Barry Hills is now into his 70th year and must deliver even his most volcanic opinions in a hoarse whisper, but no trainer in the land has his horses in sweeter rhythm with the quickening tempo of the new Flat season. Indeed, things are going so well that not even the emphatic success of Killybegs in the Unicorn Craven Stakes here yesterday could give Hills greater stimulus than he found in defeat.
Killybegs certainly qualifies as a legitimate contender for the Stan James 2,000 Guineas, but within the hour his trainer had produced a colt whose Classic credentials are at least as credible. Olympian Odyssey failed by a nostril to catch Atlantic Waves in the Connaught Feilden Stakes, but in nearly salvaging the race - having been hemmed helplessly against the rail for eight and a half of the nine furlongs - he revealed lavish ability.
Is it possible, in the winter of his career, that Hills might finally address the most hurtful omission on that distinguished cv? He has endured several near-misses at Epsom over the years, none worse than when Bill Shoemaker and Hawaiian Sound were collared by Shirley Heights in 1978. Hills was convinced that they had held on, and his face turned a ghostly white when the judge announced the result of the photo.
Ladbrokes offer 20-1 against Olympian Odyssey for the Vodafone Derby and those odds are unlikely to survive his next start, though perhaps his biggest flaw is revealed by the indecision that greeted his return to the unsaddling enclosure. "The owner [Bill Gredley] wants to come back here for the 2,000 Guineas," Hills said. "Jamie Spencer got off and said that we should take him to the Irish Guineas. And I want to go for the Derby. So we'll have to see. He was far and away the best horse in this race."
The point is that Olympian Odyssey has so much speed that an uncomf-ortable onus rests on his pedigree to discover the stamina for a mile and a half at Epsom.
Sadler's Wells will do his part, but the dam's contribution cannot be certain. Certainly Spencer's mount swung through this race on the bridle, and it was only a typically acute ride from Joe Fanning that enabled Atlantic Waves to hold on, all out, after dictating the pace.
The winner himself is also by Sadler's Wells, but the maternal family is very robust, having already produced Epsom winners in Lammtarra and Snow Bride, and he showed the resolution common to so many horses trained by Mark Johnston.
He will go for a Derby trial now, maybe the Dante Stakes at York, which is also the most likely target for Olympian Odyssey should Hills get his way.
Johnston had hoped to bring Nakheel here for a racecourse gallop, but instead the colt was at the Animal Health Trust undergoing a bone scan. He has not been pleasing in his recent work and his participation in the Guineas, a fortnight tomorrow, looks in considerable doubt.
"He was stiff and sore but looks happier now," Johnston said. "But we would never forgive ourselves if we missed something. He has had three pieces of work, so I suppose there's just time to make the Guineas, but until we get the results I don't know where we stand with him."
Certainly the Classic seems off the agenda for City Of Troy, who ran a very limp race as favourite for the Craven. In a race where several runners seemed lacking in purpose, it was Killybegs who asserted under a positive ride from Michael Hills, stretching three and a half lengths clear of Metropolitan Man. "He's a battler and a different horse physically from last season," said the jockey. "He was really up for it today and powered up the hill."
Hills snr won this race two years ago with Haafhd, who returned to win the Guineas, but is postponing any verdict on Killybegs - 16-1 with the sponsors - until he has seen Red Clubs at Newbury tomorrow.
"Killybegs is improving all the time and there is no doubt he has done well from two to three," he said. "We will know a lot more about where we stand once Red Clubs has run. At home Red Clubs wouldn't tell you much."
Golden day for Smith
Golden Bay landed the mares' handicap hurdle at Cheltenham yesterday to give trainer Suzy Smith her first success at the track.
"That's also our biggest winner to date," said Smith, who trains at the old racecourse stables at Lewes, East Sussex. "We've got 19 horses but I'm looking to get another yard down the road which will increase us to 30."
Nap: Grande Terre
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