Birth of the mile flyers club

2,000 Guineas: Specialisation and globalisation change the race's nature, but there's still room for romance
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Six days before the first Classic of the year the picture is still muddy, and not just because of the weather. One hundred years ago, any stable worth its salt would have identified its candidate for the 2,000 Guineas, by then established as the first of the three great three-year-old tests, and punters could get stuck in or not, as they chose. But at the dawn of a new century the trend being set is for block entries and last-minute decisions from the major players as they juggle their ammunition between races and even countries.

Six days before the first Classic of the year the picture is still muddy, and not just because of the weather. One hundred years ago, any stable worth its salt would have identified its candidate for the 2,000 Guineas, by then established as the first of the three great three-year-old tests, and punters could get stuck in or not, as they chose. But at the dawn of a new century the trend being set is for block entries and last-minute decisions from the major players as they juggle their ammunition between races and even countries.

In 1900 the Royal colt Diamond Jubilee won the mile prize en route to a triumph in the Triple Crown, at the time the most coveted honour for a racehorse. And therein lie more changes in perception. The two Guineas races, particularly the colts' contest, have become increasingly the preserve of the dedicated miler as the expansion in the programme of prestige events has intensified competition. The Guineas was once the natural stepping stone to the Derby but the last Epsom winner to contest the Guineas was 1991 hero Generous, fourth at Newmarket. And the last Guineas winner to follow up in the Derby was Nashwan in 1989.

The tendency toward specialisation seems particularly apparent this year, with none of the first dozen or so in the 2,000 Guineas betting holding any real pretensions to staying 12 furlongs. And the number of alternative targets throughout the season has tarnished the status of the youngest of the colts' Classics. Of the last 10 winners only Mark Of Esteem could be considered truly exceptional judged on his subsequent performances.

Saturday's 192nd renewal is, as far as can be judged from the inconclusive trials, an open contest, which is not necessarily a euphemism for a moderate contest. Trials are just that and with training conditions having been mostly hostile since the end of winter it will be no surprise if the pecking order shown in any of them changes on the big day.

And the point, which has not changed radically in a century, is that the Guineas is an unscripted play. It still sets, rather than confirms, a standard.

The last favourite to win was Zafonic, whose defeat of Barathea in record time was enough to retain his leading miler status through the season despite bleeding on his only subsequent (unplaced) run, in 1993. Distant View, bearer of the same Khalid Abdullah colours, is currently vying for favouritism with the colt likely to represent the Aidan O'Brien stable, Giant's Causeway.

Both were top two-year-olds, Distant Music, from the first crop of the high-class miler Distant View, the best trained in Britain and Giant's Causeway (by Storm Cat) rated below only his retired stablemate Fasliyev in Ireland. Both have done enough this year to indicate that they have trained on, Distant Music having carried a minor foot injury into his narrow defeat by Barathea Guest in the Greenham Stakes and Giant's Causeway winning against older horses - no easy task so early in the season - in the Gladness Stakes.

The Irish-trained colt's Prix de la Salamandre victory last year still reads well. The runner-up, Race Leader, was a good winner at Doncaster on his seasonal debut and third-placed Bachir chased home his Godolphin team-mate, the Kentucky Derby hope China Visit, in Dubai last month.

Sheikh Mohammed and the John Magnier/Michael Tabor partnership have monopolised the 2,000 Guineas for the past five years and even though the race on the first Saturday in May at the top of Mohammed's hit list is at Churchill Downs he did win the Guineas with an afterthought last year. The Al Quoz squad, with the speedy Fath as Guineas number one, arrives back in Newmarket tomorrow.

The field for the Classic will shape up this week with the Rowley Mile ground squelchy but capable of drying a good deal given some sun and wind. At this stage Alfini, a highly regarded Selkirk colt from the David Elsworth stable which had Island Sands poached by Godolphin last year, is a tentative long-priced suggestion.

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