Racing: Classic hopes come to trial: The spotlight turns its glare towards the Flat and the time has come for talking horses to be asked big questions

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The Independent Online
POOR Miinnehoma. The Aintree mud has barely been scrubbed from his legs, when suddenly he is jostled out of the spotlight by a bunch of half-grown, clean-limbed three-year-olds. The racing year waits for no man, or horse.

And so the sport moves quickly on to Newmarket for the Craven meeting, full of anticipation but more than a little befuddled by the names. They fly at you in a headwind of hype and expectation, here and there prompting vague recollection. Didn't Glatisant win a good race at Ascot? Or was it Newbury? Mokhtar, he's Salsabil's full brother. And Green Green Desert, he's Stoute's Guineas horse, isn't he? At least, that's what they say . . .

It is difficult to take it all in, but essential too, since the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas, the season's first Classics, are little more than a fortnight away. But it is not just the trials, such as the Nell Gwyn Stakes and the Craven Stakes, which demand attention. The meeting's maidens tend to have far-reaching significance too. On this day last year, Oakmead, later to finish third in the Oaks, won the opener. The final race went to a previously unraced colt of Henry Cecil's called Commander In Chief. Even chronic Flat amnesiacs will recall what he went on to achieve.

The feeling of optimism at this meeting is so pervasive that for many punters, the first instinct is to dive into the ante- post Guineas markets and back half a dozen in each. It is worth resisting, since the bookmakers will by now know almost as much about the Newmarket- based horses as their trainers (probably more, in some cases). It is surely not a coincidence that the last colt to land an inspired gamble in the Guineas, Nashwan in 1989, was prepared in the relative obscurity of West Ilsley.

This year, in particular, it would be plain daft to have a bet in the 2,000 Guineas before Thursday's Craven Stakes. The field is likely to include Grand Lodge, favourite for the Classic since his success in the Dewhurst Stakes last October, and Green Green Desert, a once-raced maiden winner but none the less his nearest challenger in the ante-post betting. Also expected to be in the stalls: King's Theatre, the Racing Post Trophy winner; Golden Nashwan, Peter Chapple-Hyam's dark horse; Nicolotte, third in the Dewhurst; and Redoubtable, a well-touted contender from the yard of Richard Hannon, the champion trainer.

Only two of the leading Guineas fancies are missing, Just Happy and Unblest. Just Happy, trained like Green Green Desert by Michael Stoute, will run in either tomorrow's Free Handicap or the Greenham Stakes at Newbury. There is no indecision over Unblest, however. He will contest tomorrow's trial.

James Fanshawe's colt has crept steadily towards the top of the Classic betting, thanks to the work-watchers at Headquarters sending back excited accounts of his morning exercise. 'He's been going well with slow horses but he seems in good form,' Fanshawe said yesterday. 'I haven't really got a horse to test him at home, he's been like that since he was a two-year-old. I'm looking forward to the day when I've got one that can test him.'

The Free Handicap is run over seven furlongs, but there can be little doubt that Unblest will stay the Guineas mile since he needed every yard of seven furlongs when getting up to beat State Performer in the Champagne Stakes at Doncaster last season. He could well produce a performance for the connections of the Craven runners to ponder.

In contrast to the Craven, the Nell Gwyn Stakes, today's fillies' Classic trial, is missing several important names. Lemon Souffle has made a remarkable recovery from a life- threatening injury sustained last September, but will go straight to the Guineas. So too will Relatively Special, Luca Cumani's Rockfel Stakes winner, after suffering a minor setback. Coup De Genie, meanwhile, has already put up a highly impressive Classic trial in her native France.

In their absence, Fairy Heights, winner of Ascot's Fillies' Mile, and Mehthaaf are most likely to advance their Guineas case this afternoon. After three weeks of going through the motions, the Flat season is about to begin.

1,000 GUINEAS. William Hill: 5-1 Lemon Souffle, 6-1 Coup De Genie, 8-1 (from 10-1) Fairy Heights, 10-1 Relatively Special, 12-1 Balanchine, 14-1 Glatisant & Prophecy, 16-1 Las Meninas, 25-1 Flagbird, Mehthaaf & Sierra Madre, 33- 1 Ballerina, Brentwood, Bulaxie, Cambrel, Dance To The Top & Low Key Affair.

Ladbrokes: 5-1 Lemon Souffle, 6-1 Coup De Genie, 7-1 Fairy Heights, 12-1 Relatively Special, 14-1 Las Meninas, 16-1 Prophecy, 20-1 Balanchine, Bulaxie, Cambrel, Dance To The Top, Glatisant & Velvet Moon.

2,000 GUINEAS. William Hill: 5-1 Grand Lodge, 6-1 (with a run) Manntari, 13-2 Green Green Desert, 14-1 Golden Nashwan, Just Happy, (from 16-1) King's Theatre & Unblest, 16-1 (from 25- 1) Owington, 20-1 Colonel Collins & Redoubtable, 25-1 Distant View, Dumaani, Nicolotte, Polish Laughter & Tatami.

Ladbrokes: 5-1 Grand Lodge, 8-1 Green Green Desert, 10-1 Just Happy, 12-1 Golden Nashwan, 14-1 King's Theatre, 16-1 Distant View, Nicolotte, Owington, Psychobabble, Redoubtable & Unblest.