DEAUVILLE // Family sympathies will be put aside for the second consecutive year, as one of horse racing's most enduring dynasties competes against itself in this afternoon's Group One Prix Maurice de Gheest. The trainer Freddie Head saddled Marchand D'Or to victory 12 months ago in this idiosyncratic six-and-a-half-furlong sprint. It was a third consecutive success in the race for Head and Europe's champion sprinter, who gunned down the filly African Rose, trained by Head's sister Criquette Head-Maarek, in the final furlong.
That one-two was a significant achievement for the Head family, who have been at the forefront of French racing since the early 19th century. And they bid to repeat the feat today with Head-Maarek once again entering African Rose, as well as Dunkerque, owned by their once great trainer father, Alec, who is now a successful owner-breeder. Freddie Head relies this time on the Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum-owned Naaqoos. The three-year-old son of Oasis Dream is a strapping colt with an exuberant action, who pulled far too hard for his own good in the French 2,000 Guineas at Longchamp in May. His refusal to settle in the early stages under jockey Davy Bonilla used up valuable reserves of energy. When the pair came under pressure in the final furlong, Naaqoos hung in against the rail to finish third but he was demoted to sixth.
Naaqoos has not seen a racecourse since. He was due to contest the Group One Prix Jean Prat over a mile last month, but an early season virus in Head's yard, and some coughing, led to him being scratched. Yet Head delivered an upbeat report on the colt yesterday. "Naaqoos is very well," he said. "He's been training a lot better since he missed the Prix Jean Prat. I don't think that dropping down to six and a half furlongs will be a worry. He has a lot of speed and we want to see if he can be a sprinter."
It looks a hot race. Godolphin have entered Asset, who finished an impressive second in the Wokingham Stakes at Royal Ascot. There is also Intense Focus, who was almost two lengths behind Naaqoos as a two-year-old in the Group One Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp last year. The group-class fillies Lesson In Humility and Serious Attitude also lurk in the 12-runner field. When asked who he considered to be the greatest threat to Naaqoos' chances, Head said: "African Rose would be the main danger. She has a very good chance. She's a Group One winner."
As a jockey, Head won many races for his sister. Thirty years ago he rode Three Troikas to victory for her in the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe, in the colours of their mother, Ghislaine. But this close family will have to forget those ties this afternoon; the competitive instincts have been reawakened. Head fired the opening salvo yesterday: "I beat my sister last year, so she'll be used to that!" email@example.com