Lambourn trainer Charlie Hills is looking forward to the Qatar Goodwood Festival - and has his big guns Battaash and Phoenix Of Spain primed for their assignments.
Battaash is due to contest the five-furlong £300,000 G2 King George Qatar Stakes (Friday, August 2), a race he won in 2017 and 2018. Battaash's victory in 2017 was a major component in the son of Dark Angel being named as the best five-furlong performer anywhere in the world that year in the Longines Word's Best Racehorse Rankings, while last year he set a new track record for five furlongs at Goodwood of 56.50s.
If successful for a third time in 2019, Battaash would become the first three-time winner of the King George Qatar Stakes.
The five-year-old got this season off to the best possible start with a victory in the G2 Temple Stakes at Haydock Park in May and just found Blue Point too good in the G1 King's Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 18.
Also successful in the G1 Prix de l'Abbaye in 2017, Battaash has on occasions boiled over on race day and has had something of an issue with his temperament, but Hills believes that the Hamdan Al Maktoum-owned gelding has put all that behind him.
The trainer said today: "Last year we were never 100 per cent happy with Battaash, he took a long time to come in his coat and he was always a little a bit on edge in his training.
"Ever since he has been back in training this year, he has been a different horse, a pleasure to train and to be around. He is beautifully relaxed, cantering up there with his ears pricked and seems to be taking everything in and enjoying himself.
"His run at Ascot was a confirmation of all of that and looking back at that race, nothing really went to right for him.
"We thought we would get a good pace off the Australian horse [Houtzen], but she unfortunately slipped coming out of the stalls and took us back out of the race. We had to make out mid-race move earlier than ideal and, at a track such as Ascot, it was going to find him out for stamina."
Hills is looking forward to the five-year-old's record-breaking challenge at Goodwood. He continued: "It would be an achievement and to get the record would be great; I can't see why it shouldn't happen.
"I am not sure why, but Battaash does seem to love Goodwood and in his two previous runs there he has behaved very well, maybe the contours of the track help him?
"He is a tremendously fast horse - I think at Ascot he clocked 47mph between three furlong and two-furlong markers - if we get fractions right, he will be a hard horse to beat.
"He does really come alive at Goodwood. He is quite small, quite nimble and maybe he does just handle the track better than some of those bigger sprinters."
Battaash's Temple Stakes win on May 25 came on a day of days for Hills - half-an-hour earlier this three-year-old colt Phoenix Of Spain won the G1 Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh, defeating last year's champion two-year-old Too Darn Hot by three lengths.
The three-year-old son of Lope De Vega went from Classic success in Ireland to finishing sixth in Royal Ascot's G1 St James's Palace Stakes.
The St James's Palace Stakes third, Too Darn Hot, is due to cross swords again with Phoenix Of Spain in the £1-million G1 Qatar Sussex Stakes (Wednesday, July 31) at Goodwood. Too Darn Hot currently heads the ante-post market after his subsequent seven-furlong G1 Prix Jean Prat success in July.
Hills admits to being a little disappointed with Phoenix Of Spain's run at Royal Ascot.
He said: "Coming into the final two furlongs, Phoenix Of Spain was travelling really well and I thought he was going to just pick up and go away, but I think he probably floundered a little on that ground, it was horrible conditions for that race and it was getting quite loose on top. I felt he didn't handle that surface too well. All his best performances have been on fast ground, I think that is really what he needs."
He also feels that the race possibly came a bit soon after the colt's imperious Classic success in Ireland
Hills continued: "He ran a huge race in Ireland after a long layoff, so there was always a chance of a bounce.
"He was also quite busy in between Ireland and Ascot, he had lots of media attention plus veterinary attention - lots of vets poking around for insurance purposes.
"He has his sleep at 11am every morning, it sounds silly but horses like routine. He loves going out got exercise at 7am, having his breakfast, then lying down before looking out the window in the afternoon. He wasn't able to do that."
