Mankind is always being blamed for blighting the grandeur of Nature, but this time things look like working out the other way round. For while the men responsible for Duke Of Marmalade and New Approach were hoping to reach for the stars at York this afternoon, it is very hard for anyone to get his feet off ground quite as muddy as this.
Yesterday, after some understandable vacillation, connections confirmed that Duke Of Marmalade will take his chance against the Derby winner in the Juddmonte International Stakes. But heavy going means that there is precious little prospect of what might be called a clean fight.
These outstanding Irish colts, in this discipline perhaps the world champions of their respective generations, were coming here to meet on neutral turf. In the event, however, it seems inevitable that the ground will itself prove critical to the outcome.
At the best of times, York has often seemed prey to mysterious track biases. Judged on its generous topography, the Knavesmire should be the fairest track in the land, yet tends to produce invisible highways, often favouring frontrunners. In fairness, the executive is investing heavily in new drainage to ensure that York is as hospitable to those on four legs as it is, beyond question, to those on two. But something along the lines of the Thames flood barrier will be needed to cope with another August as vile as this one.
The irony will be lost on few who wondered whether the meeting's extension, to include a fourth day, might result in a "dilution" of quality. Either way, it will be tough going for the groundsmen if the surface is to remain fit for Group One runners in the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes on Friday.
All in all, the conditions represent a dispiriting context to what should, by rights, be the showdown of the year to date. In one corner, Duke Of Marmalade, immaculate in four Group One wins already this season, including when trying a new distance at Ascot last time. In the other, New Approach, a decisive Derby winner, and an old-fashioned one, too, having also been champion juvenile. On paper, you can forget the rest. It is more like a match between prizefighters. Consider the cornermen, too: the matchless Aidan O'Brien matched against his mentor, Jim Bolger; and the inveterate winners of Coolmore against that unflagging adventurer, Sheikh Mohammed.
Yet the chances are that the canvas has already been skewed. For the one potential chink in the armour of the iron Duke remains ground like this. He has never experienced anything like it, and while his jockey, Johnny Murtagh, clings to the belief that this horse "would die for you", it would be a pity to see him discover any kind of pain barrier when he still has vital challenges ahead this autumn.
In fairness, we have become accustomed to O'Brien fortifying brilliant horses with hardiness and versatility. Even in risking Duke Of Marmalade, moreover, his masters have confirmed that their own interests nowadays seem to dovetail far more happily with those of the sporting public.
It is pretty obvious, of course, where O'Brien learned how to toughen horses. Bolger has never excused his charges graft. To more conventional minds, indeed, the setback that caused New Approach to be scratched from the Irish Derby could yet prove a very timely one – Bolger having found himself obliged to give the colt the sort of midsummer break orthodoxy demands for any Classic horse asked to hold his form into the autumn.
By the same token, New Approach is entitled to need the run today, which in turn potentially vitiates the benefit of his proven ability to handle deep ground. It may even prove that the singular circumstances permit some interloper to bridge the abyss dividing the two favourites from the rabble, but those contemplating a bet are best advised to treat last year's race as a template.
On that occasion, the Derby winner, Authorized, gained first run on Dylan Thomas. This time round O'Brien has campaigned Duke Of Marmalade along the same path as Dylan Thomas, only with still more success; but he may yet meet a similar reverse against another exceptional Epsom winner, in New Approach (3.25).
There is too much guesswork involved, however, for punters to get seriously involved in these conditions. Patkai, for instance, was well beaten in soft ground in the spring but has subsequently improved into an obvious St Leger favourite; Top Lock (2.50) at least slogged his way into third in the German Derby in horrible ground and could prove better value for the Ladbrokes Great Voltigeur Stakes.
And who can say which of the unexposed youngsters will handle the gloop best in the Acomb Stakes? Experience could be important, and perhaps that will bring Rileyskeepingfaith (2.15) into play at a good price.
There are fewer doubts, however, about Allied Powers (4.40) in the last. Proven in testing ground, he looked ready for renewed progress when failing to get home over a longer distance last time.