Racing: Prince to trump Abdullah's ace: Yet another of Henry Cecil's contenders for the Derby goes on trial in today's Chester Vase

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The Independent Online
KHALID ABDULLAH has spent the last five days doing a convincing turn as the riverboat gambler in westerns who slowly flips over his hole cards to reveal a succession of aces. Zafonic, Tenby and Commander In Chief have already gone face up to winces from his fellow players; if Armiger further strengthens his hand at Chester this afternoon, they could be forgiven for checking his sleeves.

It is an embarrassment of riches, even by the demanding standards of a Saudi Arabian crown prince, and the bad news for less fortunate owners is that Armiger is possibly the best of all. His six-length success in the Racing Post Trophy last October was the finest performance by any juvenile all season, Zafonic and Tenby included, and all the more creditable as it was only the second race of his career.

The clearest evidence of Armiger's potential is offered by race-timing enthusiasts, whose unemotional path to enlightenment involves a stopwatch, a computer and the simple truth that a bad horse cannot win in a good time. When the figures from Armiger's Doncaster win were fed into the laptops, the conclusion was that either Henry Cecil's colt was a budding champion, or someone had been tampering with their floppy discs.

Major prizes, perhaps even the Derby itself, lie ahead for Armiger, so it may seem perverse to suggest that he could be beaten for the first time in today's Chester Vase. Yet even the best horses can be beaten by a lack of peak fitness, and there is plenty of evidence that Armiger has struggled to adapt after emerging from his winter holiday into the energetic regime of spring.

It is not just the Newmarket workwatchers who have assessed Armiger to be trailing in the race for fitness; his trainer has implied as much too, in particular commenting that he hoped to 'get away with it' this afternoon. Hardly words to inspire a bet at Armiger's anticipated odds-on price, and while four of his five rivals today are unliklely to pose a problem, in Cairo Prince (3.10) he faces an opponent whose well-being this season is already a matter of record.

Cairo Prince races in the blue and green of Robert Sangster, who has long held a particular affection for the major meeting at his local track (his Isle of Man home is a short helicopter hop away). Peter Chapple-Hyam's colt did not race as a juvenile, but beat plenty who did without hesitation in a maiden at Newbury last month, winning by seven lengths. The benefit of that experience should be apparent this afternoon, but while he is worth backing to beat Armiger today, only the rash will expect it to happen again.

A less direct clue to the relative merits of Team Abdullah will be offered half an hour before Armiger steps on to the Roodeye, when Silverdale and Warspite, who ran behind Commander In Chief at Newmarket three weeks ago, are in the field for the maiden. Of the two, Silverdale was considerably closer the winner than Warspite, and will start favourite today as a result, but John Gosden's colt was still a long way adrift of the winner and there are several tempting each-way alternatives.

In particular, Seren Quest (2.40) will be overpriced, as she hails from an unfashionable stable and her close second at 66-1 in a Kempton maiden last month is easily dismissed as a fluke. It is just as likely, though, that Seren Quest has grown and strengthened during the winter, and is only now tackling a suitable trip; certainly, it is is worth chancing at the probable prices.

Two more televised races send competitive fields of handicappers skittling around Chester's unique contours. The Roodeye is one of racing's most compelling arenas, but when the first turn is also the home turn, races of less than a mile are little more than equine speedway, with a prominent pitch at the bend all but essential.

Clearly, the ideal place to start from is a low draw, though any runner who is slowly away from a rails pitch might as well head straight for the showers since any attempt to come round the field is doomed. George Duffield is seasoned enough to get Rose Alto (4.10) out of stall No 1 promptly in the Great Cheshire Handicap, and after a recent run at Sandown, James Fanshawe's mare will be able to see off all comers.

Another to catch the eye last time was After The Last (next best 3.40), who ran a solid race behind his better-fancied stablemate, Eastern Memories. He will do better today, but the best return should belong to punters prepared to wait for the card's last race.

STORITHS (nap 4.40) would have gone close on his seasonal debut at Thirsk a fortnight ago, but found his way blocked at a vital moment and was not ridden too vigorously thereafter. He runs off the same mark today, and he will be suited by the return to six furlongs.

(Photograph omitted)

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