In most great racehorses’ careers, there is a moment when they do something so obviously beyond the capabilities of their peers that it marks them out not just as the best of their own generation, but among the best of any generation. For Frankel, it was the 2,000 Guineas nine years ago, when he flew down the Rowley Mile almost at a sprinter’s pace and had the race won with two furlongs left to run. About 100,000 thoroughbreds are foaled around the world each year and, most years, there is not a single one among them that can do something like that to a top-class field.
For Pinatubo, the moment was the National Stakes at The Curragh last September. He had impressive wins at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood in the book already but no one could have imagined that he would cruise into contention travelling supremely strongly two furlongs out and then storm an astonishing nine lengths clear of the best two-year-olds in Ireland. Even then, seven-and-a-half months out, thoughts were already turning to Guineas day in May 2020, and Pinatubo’s next step towards a place among the all-timers.
It was not the only thing that no one could have imagined on a rainy day in Ireland in the autumn of 2019. It is now nearly nine months since Pinatubo’s brilliant success at The Curragh, eight since he followed up in the Dewhurst Stakes to complete an unbeaten six-race juvenile season and he will re-emerge from his winter quarters at Newmarket on Saturday afternoon into a very different world to the one he left in October. There will be no spectators, no bookies and the handful of people present, including his jockey William Buick, will be wearing face masks.
The only constant will be the one-mile strip of Newmarket Heath which has been the first significant test for a fresh generation of three-year-olds since the 2,000 Guineas was first run in 1809. That, and the sense of expectation in Newmarket and beyond as a brilliant juvenile goes to post for his three-year-old debut in the Classic.
The big question, as ever, is: has he trained on, can he progress at three and build on what he did as a two-year-old? Was Pinatubo’s dominance of his generation last year – six wins by a combined total of 24 lengths – the first expression of an immense, enduring brilliance, or was he just a fast-starter whose advantage will be eroded when his peers start to mature? He was the highest-rated juvenile for a quarter of a century on a mark of 128, but is he a Frankel … or a Xaar?
Frankel is still sufficiently fresh in the memory to need no further introduction. Xaar, on the other hand, has been largely forgotten, but he finished his juvenile season with a higher official rating than Frankel, just like Pinatubo. He was odds-on for the Guineas in 1998, like Frankel and, almost certainly, Pinatubo on Saturday afternoon. But unlike Frankel, Xaar finished fourth in the Classic, and had four more starts at three and four without ever adding another win to his record.
Charlie Appleby, Pinatubo’s trainer, seems confident that his colt has continued to grow and develop since last season. “I’m delighted with what Pinatubo has done through the winter,” he said this week. “He does what he needs to at home, but most importantly he looks great and physically he has done well and I can’t be any happier with him going into the weekend.”
No one, though, can be absolutely sure whether a dominant champion juvenile has maintained his advantage through the winter months until he proves it on the track. Two-year-old horses are, in human terms, at primary-school level. Even at three, they are teenagers rather than fully-formed adults. Pinatubo’s peers have had a long winter to grow and develop too.
And for this potential champion above all, the level of expectation could hardly be greater after the bleak months of lockdown and the suspension of all racing from mid-March to 1 June. Racing needs champions, and right now it needs one more than ever before.
“We are all trying our best to have hopefully a superstar like he was last year going into his three-year-old career,” Appleby says. “The sport needs him at this time, and what a time for a potential superstar to turn up.”