Racing: Xaar the Slayer to strike fear into 2,000 rivals

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IT HAD seemed that the odds-on favourite for the 2,000 Guineas had become a figure of near gothic intimidation. Xaar the Unconquerable or Xaar the Slayer were appropriate epithets for a colt whose potency was growing by the moment.

Yet it now appears that opposing trainers consider the French horse to be no more intimidating than a basketful of kittens. A total of 18 animals have been declared for the season's opening Classic today. In recent years the only occasion when the Guineas field has numbered more than 20 was when Mister Baileys beat 22 rivals in 1994. Among this cavalry are seven horses who have already been sent scurrying into their ratholes by Xaar. They re-emerge from the skirting now to take on a big cat who apparently has more weaknesses than most of us have thus far detected.

Tamarisk is just about the best of those that Xaar has vanquished, but he will not rejoin the joust today if the going becomes unsuitable. "I have declared Tamarisk, but if there is deterioration in the ground, then his participation would be in doubt," Roger Charlton, the colt's trainer, said yesterday.

The track is, in fact, in remarkable nick considering Newmarket has just suffered its wettest April on record. Sometimes that icy hurricane that lances over the East Anglian flatlands has its uses. The going is expected to be good to soft.

This then should be adequate terrain for Xaar, who has five victories and an avenged second place in the form book. Among that record are two successful visits to Headquarters so his aptitude for travelling and the Rowley Mile's undulations is undisputed.

The pernickety will question both the form and manner of Xaar's most recent effort, in the Craven Stakes. Circus, the third that day, went on to produce a Charlie Caroli of an effort at Sandown in the Classic Trial. In addition, Xaar had needed time before he responded to Olivier Peslier's instructions from the saddle in the Guineas trial.

This is the colt's great idiosyncrasy. Xaar appears to nod off in a race and then awake with the sort of start which suggests the bedside candle has fallen into his lap. It is rather endearing to see him struggling along before making his undoubted class tell.

Xaar's main rival, according to the markets, is another traveller with just one blemish to his name, King Of Kings. The Irish colt is never more impressive than when he is being described by his trainer, Aidan O'Brien, and if this race was run on the Ballydoyle gallops, King Of Kings could probably win wearing leg-irons.

Nevertheless, he has never been entirely convincing on the racecourse, where there has been the suspicion that he was being saved for another day. That time has come and King Of Kings may be in for a shock. O'Brien has said this week that his colt will be getting the full treatment from the saddle. As Michael Kinane is the man who is going to be administering the encouragement, today is probaby not the occasion to be King Of Kings.

Godolphin's caravan arrives in Britain for a fifth year with Central Park carrying the Royal blue ensign into Guineas battle. It would be easier to like his prospects had his camp not given the impression of playing "one potato, two potato" before finalising their running plans.

More tempting is Lend A Hand, who has almost certainly surprised his trainer. Mark Johnston ran the colt in a median auction maiden at Catterick last year after starting him off in a similar race at Ayr. By the time of his final start, Lend A Hand had worked his way up to Group One company and he enjoyed the forum, slaughtering his rivals in the Gran Criterium at San Siro. That form gives him the beating of all bar one of these immediate opponents.

Johnston reveals that Lend A Hand is not giving him as good vibes as Mister Baileys, who won this in 1994, but better ones than Bijou D'Inde, who was third to Mark Of Esteem two years later. That, and other more pertinent factors, suggest Lend A Hand will be second. All the indicators point to the one horse that should precede him. Let us hope it is XAAR (nap 3.40) the Magnificent we see today.

Tomorrow's 1,000 Guineas features a bouncy castle for the youngsters and, Clive Brittain hopes, a similar fitness assessment about his representative in the fillies' Classic. Cloud Castle is a good each-way shot in another well subscribed race, but this is a contest which rarely passes without telling French intervention. Loving Claim (3.45), the Prix Marcel Boussac winner, can complete the Gallic pillage.

In America, it's the time of the year to buy your bourbon shares as Louisville comes alive to the sound of disappearing mint juleps. The Kentucky Derby, the nation's most celebrated horse race, may again be collected by the trainer and jockey team of Bob Baffert and Gary Stevens. They won 12 months ago with Silver Charm and are at least as confident again with Indian Charlie.

There is a chance also for last season's horse of the year, Favorite Trick. He used to be trained by the East End-born Pat Byrne, which may be as near a connection as Britain gets to big-race victory this weekend.