MICHAEL Dods has been no stranger to Group 1 success in recent times thanks to the exploits of flying fillies Mecca’s Angel and Mabs Cross.

And the experienced County Durham trainer goes into the new turf flat season with high hopes of more success at the highest grade with stable standard-bearers Azure Blue and Commanche Falls.

Azure Blue, owned by Anne Elliott and Peter Appleton, showed real star quality at the start of last season, winning a Newmarket listed race in May and followed up by outgunning the legendary Highfield Princess in the Group 2 Duke of York Clipper Stakes at York.

Sadly, the grey filly’s tilt at emulating Mecca’s Angel in the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes at York had to be called off on the eve of the race due to a minor foot injury.

The Northern Echo: Azure Blue with Daisy HunterAzure Blue with Daisy Hunter (Image: Peter Barron)

She came back for the Group 1 July Cup at Newmarket but didn’t fire behind Julie Camacho’s Shaquille and didn’t run again after being found to be suffering with ulcers.

However, Dods was in upbeat mood earlier today, confident that the imposing five-year-old daughter of El Kabeir is back on track.

“She’s cantering away and looks really well. We just didn’t have time to get her where we wanted to be after her problems last year, but she’s fresh and happy, and there are a lot of nice races to aim at,” said Dods.

“We always felt last year that she had the potential to be a Group 1 filly and there’s no reason to change that view. All the signs are that she’ll be back to her best and we know she’s a good filly.”

There’s no plan yet for where she’ll start her 2024 campaign but, with the retirement of Highfield Princess and Shaquille, the sprinting division may have opened up, and the Dods yard has every reason to be dreaming.

Dods is also optimistic that the ultra-tough dual Stewards’ Cup winner, Commanche Falls, can progress again from last season when he reached Group 3 status in Newbury’s Hackwood Stakes in July, sandwiched in between listed victories at The Curragh and York.

The Northern Echo: Commanche Falls with owners Doug Graham, Alan Drysdale, and Ian DavisonCommanche Falls with owners Doug Graham, Alan Drysdale, and Ian Davison (Image: Peter Barron)

“He’s earned the right to have a crack at Group 2 or even Group 1 races,” said Dods of the seven-year-old winner of 12 races for lucky owners Doug Graham, Ian Davison, and Alan Drysdale.

“What he achieved last season showed he’d improved, and he’s never disgraced himself in any of those higher-class races, so he deserves a chance at something better. He seems to have strengthened up again, and is working well, so the hope is that he’s improved again.”

The plan is to kick off the son of Lethal Force in the Group 3 Abernant Stakes at Newmarket on April 18, and further forays across the Irish Sea are again on the cards as the season progresses.

The Denton Hall yard has been busier than usual on the all-weather this year, with five winners already on the scoreboard for 2024. Three of them have come in the colours of Heather Calzini – twice with Marcello Si and once with Abruzzo Mia.

Connor Beasley is back from a highly successful winter in Dubai and will again be in the saddle for the bulk of the stable’s runners, with Paul Mulrennan, Sean Kirrane, and Phil Dennis also riding for the yard, along with apprentice Rhys Elliott.

The stable also has plenty of syndicate interest with Denton Hall Racing and Game On now joined by Ursa Major Racing, which has four-time winner Kalganov and a two-year-old called Mali and Me.

The Dods Racing Club also has a strong hand, with winners Langholm, Stallone, Atomise, and Masterpainter joined by two-year-old Brazilian Belle.

“The focus is on improving the quality each year. We think we’ve bought a nice bunch of two-year-olds and there’s a nice mix of three-year-olds and older horses, so we’re hopeful of another good season. It would just be nice to get some more consistent weather than we had in 2023,” said Dods.