long time.
I will take away many memories from the 2014 Queen Elizabeth Stakes. But the fondest is a jubilant James McDonald standing up in the irons, extending him arm to the sky in front of the grandstands as he brought a proud It’s A Dundeel back to scale.
It encapsulates the personality of It’s A Dundeel and his rising star jockey.
They are two Kiwis who found the top.