Today, for the first time, Aidan O'Brien will bring his gaze to bear on Britain's oldest and oddest racing arena. Four-year-old Coconut Beach in this afternoon's Chester Cup is the first of his 11 entries during the week, the most significant of which may be the Derby third favourite, Gypsy King, in the Dee Stakes. The once-raced, once-winning son of Sadler's Wells runs in the contest over an extended 10 furlongs at the especial behest of Kieren Fallon.
The six-times champion's talents from stalls to finishing line are well documented but other gifts he has brought to Ballydoyle are his empathy with the mind of the horse, his attention to detail and his insight into Britain's tracks. He knows that the Chester experience can season a green Epsom-bound horse and perhaps it is no coincidence that two of his three Derby winners - Oath, when he was with Henry Cecil, and Kris Kin, from Sir Michael Stoute's yard - both had their preps in the Dee Stakes. The pair have been, too, the only winners of that race to go on to the greatest glory.
"Chester is one of my favourite courses," said Fallon. "It's fun to ride, a challenge. And for horses, it teaches them so much. It has an atmosphere like nowhere else, a real crucible. The crowds are right there on top of you and the horses have to learn to cope, to go through them, get used to them.
"They're on the turn the whole way, so they have to learn to think and be balanced. It teaches them mentally and physically. And it's usually beautiful ground, a beautiful surface to race on."
Clive Brittain, whose enigmatic charge Excusez-Moi was immediately earmarked for the Dee after his dilettante display in the Greenham Stakes, concurs. "It's a track that puts manners on them," he said. "They have to learn to use themselves, to change leads, to stand their corner and off that final turn if they want to win they have to produce the sort of turn of foot they'll need at Epsom. It can be make or break but it keeps their minds occupied and for a Derby horse it's a solid education."
No course in Britain can trace its ancestry further back than Chester, for in recounting its history, the phrase "after the Civil War" comes 140 years in. It was back in 1511, two years into the reign of Henry VIII, that the annual Shrovetide Fair on the Roodeye was enlivened by a horserace, with the reward to the winner of a painted ball.
Today's top prize on that same "island with a cross" hard by the Roman city walls - on which the populace crowd noisily on racedays - in a loop of the River Dee is worth rather more, £69,600 and a 50lb truckle of Cheshire cheese. The Chester Cup started life in 1685, when the local Mayor and corporation put up an £8 silver trophy to be run for "five times round". Thankfully, the modern jockey has to cope with passing the winning post only thrice.
Today's running is the 170th since the race attained its present form in 1824, "starting at the Castle pole, twice round and ending at the coming-in Chair".
The race is not generally a good one for market leaders, with just 37 successful and a mere five in the past three decades, though one was last year's hero, Anak Pekan, who stopped the rot in no uncertain terms, winning by five lengths at 2-1. But real shocks are almost as rare; Bangalore won at 16-1 five years ago, the longest-priced winner since Old Hubert at 33-1 in 1988. As far as the draw is concerned, though winners have come from across the course, the lower-numbered stalls on the inner are favoured, with only three double-figure winners and 10 placees in the past 10 years.
Fallon's mount, Coconut Beach, who has caused such a fluttering in the bookmakers' henhouse, has an ideal draw and, having finished fifth under 10st in a bog over two miles at the Curragh a month ago, will think he is loose today. As he holds the Yorkshire Cup entry he is clearly a well-regarded young stayer and may be just the sort of blot on the handicap that Anak Pekan was last year. The others to consider are Big Moment, who would thoroughly deserve to win after sterling efforts in third and second places for the past two years, and Larkwing, a good third at Newmarket on his seasonal debut, but untried at the trip.
Eight horses have won two Chester Cups, but only four - Dalby (1865/66), Pageant (1877/78), Chivalrous (1922/23) and Sea Pigeon (1977/78) - in successive seasons. Anak Pekan (2.30) is not favoured by the draw and has gone up in the ratings, but has ticks in most of the other boxes, particularly the fact that he is a classy horse who travels well and, appropriately for a carousel of a course which is only a mile and 60 yards round, he is built like a nimble fairground galloper. He can be, and take, the big cheese again.
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