Although the two Classics at Epsom this weekend, the Derby and the Oaks, are rightly at the forefront of anticipation, there are so many other facets to the sport, not least the quest to find a successor to the peerless Yeats. The exploits of the great horse, who completed an unprecedented Ascot Gold Cup four-timer last June, revitalised interest in the staying division, but his retirement at the end of the season left an imposing set of horseshoes to fill.
Hopes that his erstwhile Ballydoyle stablemate Age Of Aquarius could fill the void, though, stuttered at Leopardstown yesterday, when the four-year-old appeared to own neither the class nor stamina to cope with the Dermot Weld-trained Profound Beauty in the Saval Beg Stakes. The mare, ridden by Pat Smullen, was always travelling the better as the pair drew clear of their rivals in the straight and had a cosy length to spare at the line over the 2-5 favourite.
Profound Beauty, who carries the famous black-and-white Moyglare Stud colours, is a proven marathon woman with a progressive profile and may yet be improving further at the age of six; yesterday was her first outing for eight months and Age Of Aquarius was race-fit. She has been beaten, though, in all three of her tries at the top level in the past three seasons – the Irish Oaks, the Melbourne Cup and the Irish St Leger – and does not hold an entry for next month's Ascot long-distance showpiece.
Her long-term target this season, via the Curragh Cup and perhaps the Yorkshire Oaks, is another tilt at Australia's best-known contest, a two-mile handicap in which she finished a creditable fifth, beaten less than three lengths, two years ago. "I do think she's better than she was last year," said Smullen, "and it felt as if she's even getting a shade quicker in the finish. I may have asked her to go to the front a bit soon, but I'd no choice – as soon as I gave her a squeeze she took me there. She got a bit tired in the last 100 yards but class always tells and she got me home."
Weld already has two Melbourne Cups on his CV, with Vintage Crop and Media Puzzle, the only European trainer to take the prize. "If everything goes right through the year we'll take her back there," he said. "She's a joy to train."
After Age Of Aquarius's defeat Manifest, trained by Henry Cecil, hardened as favourite for the Gold Cup. Aidan O'Brien, though, was far from disheartened by the effort of the white-faced four-year-old, who was conceding weight to the winner. "I'm delighted with him," he said, "and he'll come forward for it. The idea is to go to Ascot."
A defeat for an odds-on shot, though, will not have been the ideal start to Derby week for the trainer, who will finalise his stable's running and riding arrangements for the premier Classic after his contenders go through their final workouts tomorrow and Wednesday.
Ahead of Friday's Oaks, Michael Jarvis confirmed an ambitious schedule for Sajjhaa, an eyecatching winner of her first and only start at Sandown 11 days ago by seven lengths. The King's Best filly, who carries the colours of Sheikh Ahmed al-Maktoum, will thus step straight from maiden to Group One company and was backed over the weekend, from 16-1 to half that price, to do it successfully.
"She's in great order," said Jarvis, who sent out Eswarah to take the Oaks five years ago with only two previous outings under her girth and Sajjhaa's grand-dam Noushkey to finish second in 1999. "They have only one year to have a crack at the Classics, so if you feel they are good enough they deserve the opportunity."
With a dry week forecast, watering of the track will start at Epsom this morning. "I'm calling the going good, good to firm in places," said the clerk of the course, Andrew Cooper, after inspecting underfoot conditions yesterday, "and it walks to me just on the fast side of good. It's lovely safe Flat racing ground and we want to maintain it."
Kieren Fallon took his first Classic of the year yesterday, albeit one of Europe's lesser ones. In the Italian Oaks in Milan, downgraded some years ago to Group Two level, he brought the Luca Cumani-trained Contredanse home by inches from another British raider, Richard Hannon's charge Middle Club. Contredanse had previously won two handicaps this year but on her final run at two had finished third behind Friday's Epsom favourite, Aviate.
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Iguacu (5.35 Leicester)
Has winning form over today's trip and will be sharper for his run at Lingfield 12 days ago, his first after a break. On a fair mark, further reduced by his rider's allowance.
Escape Artist (3.00 Redcar)
Showed a glimmer of ability in his three runs over an inadequate seven furlongs last year and makes his seasonal debut over a distance more in keeping with his breeding, by Act One out of a Shirley Heights mare.
One to watch
The Galileo filly Saggiatore (E A Dunlop) was comprehensively outpointed by Oaks contender Sajjhaa over 10 furlongs at Sandown as she acquired a handicap mark but will be seen to much better effect over further.
Where the money's going
Fame and Glory has been cut from 11-8 to 5-4 by Victor Chandler at the head of the market for Friday's Coronation Cup at Epsom.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Christmas Carnival (5.00 Leicester)