Clouds of ochre dust rose into the sunshine behind Sir Michael Stoute as a procession of juveniles by some of the world's great stallions - Danzig, Danehill, Sadler's Wells, Kingmambo - emerged from a shady path at the top of Warren Hill yesterday morning. With a ninth trainers' championship apparently in the bag, and swifts hurtling deliriously overhead, it seemed a scene of perfect summer bliss.
Over Stoute, however, hovered a cloud laden with the cold and rain of February. It was back then that he was approached by representatives of Goodwood racecourse, asking if he might stomach a visit from journalists to help promote their big meeting next week. It must have seemed very far away at the time, because Stoute said yes.
Doubtless he has often reproached himself since for going soft. Even after he has won a big race, he tends to confine himself to evasive banter, followed by a disproportionate bellow of laughter, before scurrying off to nowhere in particular. He stops 10 yards away, and the press shuffle over and renew the ritual. It is all about as dignified as Benny Hill.
What Stoute could not have bargained for is that he would face this ordeal on the morning when the whole of Newmarket was gasping over the news that he had been fined £6,500 over the running of one of his horses at Windsor the previous evening.
His discomfort was not lost on those other trainers who happened to pass one of the town's principal communal gallops. Not one of them could resist some mischievous aside. "Having a whip round?" asked one.
Stoute did not seem to see the funny side, but this was a situation demanding the sort of genius for insouciance that is found only in such rare men as his friend, Michael Holding. The West Indian cricketing idol had been first to emerge at the stables and gave a deep chuckle when asked what kind of temper Stoute was in. "Better leave it till very late before you ask him about that one," he said. "Maybe wait till you are in your car."
Little wonder if Stoute feels stung. This was a fine of pointed severity. It was prompted by the performance of Florimund, having his third run in a maiden, and his jockey, Stephen Davies. Slowly away, Flori-mund finished 11th, beaten around eight lengths. The racecourse stewards decided that Davies had made inadequate effort and gave him a 32-day suspension, fined Stoute in his absence, and also barred Florimund from running for 40 days.
Stoute was as terse as predicted when the subject was finally raised. "I didn't know anything about it until this morning," he said. "I shall certainly be appealing, and there isn't any more I can say." However his appeal fares, even this blemish can hardly disturb the serenity with which Stoute appears to be defending his title. His horses have already amassed more than £1.7m in prizemoney, a lead of £700,000 over Aidan O'Brien's British runners.
Moreover he has plenty of ammunition for the second half of the campaign - notably Papal Bull, heading for the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York, and Stage Gift, a dazzling handicap winner on Derby day, back in strong work after a lay-off. Then there are the two-year-olds, at least 100 of them - of which only three have so far dipped their toes into the water.
In the meantime, of course, there is Glorious Goodwood. Since he saddled Alphadamus to win the Stewards' Cup in 1973, only his second season, Stoute has produced another 56 winners at the Festival there and his team of possible runners this time stands at 15.
Fewer will make it to the races, however, as his three candidates for the Cantor Spreadfair Sussex Stakes include Jeremy - more likely to persevere over seven furlongs, over which trip he won the Jersey Stakes at Royal Ascot - and Peeress, who needs softer ground than seems conceivable. That leaves Rob Roy, who has recovered from a jarred shoulder and continues to tantalise his trainer.
"Things have gone wrong for him whenever we have tried him at Group One level," he said. "But we still have faith in him. The ground was too firm for Peeress in the Falmouth Stakes and she needs good or softer, which looks unlikely. And while we will look at both races for Jeremy, I think he'll go for the Betfair Cup. I was impressed with him at Ascot, he had a bit of running to do two furlongs out, but he showed a turn of foot we hadn't seen before."
And where might Jeremy have discovered such acceleration? You can only assume that he must one day have seen his trainer asked a particularly exasperating question.
NB: So Elegant