Little Big Bear (13/8) was a highly impressive winner of the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes at The Curragh, Ireland, on Saturday, the country’s first Group 1 race of the season for juveniles.
The son of No Nay Never, bred by Camas Park Stud and Summerhill, showed an exquisite turn of foot in the closing stages of the six-furlong contest to win the €300,000 race by seven lengths.
English challenger, Persian Force (4/1), trained by Richard Hannon and ridden by England-based Irish jockey Rossa Ryan, was half a length better than Shartash (18/1), to take the runner-up spot, with the Aga Khan owned Shartash home in third for former jockey-turned trainer Johnny Murtagh.
The race favourite, the unbeaten Bradsell (11/8), trained in England by Archie Watson, stumbled out of the gate, and lost some early ground, eventually coming home in fourth position.
The winner, Little Big Bear, is trained by Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle and is owned by the Coolmore partnership. O’Brien, who first won the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes in 1998 with Lavery, has now saddled 17 winners of the Group 1 race.
The winning handler said:
“We’re absolutely delighted – he’s a big strong powerful horse. He cruises and he quickens. Ryan (Moore) gave him a great ride.”
The County Wexford-born conditioner admitted to a scare in the hours prior to the race, stating:
“Before the race we had a bit of a scare with him. When he came up (from Ballydoyle), he kicked a wall and the clip of the shoe went into his foot, so he was a bit tender when Rory (the farrier) put the shoe back on him. Obviously getting close to the race we were very worried with what had happened to him – he’s serious class, so we’re delighted really.
“It could have gone either way. He has a lot of speed, he’s powerful and he’s strong. Ryan (Moore) said that when he let him go, it was over. He has been progressing lovely from every run. We came here the last day with a view to coming back for this race. Everything had gone very smooth. He loves the ground. It was a very good race.”
The perennial champion Irish flat trainer conceded that the Balllydoyle-Coolmore team has always had high hopes for Little Big Bear:
“He had been progressing lovely – he was very impressive here the last day. From day one, we always thought he was very special. Obviously the first day, he was a little babyish. Going to (Royal) Ascot we thought we would get away with five furlongs even though we were very happy going six furlongs with him. He has serious power.”
Asked to compare his most recent success in the early season Group 1 juvenile race to his former winners, Aidan O’Brien replied:
“I’m not sure we ever had one to do that (win so impressively) in all the years – it was a deep field. All the horses that were in it were very good. I can’t remember any of ours being more impressive.”
Considering plans for the remainder of the season for Europe’s current top juvenile, O’Brien said that all options would be considered.
“He can come back for (Longines) Irish Champions Weekend; he can go to the (Prix de) Morny, he can go to the Middle Park, he can go to the Nunthorpe – we can do anything, I suppose. We must get him home and make sure he is ok. He will be fine tomorrow. When that happens, it’s like you pulling off your fingernail, so it can be tender.”
Photo: Little Big Bear (David Betts)