It will have given his backers little comfort yesterday to hear Aidan O'Brien once again reiterate his opinion that St Nicholas Abbey can "walk on water". In fact, after learning that the long-time favourite will miss the Investec Derby on Saturday, some of them will have been disposed to do something similar themselves, only with stones in their pockets.
The news can scarcely have come as a shock. O'Brien had admitted himself concerned that St Nicholas Abbey should have worked with an unprecedented lack of flair last Friday, and the market had since acquired an alarming aspect for those eagerly holding ante-post vouchers for so many months. But the last embers of hope were not finally extinguished until the formal identification of a problem yesterday morning, when the colt emerged from his box moving stiffly behind.
If his reappearance defeat in the 2,000 Guineas had not provided an adequate rebuke for his hasty anointment as heir to Sea The Stars, then this discovery of a physical fragility in St Nicholas Abbey will perhaps renew a proper sense not only of the metronomic brilliance of that champion, but also, above all, for the constitution that underpinned his uninterrupted progress through the top races of 2009.
The discomfort in St Nicholas Abbey was traced to his hindquarters. Once again, his trainer made the news public with commendable speed. "St Nicholas Abbey was due to work first thing this morning," O'Brien said. "However when he came out of his box, we noticed he was stiff behind. He had looked slightly stiff yesterday evening. His work on Friday last was a little lack-lustre, for him, and that was the first time we had seen anything different, but he was fine afterwards.
"He was immediately examined and scanned by our vets this morning," he added. "They found a slight muscle injury high up in his hind quarter. This meant he could not work today, and we were advised to give him an easy few days. Obviously this will preclude him from running in the Investec Derby on Saturday. We always thought St Nicholas Abbey could walk on water, and it is very unfortunate for all concerned to have a setback like this so close to the big race."
Any bookmakers in the water, meanwhile, will only be there to shed crocodile tears. David Williams of Ladbrokes estimated that £2m had been staked on St Nicholas Abbey for Epsom, across the industry, since his emergence last summer. "It's dreadful news for punters," he admitted. "They kept the faith all winter. There's no way to soften the blow. It highlights the perils of ante-post punting, but the timing and scale of the news have combined to render it very bleak news indeed."
There was little consolation, meanwhile, for others who have pinned their colours to the Ballydoyle mast, as no reprieve seems likely for Cape Blanco, who extended his immaculate record in the Dante Stakes at York. O'Brien indicated that the plan remains for him to run in the Prix du Jockey-Club at Chantilly on Sunday instead. Coral removed Cape Blanco from their betting altogether.
Having had the first four in the betting after the completion of the various trials, O'Brien's realistic challenge – bar a potential pacemaker in At First Sight – is now confined to Jan Vermeer, heavily backed since Friday and the likely mount of Johnny Murtagh, and Midas Touch.
Nor has he helped his cause, on the face of it, by turning his back on his former stable jockey, Kieren Fallon, a winner of three Derbys who had finally retrieved top form over the past few days. Fallon has been left to ride Godolphin's third string, Al Zir, with Frankie Dettori confirmed for Rewilding and Ahmed Ajtebi for Buzzword.
Al Zir was ninth in the Guineas but is by no means guaranteed to stay the extra distance at Epsom. His trainer, Saeed Bin Suroor, has experienced a difficult spring – not least with his former assistant, Mahmood Al Zarooni, making such a quick start – but came off best as Roayh led home a 1-2-3 for the two Godolphin trainers in a juvenile maiden at Leicester yesterday.
Investec Derby (Totesport odds): 13-8 Jan Vermeer, 6 Bullet Train, Midas Touch, Workforce, 9-1 Cape Blanco, 10-1 Rewilding, 12-1 Azmeel, 20-1 bar.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Luc Jordan (6.50 Kempton) Progressive last autumn – winning over course and distance – and a promising resumption at Chester, never able to reach top gear after getting stuck on the inside. Not given a hard time to finish midfield, and stable in excellent form now.
Avon River (8.50 Kempton) Came to life in blinkers at Windsor the other day and remains well in under a penalty here. Having travelled strongly, likely to prove equally effective dropped in trip tonight.
One to watch
Crown Choice (W R Swinburn) Represents a trainer in much better form and produced his best effort on turf at Newmarket the other day, cutting them down stylishly before fading in a three-way finish – promising amends with emphasis on speed.
Where the money's going
Workforce is 5-1 from 6-1 for the Investec Derby with William Hill.