Azure Blue swoops late to grab Duke of York crown
Azure Blue outbattled defending champion Highfield Princess to claim her fourth straight victory in a thrilling edition of the 1895 Duke of York Clipper Stakes at York.
The four-year-old had won three of her last four outings last term and following a reappearance victory in the the Kilvington Stakes at Newmarket earlier this month, she extended her winning streak on the Knavesmire to lead home a fantastic one-three for Darlington-based handler Michael Dods.
There was plenty of pace on show in this six-furlong affair and as the runners entered the business end, it looked like John Quinn’s Highfield Princess was about to pick up from where she left off last term.
However, Paul Mulrennan aboard Azure Blue was always lurking dangerously in her shadow and having drawn alongside in the final furlong, the duo edged their way to the front as the winning post loomed.
Half a length separated the pair at the finish, with Azure Blue returned the 12-1 winner and stablemate Commanche Falls a further length and a quarter adrift in third.
Dods said: “She’s done nothing but improve since the end of last season. We didn’t feel we had her ready at Newmarket as she’d had a few issues, nothing serious but we just didn’t feel we’d got the work in. She went there and did it well and I knew there was improvement to come.
“It was a big step up to go from a Listed mares’ race to today, but looking at the calendar there wasn’t a lot else coming up in the short-term, which is why we came here.
“I think today she’s shown she’s a proper Group One horse.”
Azure Blue is not entered in either the King’s Stand or the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot, but Dods – who memorably claimed back-to-back wins in the Nunthorpe at York with Mecca’s Angel – did not rule out supplementing if conditions in Berkshire are in her favour.
He added: “I don’t know where we’ll go now. Because today was the start of her career really in these races, we hadn’t made any plans and didn’t have her in some of the early-closing races.
“I wouldn’t be frightened to come back to five furlongs with her on slow ground, so there’s plenty of targets for her and a lot to look forward to.
“You would have to look at that (Prix de l’Abbaye), that would be on my radar, but we’ll have to see what we do in between times.
“She’s not entered (at Royal Ascot) so we’ll discuss and see. I’m not sure what the supplementary price is and we wouldn’t want to run on ground any faster than today, so we’ll make a decision nearer the time.
“Mecca’s Angel was different, she was all speed and everything was five furlongs. This filly set off at six, but she’s getting that speed a bit later on now as a four-year-old. She is in that class.”
Of Commanche Falls, Dods said: “I thought he ran a super race. It was a big step up in class. The pace of the race helped him but the run was excellent – I couldn’t fault it.
“To have the first and third in what is really a Group One is tremendous for everyone involved.”
Quinn was thrilled with Highfield Princess’ reappearance effort, particularly as the mare had to concede weight all round.
He said: “Nobody knows from year to year if a horse is going to maintain its ability, especially going from five to six (years of age) for a mare, so we’re delighted.
“She showed all her old enthusiasm there and she always come on for her first run of the season so we’re very pleased.
“We’re as pleased as one can be without winning as she carried a Group One penalty there.
“It will be Group One sprints all the way now, so she won’t be giving that weight away.
“I think looking at that today it will be the King’s Stand at Ascot over five as she’s got speed to burn.
“If we’re lucky she’ll go down the Group One five-furlong route, so the King’s Stand, Nunthorpe, Flying Five and the Abbaye.
“We’re delighted because she showed all her enthusiasm.”
The contest was marred by the death of Charlie Appleby’s Group One winner Creative Force, who sustained a fatal injury.
In a statement on the Godolphin website, Appleby said: “We are very saddened with the passing of Creative Force, who was a real yard favourite at Moulton Paddocks.
“It’s a very sad day for everyone at Godolphin to lose a horse who always wore his heart on his sleeve and put up great performances year after year. We would like to thank William Derby and all his team at York for handling a difficult situation with speed and compassion.”