Aperishing wind raged across Middleham Moor yesterday morning, like the bitter, parting curse of winter, but it bore the benedictions of springtime – the bleat of new lambs, the rhapsodies of a skylark – and the sunshine was pleasantly warm in the lee of a stone wall. And here, panting up the gallop, was the Turf's very own equivalent of rising sap: an unbeaten colt, hastening towards the first Classic of a new season.
The Stan James 2,000 Guineas is only four weeks away tomorrow and equivalent preparations are under way in many different environments, from the quivering desert mornings of Al Quoz, to the wet, green acres of Ballydoyle. In comparison Awzaan might seem to descend from this northern fastness as some rough, romantic brigand. But he will instead be vested with the class, rigour and ambition of the trainer who has single-handedly renewed the Classic lustre of this historic horseracing town.
Mark Johnston's optimism for Awzaan reflects an accomplished record in priming three-year-olds to land running over the Rowley Mile. The only colts he has prepared in earnest for the Guineas were Mister Baileys, Lend A Hand and Bijou d'Inde, who respectively finished first, second and third; then there was his 1,000 Guineas filly, Attraction, a brilliant winner in 2004. All were making their first appearance of the season, and Johnston has due confidence in doing the same with Awzaan, whose only public appearance will comprise a racecourse gallop at the Craven meeting.
"It's been a freezing winter, it's a freezing day, and he's never been clipped," Johnston observed. "But you can see he's got a great coat on him. He looks healthier than horses who have been on the go all winter, horses who have been to Dubai. He's only 19 kilos off his target weight, and that's not a lot with the best part of a month to go."
Awzaan, who crowned his first campaign with a Group One success in the Middle Park Stakes, was united for the first time since with Richard Hills and coped equally comfortably with the merciless headwind and a mature lead horse. "It's the first time I've worked a top-class three-year-old with an older horse since Mister Baileys," Johnston said. "And that was only because I didn't have the right horses. I remember being embarrassed by the ones I scraped together to work him at Ripon. I had one of them jump in at the five-furlong chute!"
Those seem distant days now. Johnston supervises one of the very biggest strings in the land – the exercise schedule for yesterday morning exceeded 200 horses – and in 2009 became the most prolific Flat trainer in Turf history with 216 winners (plus five abroad) in the calendar year. Operating on such a scale, he candidly delegates responsibility through a series of lieutenants in different yards. As one posse cantered by, he barely gave them a glance. But the system works so fluently that the Maktoum bloodstock empire nowadays filters cavalries of young horses through his judgement.
Pragmatic as he is, Johnston is uncomplainingly reconciled to the fact that many of the best ones will be transferred to Godolphin. But Awzaan is owned by Sheikh Hamdan, who tends to keep his Classic prospects in the care of their original trainers, and Johnston acknowledges the tonic for his whole team. "Of course, it's been fantastic for us to go into the winter, dreaming about the Classics," he said. "You look at people like Aidan O'Brien and Godolphin, and you do envy the fact that they seem to have several Classic candidates to pick from. I totally accept [losing horses] as part of the job, and if we don't win the Guineas I'd get a great kick out of Godolphin winning with something that has been here. But obviously to have this horse is great for the morale of everyone here."
Always reliable in his heterodoxy, Johnston is exasperated by what he considers a lavish official rating for St Nicholas Abbey – the champion juvenile of 2009, and hot favourite for the Guineas. "Virtually every horse behind him in the Racing Post Trophy got raised by the handicapper," he remarked. "We had the sixth [Shakespearean] and he went up 3lb. You have to think there's an element of rating horses on what they might do. Every single horse that lined up for the Middle Park was a Group winner. No disrespect whatsoever to St Nicholas Abbey, but what more can a horse do than go unbeaten from a Hamilton maiden to beating a field like that? Shakespearean was a completely different type, but in our minds he was not in the same ball park as Awzaan. I'm not here to hype him, or say we're super-confident. All we can say is that we've taken him to the races four times, haven't been frightened to shoot at the stars – and he has come up trumps every time."
The only reservation he does entertain is the colt's lack of physical scope. "No, he hasn't grown," he admitted. "And if he was a hand bigger, I'd be brimming with confidence. He matured very early. Some of our other Guineas horses were scopier, there's no getting away from it. But their form wasn't as good as his. To that extent the closest parallel is with Attraction. If I was training St Nicholas Abbey, I'd be thinking I might have a better horse in June than early May, and a better horse over farther. Whereas we can be confident that we've got the finished article."
'He lacks the style of a keen horse'
Awzaan's best juvenile performance was in a race that tends to produce sprinters, the Middle Park Stakes, and there is plenty of speed in his maternal pedigree. But his trainer and jockey are both adamant that the Alhaarth colt will stay the extra two furlongs in the Stan James 2,000 Guineas.
"Absolutely no doubt," Richard Hills said after working the horse yesterday. "It's only the press who are worried about it. He relaxes so well, and all the Guineas horses I've ridden have needed speed."
Mark Johnston agreed. "It's purely the races he ran in that make people think that way," the trainer said. "With Attraction, the doubts were fairly understandable. She blazed a trail, and pulled like a train. But halfway through the Middle Park I couldn't say I was confident he would pick them off the way he did. He had his head down. He just doesn't have the style of a keen horse."
2,000 Guineas: Current odds
Stan James 2,000 Guineas Newmarket, 1 May:
5-2 St Nicholas Abbey
5-1 Canford Cliffs
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