Racing: Mehthaaf asserts Classic claims: Dunlop's filly progresses along the right lines as a commanding victory in the Nell Gwyn makes her central to the Guineas equation

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NEWMARKET needed a performance of stature yesterday to wrestle the public's mind from Miinnehoma and the other five brave horses that conquered Aintree's fences. It got it.

While Fairy Heights, a leading contender for the 1,000 Guineas, fell at her first three-year-old obstacle in the Nell Gwyn Stakes, the Group Three race provided a persuasive winner in Mehthaaf, now as low as 3-1 for the first Classic after a morning perch of 33-1.

'That was a pleasant surprise,' John Dunlop, the winning trainer, said. 'She won very easily, quickening up off a slow pace and getting away from them, and that's encouraging.' Mehthaaf got away, officially, by four lengths, but most observers considered the winning distance to be greater.

Newmarket's Craven meeting provides the annual answer to one of racing's more unfathomable questions, whether the sleek, quality beasts of the previous two-year-old campaign have flourished in the darker months or withered on the vine. Mehthaaf spent an uncomfortable third winter at the Shadwell Stud of her owner, Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, but blossomed as soon as she returned to the training grounds. 'She's not flamboyant at home but has thrived and strengthened with her work,' Dunlop reported.

As the horses paraded, the Arundel man noted that Mehthaaf was more forward in condition than her Newmarket rivals. In the race proper, the filly strode out purposefully, drawing right away from her 10 opponents from two furlongs out. Prophecy was a hard-ridden second and Fairy Heights, who needs a mile, according to Lanfranco Dettori, was further back.

Post-race, Willie Carson outlined what a predictable result this was. 'On form she was about the best two-year-old here and with the conditions in her favour she had to go close,' he said. (Jockeys never seem to be around with this sort of information before the stalls are filled).

Carson is now 51 and the grey hairs have taken over, but in no sense is he retiring as he seeks to add to his 16 Classics. 'I can assure everyone that nothing that finished behind her today is going to finish in front in the Guineas,' he said.

Other credible rivals have injury doubts. Lemon Souffle will go into the Guineas unraced since the Cheveley Park Stakes here last September, when she returned with a section of skin the size of a beermat flapping from her leg, while Coup De Genie bleeds like a veteran undercard boxer.

Mehthaaf is now at the confluence of favourable historical formlines. Five have gone on from success here to win the 1,000 Guineas, while, at Longchamp in October, she was third in the Prix Marcel Boussac, the premier modern two-year-old trial. Since 1986, four winners of the French event, including Salsabil and Shadayid from the same owner, trainer and jockey team, have gone on to take the first Classic.

The history lesson is favourable, as is the geography of a course with which Mehthaaf is now familiar. Unfortunately, the arithmetic of a long price has gone.

(Photograph omitted)