Hills is confident that he has got the three-year-old, who leads the string every day, back to his best: "He was quite stiff after Ascot and not quite 100 per cent sound, but he came good after three or four days.
"I am really pleased with the way he is moving now and I think he must have just tweaked a muscle at Ascot.
"We've had a good chance to freshen him up. He had a good two weeks going quietly. His weight is very good, and Simon Whitworth, who rides him every morning, is very happy with him. He did a good piece of work at the weekend, we managed to get him on the grass which is important. He seems in a much better place and I am really happy with him."
Hills has enjoyed seven winners at the Qatar Goodwood Festival since taking over the reins from his father Barry in 2011 and lists the meeting as one of his favourite of the season.
Aside from this year's big two, he has good chances in the supporting big races and Afaak, who won Royal Ascot's Royal Hunt Cup, has a strong chance in the £150,000 Unibet Golden Mile Handicap on Friday, August 2. The gelding is now rated 108 and is due to carry 9st 8lb.
Hills said: "It is going to be tough - if he had had that weight in the Hunt Cup he wouldn't have won!
"However, I think he seems to be taking his racing well, he is a gelding now, too, and so seems to be concentrating on his races much better this year - just a little bit more improvement could see him come home ahead."
Stayer Bartholomeu Dias finished fourth in the extended two-mile Northumberland Plate on Polytrack at Newcastle on June 29, but Hills believes that was a step too far. He is bringing the horse back in trip for the Qatar Summer Handicap, run over a mile and six furlongs on the fifth and final day of the Qatar Goodwood Festival, Saturday, August 3.
The trainer said: "Bartholomeu Dias ran really well at Newcastle, but didn't quite get the two miles and so we will go for the mile and six furlongs handicap.
"He likes the track and ran really well at Goodwood last June - he should have won, but tried to bite another horse!"
At the opposite end of the distance scale, Vanbrugh goes for the six-furlong £250,000 Unibet Stewards' Cup, also staged on Saturday, August 3. He is due to carry joint top-weight of 9st 10lb.
"We are struggling over seven furlongs so probably bring him back to six furlongs in the Stewards' Cup," said Hills. "He will have a fair bit of weight."
Hills has his team in top form and hoping to hit the 50-winner mark before the Qatar Goodwood Festival. He is currently on 44 winners for 2019.
His juveniles have certainly been holding their own and look a very promising bunch with plenty of Group race options at Goodwood.
The exciting No Nay Never colt Royal Commando won on his second career start over six furlongs at Doncaster on July 5 and Hills is targeting the son of No Nay Never at the six-furlong £200,000 G2 Qatar Richmond Stakes on Thursday, August 1.
"There was a lot of talk before the Doncaster race and a lot of fancied horses, but Royal Commando picked up and skipped clear by a couple of lengths," recalls the trainer. "He has got a gorgeous temperament and I think he could be useful. It is not going to be easy stepping up straight up to a G2, but it looks the logical way to go. He has a great stride and temperament, so the step-up in class does not to worry me too much."
Buhturi, owned by Hamdan Al Maktoum and a son of Ravens Pass, was a comfortable winner last time out over six furlongs at Haydock on July 4.
Hills said: "I think the seven furlongs of the G2 Qatar Vintage Stakes (£300,000, Tuesday, July 30) will suit him.
"His full-brother Ibn Malik was second in the race and I think he could be better than him. I am delighted with the way he has come out of his last race, and I think he might be a better horse in a better class.
"He is also in the Listed Winkfield Stakes at Ascot on the weekend - and we will make a decision in a couple of days' time as will get a chance to see both sets of entries."
Of Fleeting Prince, another last time out winner and another by No Nay Never, Hills said: "He is a nice horse. He might have an entry in the five-furlong G3 Markel Insurance Molecomb Stakes (£75,000, Wednesday, July 31), which will probably tempt us into running him, but he is in a sales race, too, at the York meeting.
"We could just run in a novice race instead to gain a bit more experience for that, or we could put him in the deep end!"