The Vodacom Durban July is well and truly upon us and this year's edition of Africa's premier racing event seems to revolve around a single question: can Jackson be beaten?
The 3-year-old's legion of fans - many of whom have been trumpeting him as a July winner ever since his superb Cape Derby win five months ago - have good reason to feel confident as he ticks most of the boxes. He's well-bred, boasts a killer turn of foot, can race handy or come from off the pace and will be ideally distance suited. Trainer Brett Crawford knows how get them ready for the big ones and while many are questioning jockey Karis Teetan's experience - or relative lack thereof - the young rider has grabbed his opportunities thus far with both hands. It's worth noting that his more proven counterparts in the race had to start somewhere and work their way to the top and he's earned his shot at the big prize with some sterling graded race rides during the Cape summer season in particular.
From what we've seen, Jackson would appear to be the best horse in the race and chances are that, with just seven runs under his belt, there is even more improvement to come. But just how attractive a betting proposition is he? At the time of writing, his odds are hovering around 18/10 despite being drawn extremely wide at 16 and having to lug 57kg - a weight-carrying feat yet to be achieved by any victorious 3-year-old in July history. If either one of those factors were to be taken in isolation, one might still feel that Jackson is the one to be with; but taken in conjunction, they tend to make his odds look too cramped, and it may pay to oppose him and look for better value elsewhere.
Almost inevitably, the main dangers emerge from the yard of trainer Mike de Kock who sends out a four-pronged attack. Solo Traveller is a dual Guineas winner but he has to be discarded on current form. Each of his stablemates, though, has a credible winning chance. Trying to discern the stable elect is no easy task but the preference - marginally so - is for runaway SA Oaks winner Ilha Bela.
Like Jackson, Ilha Bela is very badly drawn. And, to be frank, she didn't look anything like a July winner when a well-beaten second behind her stablemate Viva Maria - who went off at 50/1 - in the Woolavington 2000. This may not be a vintage July field but it's still many leagues above the Woolavington line-up and her failure to win that race convincingly has to raise doubts about her ability to win here. However, there is a case to not merely take that last run at face value. De Kock had made it clear before the race that he was using it as a prep for the July, to give the grey a good look at the course, and he would have left a bit to work on for her main target. The draw is a concern but that's where the talent and experience of Anthony Delpech come in and - crucially - her failure to win the Woolavington means that she has escaped a Gr 1 penalty and will carry a handy 53kg. She can't be a confident selection, but Delpech knows the de Kock runners better than anyone else and the fact that he has opted for her, despite the draw, tells its own story. At odds of around 8/1, she makes some appeal.
Vettel looks a top stayer in the making but he ran a cracker in defeat in the Daily News 2000 when chasing home Jackson after making the running. The trip was on the sharp side so he will definitely prefer the extra furlong he encounters here. In addition, there are two additional factors that could see him get a lot closer to Jackson this time around: he is much better drawn than his rival and is 3.5kg better off - a whopping turnaround, especially for 3-year-olds. The icing on the cake is that Anton Marcus takes the ride. Vettel may well decide to go to the front to ensure a true test of stamina. Marcus is a particular master of this most difficult tactical style and, with a handy galloping weight, they may prove hard to peg back.
Gorongosa completes the de Kock line-up and, at first sight, she appears an odd entry as her form suggests she is an out-and-out stayer. However, her Gold Bowl victory - albeit against much weaker opposition than this - was revealing. She did not win in the style of a relentless galloper but actually settled well and changed gears very smoothly when asked to. That run suggested she may well be capable of handling the drop back in trip. She still doesn't look an obvious winner over this course and distance but she's very well drawn, carries a handy weight and will get maximum assistance from Kevin Shea.
Another trainer with a decent-looking hand is Mike Bass. Castlethorpe is the highest-rated of his runners and he ran very well when second to Variety Club in the Gold Challenge, but his record to date suggests that he is a miler and he looks too high in the weights to win this, especially from a poor draw. The remaining Bass runners, though, warrant close attention.
English Garden has been plagued by bleeding problems, which saw him run well below his best during the Cape summer season. However, when on song, he is right up there with the best middle distance runners in the country as he showed with an excellent third in this race last year, despite an awful draw. That run came after victory in the Gr 1 SA Classic and placed efforts in the SA Derby and Daily News 2000, so he is certainly one of the more accomplished runners in the field. He's had a reasonable prep, having won a conditions event and then stayed on for third in the Cup Trial and Bass will have him primed to fire on the big day. Bernard Fayd'Herbe is prepared to shed a good few pounds to make the weight and it must be said that, with 56.5kg on his back, English Garden is pretty well treated in the context of his past achievements. He is definitely in with a chance of making the frame.
