Ballydoyle stars take up the baton

St Nicholas Abbey leads workout at the Curragh, but Steinbeck suffers setback
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The Independent Online

Having anticipated Cheltenham so confidently, the majority of punters are still wandering around muttering to themselves, or lying in darkened rooms with cold towels pressed to their temples. But they say a change is as good as a rest, and an abrupt shift in tempo gives everyone an immediate opportunity for a fresh start.

True, the dust has by no means settled on the Festival. Imperial Commander himself is likely to run again at Aintree next month and his Gold Cup victim, Denman, may also have another outing this season – either at the same meeting or at Punchestown. But it is instructive of the sport's constant capacity for renewal that even these horses will soon have receded in the priorities of those who noticed no less a creature than St Nicholas Abbey ending his hibernation at the Curragh yesterday.

The outstanding European juvenile of 2009 was among several Ballydoyle stars to stretch their legs after the first turf meeting of the new Flat season in Ireland. Their trainer, admittedly, always discourages observers from reading too much into what they see. Aidan O'Brien instead uses this familiar ritual to stir the interest of the horses themselves, as they grope towards the fitness foundation required for a long, arduous season. The horses he took to the meeting for more competitive assignments during the afternoon testified that the stable is likely to make its usual quiet start. Even so, the involvement of St Nicholas Abbey, Rip Van Winkle and others helped to reset the focus for the weeks and months ahead.

Sadly, Steinbeck was not among them, a setback having placed his participation in the Stan James 2,000 Guineas in jeopardy. Another longstanding Classic fancy, Jan Vermeer, was also absent because of a stone bruise.

As usual, O'Brien merely had his horses jostling for seven furlongs over the Curragh at a fairly innocuous canter. Even so, anyone holding an ante-post voucher about the Guineas and Investec Derby favourite could only be enthused by his first public appearance since the autumn. St Nicholas Abbey was settled in the middle of a posse of 10 that included older horses, notably Fame And Glory, before freewheeling clear of those around him in the final furlong. Due perspective was restored when he was matched, on the other side of the group, by one of his more exposed contemporaries in Mikhail Glinka.

In the second group Fencing Master, who showed similar promise to Steinbeck when close up in the Dewhurst, still looked green before responding steadily to his rider's promptings and working his way towards the front. Cape Blanco, highly regarded last year, looked pretty lazy in behind but Alfred Nobel implied that he might prove rather more than the precocious creature he looked last summer.

They have clearly been asking their horses to do rather more in another Co Tipperary stable. Tommy Stack won each of the season's first four races before letting someone else have a turn, largely by dint of having no more runners. The cumulative odds were 3,387-1. Stack was represented by his son, Fozzie, who invoked the memory of a cherished figure on the Irish scene, who died last week. "I was quite pally with John Mulhern and think he must be looking down on us," Stack Jnr said. "That's the only explanation I have. The two-year-old [High Award] was mad fit but will be better over six [furlongs] and might turn into an Ascot horse. The only one I thought might need the run was Zorija Rose – and she won the easiest!"

In a bulletin on those eclipsed by Imperial Commander at Cheltenham, Paul Nicholls admitted he had been anxious about Kauto Star after his shocking fall. "I was a little bit concerned about him on Friday night because he was very hot, very sore and bothered," the trainer said. "But Saturday morning he was OK and he trotted out 100 per cent sound. Denman is fine, I think he looks after himself a little now. He doesn't give himself such a hard race, which is sensible, and comes out of his races a lot better."

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Pillar Of Hercules (3.10 Kelso)

Tumbled down the weights since joining Ferdy Murphy but showed lot more after a lay-off at this course last time.


Stormin Exit (3.40 Kelso)

Showed immediate improvement for his new trainer to win at Newcastle in January, but more conservative tactics backfired when dropped to this trip last time, losing critical momentum when not fluent two out.


The Midnight Club (W P Mullins) took time to find his feet over fences but his strong finish for third in the Jewson Novices' handicap Chase at Cheltenham last week suggested he will be competitive in big handicaps back over longer trips.


Penitent, the long-term favourite for the William Hill Lincoln at Doncaster on Saturday, is 7-1 from 8-1 with the sponsors.