The saturated meadows and woodland on the Downs beyond seemed as arid as a desert compared with what was happening on the track. For there has been no fertility in Nature this spring to match the recent run of Sir Michael Stoute, extended yesterday by Final Verse.
Sixth in the 2,000 Guineas on his reappearance, Final Verse outclassed four rivals for a Listed race here to take Stoute's record to 20 winners from his last 39 runners. The champion trainer now appears intent on riding the crest of the wave into the Vodafone Derby itself and may well saddle two runners at Epsom tomorrow week. Both, somehow, remain outsiders: Best Alibi, the runner-up to Septimus in the Dante Stakes, and Papal Bull, winner of the Chester Vase.
Stoute acknowledges that the owners of Papal Bull have other candidates in the care of Aidan O'Brien, and also that they must pay £75,000 to supplement him to the field on Monday. But they in turn will recognise that Stoute's present form gives his recommendation the force of a papal edict.
At Chester, Papal Bull addressed two questions still unanswered by the hot favourite, Visindar, showing the agility to handle a peculiar track and the stamina for a mile and a half. At the time Stoute said that he would watch the other Derby rehearsals before offering John Magnier and his partners a view. On Wednesday he asked Robert Winston to work the Montjeu colt and yesterday gave a succinct judgement.
"I have only managed to get hold of one of the partners so far, but I hope he'll go, because I'm very pleased with him and thought he ran a very good trial at Chester," Stoute said. "Best Alibi prefers faster ground than he had at York, and if it came up soft I wouldn't start him. We're on a good roll at the moment, but we've been doing it too long to get carried away."
In contrast Winston remains so innocent at this level that he has yet to ride in the Derby, not that Papal Bull made him too dizzy. "He wouldn't set the world alight at home," the jockey confessed. "He keeps plenty in reserve but they haven't got to the bottom of the horse on the track. He's very laid back and Kieren Fallon [who rode him at Chester] is sure we haven't seen the best of him yet."
Winston kept things simple on Final Verse, making all and seeing off Deepwater Bay with sufficient comfort to prompt Bruce Raymond, Saeed Suhail's racing manager, to mention the St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. "He'll be a better horse on better ground," Raymond said. "And also if he gets the chance to relax in behind a stronger pace. He had a bit of a rushed preparation for the Guineas and should progress as he matures."
Stoute won no fewer than four trials for the Vodafone Oaks during his recent spree, but he counselled against backing Scottish Stage. "She's doubtful, but we haven't ruled it out and will make a late decision," he said. "She took her time to come to hand before Newbury and while I was very satisfied with her performance there, the French Oaks would give us another nine days. She would need good or faster ground if she is to run." He confirmed that Christophe Soumillon rides Riyalma and Michael Kinane, Short Skirt.
Aidan O'Brien, who has declared George Washington at the Curragh tomorrow despite the testing ground, is optimistic that Alexandrova can reverse York form with Short Skirt.
"Alexandrova was a bit nervy," he said. "She was nearly brought down leaving the stalls, lost her confidence a little, and didn't travel. When Kieren got hold of her she went there in two strides, and having got there so early she was always going to get tired. We knew she would improve for the race and Kieren was very happy with her."
Nap: Etoile Russe
NB: Midnight Traveller