There will be no hiding place for reputations in the 225th Derby at Epsom on Saturday and Sheikh Mohammed, in particular, has put his judgement on the line. His two runners were acquired from other major breeding empires: Snow Ridgefrom the late Lord Weinstock's operation and Rule Of Law from the late Robert Sangster.
Under the sod's law heading, both the vendors have mustered other contenders. Not that the Sheikh will mind, though, because one of his maxims is that the greatest risk is to take no risk. But if anything is to beat his pair, he would probably prefer it not to be North Light, in the Weinstock pale blue, or Percussionist, in the Sangster green, blue and white.
Snow Ridge, a dark bay son of Indian Ridge, can save his blushes. The colt, runner-up in the 2,000 Guineas, must overturn a hefty page of history, for no Rowley Mile placee has won the Derby since Generous 13 years ago. But his effort, staying on strongly, represents the best level of form by any confirmed runner and he is progressive.
One factor he has yet to prove is his stamina, and his sire was a miler who tends to specialise in milers. But he is out of stout Snow Princess, second in a Prix Royal-Oak, and his relaxed style will help eke out his reserves.
Godolphin have a line to market rival North Light in Rule Of Law, who ran the Sir Michael Stoute challenger to half a length (albeit a cosy one) in the Dante Stakes. North Light is sure to get the trip, but he may do so more slowly than Snow Ridge.
Yeats, bidding to give Aidan O'Brien and Sadler's Wells their third Derby in four years, is defending an unbeaten record in the tried-and-tested Ballydoyle route to Epsom. He has hardly seen another horse in his three runs and has yet to join battle with any, but, although he may be an exception, his stable's three-year-olds do not seem a vintage bunch this year.
Victory for Percussionist so soon after much-liked Sangster's death would be poignant, but the colt, another by Sadler's Wells, may need soft ground.
Saturday's race is regarded as open, hence the intended addition by supplement to the field of horses previously perceived as handicappers. The annual bleats for a reduction in distance have started on the grounds that 12 furlongs is regarded by the breeding industry as not the optimum distance for a high-class thoroughbred but the outer limit. But the sport would start dismantling the framework that has served it so well at its utmost peril.
It has become fashionable to denigrate the Derby as a fading glory but statistics say otherwise. Sure, the nineties were an ordinary decade, with Generous the only truly high-class winner. But then so were the 20th century's noughties, twenties and forties. The most consistently blessed decades were the thirties, which produced Hyperion, Windsor Lad, Bahram, Bois Roussel and Blue Peter, and the seventies, with Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Grundy, The Minstrel and Troy.
The latest noughties have already produced three superior winners in Sinndar, Galileo and High Chaparral. And the worth of this year's contest can only be judged in retrospect, for the race is a beginning, not an end. The trials eliminate the no-hopers but the standardbearer for a generation will not be identified until his pace, balance, stamina, acceleration and resolve pass muster over Epsom's switchback.
Last year, Kris Kin could not hack it at the top afterwards. Nor could the Oaks heroine, Casual Look. In fact, the Oaks winners have not been much cop for a while; Balanchine, who won 10 years ago, was the last really good one.
The candidates for the 226th renewal on Friday lack nothing in breeding, at any rate, starting with Galileo's sister All Too Beautiful. Only two sets of full-siblings have achieved the Epsom double, most recently Shoveler (1819 Oaks) and Sailor (1820 Derby), but All Too Beautiful has not yet put a foot wrong, winning both her starts.
Her Ballydoyle stablemate Baraka, Pilsudski's half-sister, took the Lingfield trial as she pleased and would come into the equation on soft ground. Of the Godolphin pair, Sundrop was a fine second in the 1,000 Guineas and Punctilious was impressive in a slowly-run Musidora Stakes. Hathrah, just behind Sundrop in the Guineas, would also appreciate easy ground.
The focus on Saturday night will be on New York, where America's latest folk hero, Smarty Jones, is favourite to add the Belmont Stakes to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. But the US Triple Crown is a tough call: since Affirmed became the 11th winner in 130 years in 1978, nine heroes of the first two legs have failed in the third.
1 Snow Ridge
2 North Light
1 All Too Beautiful