Balding's Hidden talent given Free expression

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The Free Handicap is supposed to be the irritating little brother of the major Classic trials at the Craven meeting, yet in recent years, all but unnoticed, it has started to grow up. Since 1991, two Guineas winners, Mystiko and Harayir, have started their season in this strange little event which sits midway between the Pattern and the great mass of handicaps below (the Craven Stakes itself, by contrast, cannot offer a single Classic winner in the same period). Plenty of the spectators here yesterday believe that its record may improve still further on 2,000 Guineas day.

Most significantly, they included both Ian Balding, who saddled Hidden Meadow to win the Free Handicap by five unflustered lengths, and Lanfranco Dettori, the man he helped into the plate. "The winning margin says it all," Dettori said. "He's got a great cruising speed and a bit of a kick, and you've got to respect anything that wins a trial by five lengths." Nor was it just the distance separating Hidden Meadow from Granny's Pet (like the winner, a son of Balding's top miler Selkirk) that made an impression. It was also the eagerness with which he galloped for the line on fast, rising ground, which is something that several runners this week have been very reluctant to do.

"I think he's better than his father was at this stage," Balding said. "Selkirk was just half a horse as a two-year-old and a proper horse at three and I think this one could be the same. He's improved a lot. Physically he's done terribly well. He defintely runs in the Guineas and I think he'll go there with an outstandingly good chance."

With so much confidence welling up in the winners' enclosure, it was inevitable that a run would develop on Hidden Meadow in the ante-post market. The Tote initially cut the colt to 14-1 from 50-1 for the Classic on 3 May, but after taking pounds 5,000-worth of bets in a quarter of an hour, had a rapid rethink and sliced off another four points. The 14-1 with William Hill lasted a little longer, but that firm too was quoting just 11-1 (the best price still available with a major layer), long before Hidden Meadow was safely locked away in his box at Kingsclere.

The colt might even have moved into single figures were it not for the fact that Dettori will be claimed by Godolphin to ride Shamikh in the Guineas. While the identity of his partner is as yet unknown, however, punters can at least be sure that Hidden Meadow is fit, talented and goes on the ground, which is more than can be said of several of the ante-post favourites, Shamikh included. This alone does not make him a Classic winner, but it will surely be difficult to keep him out of the frame on 3 May.

According to the bookmakers at least, there was also a potential Guineas winner in the fillies' maiden, won impressively by Rebecca Sharp. The quality of the field behind her is impossible to judge, but Geoff Wragg's filly travelled and quickened well, and given that her trainer believes her to be "six lengths better" than Miss Sancerre, fourth in Tuesday's Nell Gwyn Stakes, Rebecca Sharp deserves her place in the 1,000 Guineas, for which she is a 20-1 chance with the Tote.

The favourite for the fillies' Classic, Henry Cecil's Sleepytime, runs at Newbury tomorrow, and will be expected to complete a swift family double following the success of Ali-Royal, her brother, in the Earl of Sefton Stakes.

This was a first Group race success this season for Cecil and his new stable jockey, Kieren Fallon, and there will no doubt be many more to follow, some perhaps courtesy of Dokos, who completed a double for trainer and jockey in the Wood Ditton Stakes. He too has an illustrious relative - his full sister is Miesque, the 1987 1,000 Guineas winner, and his victory yesterday held the promise of a career to match his blue blood.