The last time that racing's big two teams, Ballydoyle and Godolphin, reached this stage of the season without at least one of them having taken a European Guineas was back in 1997. And with only the weekend's mile Classics at the Curragh left to rectify the omission, neither operation fields the favourite.
Newmarket runner-up Zafeen, trained by Mick Channon, heads the market at 4-1 for the 2,000 Guineas after 16 horses were declared yesterday for tomorrow's colts' race, and the French raider, Six Perfections, is odds-on for the filly equivalent, Sunday's Irish 1,000 Guineas. Zafeen finished three-quarters of a length behind Refuse To Bend on the Rowley Mile, but it is now 10 years since a horse in his position gained compensation in Ireland.
Aidan O'Brien will be fielding a formidable squad as he goes for his fifth success in his local Guineas in the past seven years, and his third in a row. His carpet-bombing attack tomorrow comprises Tomahawk, France, Great Pyramid, Salt Lake City and the unraced Solskjaer.
Zafeen is one of six contenders from Britain in the most populous field for the Group One showpiece since 1985. The raiders include three others who ran in the Newmarket race: fourth-placed Tout Seul, Saturn, fifth, and Indian Haven 14th. The last-named was badly hampered and connections have gambled the €40,000 (£28,500) supplementary entry fee to prove a point, as has the Godolphin team with Desert Destiny, last seen finishing an even unluckier fifth in the French Guineas. Makhlab completes the British challenge.
Johnny Murtagh, who has replaced Thierry Thulliez on Six Perfections on Sunday, yesterday dislodged Kevin Darley from Saturn's saddle, though as part of the normal pre-race jockey-go-round rather than in any contentious circumstances. Murtagh had been due to ride the Aga Khan's Kalaman, who misses the race because of the prevailing soft ground. "We have an agreement with Johnny that in principal races if he's not riding for the Aga, he will ride for us," said Tim Jones, spokesman for the Highclere Racing syndicate which owns Saturn.
"The decision is absolutely no reflection on Kevin. But Johnny has ridden the horse before, which tipped the scales his way. Saturn is in great shape and Michael [Bell] feels it is not out of the question that he's improved again since the Guineas. And the ground is interesting, because whenever this horse has galloped on rain-softened ground at home he has always shown improved work. The proof of that particular pudding will come at the Curragh."
The next Classic on the domestic schedule is the 225th Oaks today fortnight, for which 21 fillies remained after yesterday's forfeit stage.
Godolphin has taken the premier distaff race three times, with Balanchine (1994), Moonshell (1995) and Kazzia last year, and has four possibles remaining: Hi Dubai, Gonfilia, Lady Catherine and Mezzo Soprano. Hi Dubai, second in the Prix Saint Alary five days ago, will be Frankie Dettori's choice.
"There was not much wrong with that run in France," he said. "it was only her third race, she's going to improve and will love the step up to a mile and a half."
Hi Dubai is vying for favouritism at around 7-2 with Ballydoyle's Yesterday, due to turn out on Sunday in the Irish 1,000 Guineas. Both O'Brien's previous Oaks winners warmed up for Epsom in the Curragh race, Shahtoush (1998) in 10th place and Imagine (2001) with victory. The market mover yesterday, down to 5-1 in some lists, was 1,000 Guineas fifth Hanami, trained by James Toller. The daughter of Hernando will have a practice run round a left-handed bend on the Newmarket gallops this morning.
Racing's progression through the season can at times be Groundhog Day in its predictability but yesterday came a note of surrealism. A £180m redevelopment at Ascot may well prompt the need for a temporary new home for the 2005 Royal meeting and, along with obvious alternatives like York and Newmarket, Cheltenham has now put itself forward.
The spiritual home of National Hunt racing does not actually have a Flat track, but managing director Edward Gillespie is not deterred. "We have submitted a proposal to get our feet through the door and now come the practicalities" he explained. "We have identified what needs to be done on the racecourse, bearing in mind that we are a little short of five, six, seven furlong starts. Any Flat track would not affect the jumping, which is our core business."
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