COMPOSER Andrew Lloyd Webber is used to the big stage in London’s West End – or New York’s Broadway – where his musicial productions remain box office hits.
Yet he, and his wife Madeleine, have become familiar sights on the world’s racecourses where their horses, bred at their own Watership Down Stud, have been star performers.
And they will be hoping York is the perfect stage for Too Darn Hot to make a successful reappearance in the feature Dante Stakes and book his place in next month’s Epsom Derby – the race that the couple set their hearts on winning when the colt won last year’s Champagne Stakes at Doncaster. However, while Too Darn Hot rounded off 2018 with a Group One triumph in Newmarket’s Dewhurst Stakes, an injury setback delayed his reappearance this year and champion trainer John Gosden has endured a race against time to get the horse fit for today’s test.
Gosden knows what it takes to complete the Dante-Derby double – he first achieved the feat with Benny The Dip in 1997 before Golden Horn won both contests as recently as 2015.
And while the trainer is hopeful of securing a fourth Dante success in the last five years, this eagerly-awaited 10-furlong race on the Knavesmire will determine whether Too Darn Hot – once again the mount of Frankie Dettori – has the stamina, speed and scope for the mile-and-a-half Derby on June 1.
I’ve no doubt in my mind he will improve for it. Certainly, another 10 days to prepare him would have been suitable, but we have no more time to play with now.Trainer John Gosden.
In the meantime, he’s just pleased to have the horse fit enough for York after being forced to miss last month’s intended comeback in Newmarket’s Greenham Stakes. “A few days before the Greenham, he came up with a splint issue and he had two weeks of walking,” explained the quietly measured Gosden.
“So, the Dante became the obvious place to go – and although we are happy with the horse, it has been a very tight schedule to get him to this race.
“He worked very nicely on Friday with Frankie, and did two nice canters on Saturday morning. I’ve no doubt in my mind he will improve for it. Certainly, another 10 days to prepare him would have been suitable, but we have no more time to play with now.”
The fact that the impeccably-bred Too Darn Hot is out of a mare who won two Group Ones over the Derby distance in Dar Re Mi, and is a full-brother to last season’s St Leger runner-up Lah Ti Dar, is cause for optimism.
But Gosden expects to know much more after this assignment which features horses of the calibre of Charlie Appleby’s Breeders’ Cup hero Line Of Duty, Aidan O’Brien’s highly-rated Japan and Nayef Road, who carries Yorkshire hopes for Middleham trainer Mark Johnston.
“Obviously we see the Dante as the best (Derby) trial, and it looks a very good field and from the race, we will know whether to point towards the Derby or the St James’s Palace over a mile at Royal Ascot,” he said.
“My instinct says a mile to a mile-and-a-quarter from what I’ve seen of the horse, but then his full-sister was second in the Leger. We will let the horse and Frankie tell us.”
The Lloyd Webbers have had mixed fortunes at York before. The Fugue, one of their top fillies, won a Musidora Stakes before losing the Yorkshire Oaks in a rainstorm and having to wait 12 months for recompense.
Yet, while they, like all owners and breeders, get very nervous, their trainer is more phlegmatic – they have absolute respect for Gosden because of his record of success in big races.
And they will be heartened by his upbeat assessment on Too Darn Hot’s aforementioned older sister Lah Ti Dar, who reappears in the Middleton Stakes – the Dante’s chief supporting race.
The four-year-old certainly upheld family honour last term – winning her first three starts, including a 10-length victory in the Galtres Stakes at this venue last August.
She rounded off her campaign, after finishing second in the St Leger at Doncaster, by running third to Magical on Champions Day at Ascot – and is widely expected to make a successful return to action on the Knavesmire.
Gosden said: “We’ve been pleased with Lah Ti Dar. This has been planned for some time.
“So, you might say this has been Plan A – with her brother, it has not been Plan A! She’s happy in herself.
“It is a good starting point for any filly, and we’re looking forward to running her. The Middleton is a lovely race ahead of bigger races.”
Lah Ti Dar faces five rivals in the 10-furlong Group Two. Her biggest threat, according to official ratings, is the Mark Johnston-trained Nyaleti – who also has the benefit of a recent run, having filled the runner-up spot in the Dahlia Stakes at Newmarket earlier this month.
Johnston said: “We’re up against a formidable opponent, but our filly is obviously in very good form and we always say you should never run away from one horse.”