The pick of the Bass trio could be Chesalon. Winner of the Winter Classic last season, Chesalon was quietly fancied for the J & B Met after an easy win in the Premier Trophy and a very useful-looking fifth in the Queens Plate, but he was found to be lame and had to be scratched before the big race. His July prep has been perfect - a cracking second in the Drill Hall Stakes, despite the 1400m trip being too sharp for him, and a staying-on third under a big weight in the Betting World 1900. That run would have brought him along nicely and while there is a concern that he is a bit too high in the weights, he has always looked a really smart sort and the expertise of Jeff Lloyd will definitely add a couple of lengths to his chances. The July is the only big race to have eluded Lloyd in this country and his turn could finally come around on Saturday.
Vaughan Marshall sends out two well-performed runners in the yellow and red silks of his late friend and patron Roy Eckstein. Tales Of Bravery is the higher-rated of the two and will enjoy the services of Felix Coetzee, which will be a crucial factor in trying to overcome a poor draw. But stamina doubts are his major concern and while he has run well against some of the best horses in the country, he simply looks to be too high in the weights to get in a blow over this trip.
Stable jockey M J Byleveld opted for Top Seller due to his proven stamina and the 4-year-old could well be the one to include for purposes of a large quartet payout. Currently showing at around 40/1, Top Seller is better than those odds suggest, having won the Cape Derby last season before going on to run second in the SA Classic. Something seems to have gone amiss as he has only run three times in the last 14 months, but he ran well enough when second to Gold Onyx in the listed Sledgehammer two runs back. His subsequent flop in the Betting World 1900 may be a case of second-run-after-a-layoff syndrome and if he reproduces his best form, he could sneak into a minor placing.
Pierre Jourdan is an admirable sort and one of the class acts of the race, having ran a fine second to Igugu in this race last year. However, he is now 2.5kg higher up in the weights and, despite turning in a fine prep when third in the Gold Challenge, it's hard to see him winning this time around under 60kg, especially conceding some serious weight to the likes of Jackson and the de Kock runners.
Dennis Drier's Beach Beauty is a top-class filly and proved it with a superb weight-carrying performance when winning the Betting World 1900. The step up in trip shouldn't bother her, being a daughter of Dynasty - but she once again finds herself saddled with a big weight, and this time against a much stronger field than she beat last time out. She won't disgrace herself if she runs to her best form, but is bound to find a clutch of runners too favourably weighted for her to beat.
Sean Tarry sends out three runners, of whom Gold Onyx is in particularly good form, having won three of his last four starts and warmed up for this race by winning the Cup Trial. He is a former Gr 1 winner, having scored a brilliant win in the Premiers Champion Stakes at this meeting two years ago but he's never quite managed to show the same spark at the highest level since then. He's well drawn and has a more than capable pilot in Gavin Lerena but he still needs to convince he can beat a field of this calibre over this trip.
Pomodoro was very disappointing when failing to show in the Daily News 2000 but he is capable of a serious turn of foot on his day. He'll get the trip, having shared the honours in the SA Derby and has the benefit of Piere Strydom in the irons, which will be vital as he attempts to negotiate a poor draw. He's hard to fancy on his last effort but his overall profile suggests he is better than that and he could just make the minor placings if things go his way.
The stable trio is completed by Whiteline Fever, who actually shaded Pomodoro in the Daily News 2000 That was a respectable enough effort, but his record still leaves him with a mountain to climb here, despite drawing in pole position.
Gavin van Zyl is not shy to throw his youngsters into the deep end and he was well vindicated when Eton Square, having only his fourth career start, scored a remarkable win in the Gr 3 Jubilee Handicap, a performance that secured his spot in the race. The 3-year-old clearly has talent and loads of improvement to come but he is now taking a significant step up in class and distance. His future prospects look bright but, at this stage, this looks to be too tough an assignment
Royal Bencher showed great courage to share the spoils in the Derby but failed to get in a blow in the Daily News 2000. He's reasonably well-drawn but looks to have too much to do here.
Sage Throne has flattered to deceive on several occasions but has finally showed signs of holding form, running on well for fourth in the Presidents Challenge at Turffontein and only just touched off in the Lonsdale Stirrup Cup. He's well-drawn and suited to both course and distance but he is yet to convince that he can mix it with the really big guns.
Smanjemanje is an underrated sort and has been something of a revelation since being gelded, running well in all the graded middle distance events in Gauteng. However, the overall depth of the field that he meets here is stronger and he is likely to struggle in this line-up.
Polar Bound completes the line-up and has done well for his connections, winning six times including the Gr 2 Peninsula Handicap. However, this is altogether a different kettle of fish and he looks to be out of his depth here.
Jackson is the one to beat and it would be great for the sport if he were to win it from the point of view of entrenching himself as racing's new icon, in much the same way as his illustrious sire did before injury sadly curtailed his career. But with his odds looking less than generous, the real value in the race lies elsewhere and the two Mikes - Bass and de Kock - appear to have something in their armoury to deny the favourite.
The weights may prove decisive and Ilha Bela and Vettel may end up taking full advantage of this, in addition to which they are partnered by the two men who have dominated the jockeys' championship in recent years. Despite her poor draw Ilha Bela is taken to shade her stablemate with Jackson and Chesalon close on their heels. For the larger quartets, Gorongosa and Top Seller are the two to include.