Racing: Merlin's Dancer to end bad St Wilfrid spell for Nicholls

One of the great durables of the Flat empire makes his return to the stage at Newbury this afternoon. When we see Mubtaker in the Geoffrey Freer Stakes it will be a reminder of a breakdancing grandfather on the wedding dance floor.

One of the great durables of the Flat empire makes his return to the stage at Newbury this afternoon. When we see Mubtaker in the Geoffrey Freer Stakes it will be a reminder of a breakdancing grandfather on the wedding dance floor.

Marcus Tregoning's horse has not held the tide of ageing at bay, he is actually forced it out beyond the harbour walls. His last race was his best, in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp last autumn, when only the mighty Dalakhani was able to put him down.

With the Aga Khan's colt now gone to stud, just like Hawk Wing and Alamshar, Mubtaker can trot out on to the Berkshire turf this afternoon in the knowledge that, by official measure at least, he is the best remaining horse in all of Europe. That is quite a disturbing thought for the connections of the three beasts ranged against him.

Further disquieting is both history and the contemporary. Mubtaker has won the last two runnings of this Group Two race, and has been whipped into a pleasing state of readiness recently on the gallops high above Lambourn. "We think he is in good shape and he has been training very well of late. We have been very happy with him, especially in the last two weeks," Tregoning said. "He is the flag-bearer of our yard this year, and in previous years in many ways. He has been lightly campaigned through his career as he has had a few training hiccups along the way, but he has never lost his enthusiasm and is very game and consistent."

Soft going was once considered an anathema to Mubtaker (3.25). Until last October at least. So the prospect of trying conditions this afternoon is not as dreadful as it might have once been. "In the past, when he appeared not to handle soft ground, it might have been because he had a tougher race the time before, but he handled it at Longchamp," Tregoning added. "I am just hoping it is not too testing at Newbury because I would rather it was good ground for his first start back, but you can't have everything."

The card's other Group race, the Hungerford Stakes, is notable in that it provides a first ride at Group level for Lisa Jones, whose mount, Duck Row, sounds as though he should be at home in the conditions. However, more thoughtful conclusions lead us to Babodana (2.50), who has looked as though he would appreciate a drop to seven furlongs for some time now.

The rains have also visited Ripon, where they fighting to preserve the Great St Wilfrid Handicap. This is one of few notable dashes that David Nicholls has failed to collect, a fact which can be rectified today as he saddles the promising pairing of Machinist and Merlin's Dancer (next best 3.15).

Newmarket's most valuable offering is its first, in which several regular combatants take on each other once again. The best treated of all on this occasion appears to be Traytonic (nap 2.05), who was not allowed to show his true worth in a barging match of a contest over course and distance last time.

The really big bucks this weekend though are to be found abroad, starting in Chicago tonight. The Beverley D contains runners from the big two in Europe, Crimson Palace for Godolphin and Necklace for Ballydoyle. The same teams are represented by Vespone and Powerscourt respectively in the Arlington Million, in which Neville Callaghan also runs Magistretti.

Frankie Dettori will slip on the sleeping blindfold on the overnight flight to be back in time to ride Kheleyf for Godolphin in the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville. Six Perfections, the winner 12 months ago, will be hard to beat, especially as the ground appears to have turned against Britain's monster filly, Mark Johnston's Attraction.

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