Churchill Downs - Coady Photography

Churchill Downs – Coady Photography

In recent years the only European-based trainer to consistently take aim at the Kentucky Derby (G1) has been Aidan O’Brien, who has saddled a half-dozen starters since 2002.

So it’s not surprising to see O’Brien with two prominent contenders on the 2019-2020 European Road to the Kentucky Derby. Innisfree and Royal Dornoch have both notched victories in the seven-race series, which will award one spot in the 2020 Kentucky Derby starting gate to the top qualifier.

Innisfree technically achieved greater success as a juvenile. Never out of the exacta in four starts, the stoutly bred son of Galileo slogged his way through a bog-like “heavy” turf course to win the one-mile Beresford Stakes (G2) at the Curragh. With his determined late-surging victory, Innisfree flaunted an abundance of stamina common to Galileo’s progeny.

But Galileos excel primarily on grass, and when Innisfree switched to a synthetic Tapeta surface for the Vertem Futurity Trophy (G1) at Newcastle, he was soundly beaten by Kameko.

A sturdy son of Gleneagles (himself a son of Galileo), Royal Dornoch started seven times as a juvenile. He improved as the season progressed and race distances grew longer. In his final start of 2019, Royal Dornoch tenaciously edged Kameko in the one-mile Royal Lodge Stakes (G2) at Newmarket and established a juvenile course record of 1:35.13.

In terms of Racing Post Ratings, Royal Dornoch is the higher-rated juvenile, as he put up a career-best 112 in the Royal Lodge, compared to Innisfree’s peak of 109 in the Vertem Futurity. This ties in with their respective form against Kameko, with Royal Dornoch seemingly the superior colt heading into winter.

You can argue the lightly raced Innisfree might have more upside, especially since his fine effort in the Vertem Futurity came over a synthetic track he might not have relished. On the other hand, Innisfree’s potential proclivity for turf could prove problematic if competing over dirt in the Kentucky Derby is his long-term goal.

From that perspective Royal Dornoch might well be the better Derby candidate. While Gleneagles finished last in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), his lone start on dirt, his first foals hit the track in 2019, and it is possible they could show a greater affinity for dirt than their sire.

Gleneagles was a four-time group 1 winner at a mile, and Royal Dornoch’s dam—Bridal Dance—has already produced Hawksmoor, a classy miler who successfully carried her speed over 1 1/4 miles in the 2017 New York Stakes (G2) at Belmont Park. Miler speed is often more dangerous than pure stamina in the Kentucky Derby, which potentially gives Royal Dornoch a greater chance to excel at Churchill Downs than his stablemate.