Racing: Hannon finds a Classic marker: Clues collected from a Guineas trial at Newmarket point to a colt who has yet to have his abilities tested on the track this season

IT WAS all winks and whispers after the Free Handicap here yesterday, but for those who stopped to draw some conclusions the messages were clear enough. Redoubtable may win the 2,000 Guineas. Unblest probably will not. And Lemon Souffle, favourite for the 1,000 Guineas throughout the winter, is far from certain even to line up for the season's first Classic a fortnight today.

The clues were offered by Richard Hannon, who saddled Bluegrass Prince to win the Free Handicap. On the surface, it was not a promising Classic trial, with the first five home separated by less than two lengths. Last of the quintet was Unblest, who started a firm favourite but found his path constantly blocked as George Duffield switched one way and then the other in the closing stages. Bluegrass Prince, meanwhile, appeared an unlikely winner entering the Dip, but Lanfranco Dettori roused the early leader to a second effort and got up in the final stride. Two heads separated him from Canaska Dancer and Selhurstpark Flyer.

Unblest was surely unlucky, but would not have won cosily had his route been marked out by traffic cones. Since Hannon predicted a future for the winner involving minor Pattern races in Germany and Italy, James Fanshawe's colt - said by his trainer to have been 'fairly ready' for yesterday's race - is likely to prove short of Classic standard. Coral left him at 16-1 for the Guineas, but Hills moved him from 14-1 to a more realistic 25-1.

At home in Marlborough, however, Hannon has a three- year-old who toys with Bluegrass Prince at morning exercise. His name is Redoubtable, and the trainer's optimism about his Guineas chance was obvious. But the colt needs a sound surface and, with most of the country's tracks riding soft at best, Redoubtable may go to post on 30 April without a prep race. 'He's a different horse on fast ground,' Hannon said. 'He's got to stay, but I think he will.'

The trainer was less encouraging about Lemon Souffle. She has recovered well from a serious injury sustained last September, but not from the gloomy spring weather. Hannon believes his string's body clocks are running two weeks slow, and Lemon Souffle has only now started to shed her winter coat. 'It's flying out of her, but I don't want to send her to the Guineas woolly,' Hannon said. 'Hopefully she'll be there.'

'Hopefully'? It was hardly a statement to launch an ante- post gamble, and Lemon Souffle was knocked out an ominous two points by William Hill. She is now a 7-1 chance for the Classic, behind Mehthaaf, Tuesday's impressive Nell Gwyn winner, at 11-4, and French challenger Coup De Genie at 6-1.

All in all, Newmarket was not the place to be yesterday for anyone seeking resounding predictions of Classic-winning intent. The opening maiden, often used by the big yards as a Guineas trial for an unexposed filly, was won by Michael Stoute's Zafaaf. Few spectators were more surprised than Stoute himself, though - 'I didn't expect her to win so smoothly, but it's a nice problem to have' - and Zafaaf is not entered for the Guineas. Henry Cecil's Cambrel, who finished third, does figure among the entries, but not for much longer judged on this performance.

Del Deya, a late-maturing four-year-old, is 12 months too late for the Guineas, but started to repay John Gosden's patience with a promising success in the nine-furlong Earl of Sefton Stakes. She should do better still over 10 or 12, while Airport, who completed a double for Gosden and a treble for Dettori in the Wood Ditton Stakes, is another who seems certain to win again, and often.

The race offered the day's final hint for the future. Gosden had pointed out earlier that the middle of the course was much faster than that by the rails. Lake Coniston, a 33-1 chance, made his own lonely way home on the far side in the Wood Ditton, finishing unplaced, but led the 19-runner field for much of the race. For anyone seeking a future winner, it was not so much a gentle nudge as a sharp jab in the ribs.

(Photograph omitted)

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