Two colts apparently tower above the rest in the biggest race of the week, but there is a corresponding polarity in the betting, and backing either for the Sussex Stakes today will be a nervy business. Canford Cliffs is odds-on, after coming of age in devastating fashion at the Curragh and Royal Ascot, but needs to improve again to surpass the performance of Rip Van Winkle in this race last year. It is difficult, however, to know whether the latter is likely to run up to that form after a tame run at Royal Ascot last month.
In fairness, that represented a pretty forbidding comeback, seven months after his previous run at the Breeders' Cup. It seems harsh to observe that it was his second consecutive disappointment. After all, California had come at the end of an exacting campaign. At the same time, Rip Van Winkle's chronic foot problems make it hard to be adamant that he will recover the form that enabled him to thrash no less a rival than Paco Boy last year. In theory, he can do so by improving for his Ascot run, but that must be a matter of hope rather than expectation.
Canford Cliffs, in contrast, could not be flourishing more obviously. Since being taught to settle, he has been finishing the mile with a good deal more conviction. In principle, this track should suit him ideally, with its emphasis on speed. At the odds, however, there are one or two grounds for caution.
Richard Hughes, whose gorgeous riding this year has contributed significantly to the consummation of this colt's potential, is adamant Canford Cliffs will not lose rhythm over the undulations. A bigger problem would be failing to find cover, or relax, off a false gallop, which is not impossible with most of these held up.
The dilemma for the Rip Van Winkle camp is that a strong pace, which would help Canford Cliffs settle, must be their own doing. Rip Van Winkle committed a long way out last year, and is escorted from Ballydoyle this time by two others. The tactics on this pair will be critical, the fact they are drawn immediately inside the favourite notwithstanding.
Encompassing looks a pacemaker pure and simple, but Beethoven is a Group One winner in his own right, one who only has four lengths to find on the Ascot running with Canford Cliffs. Given that he too had been off since the Breeders' Cup, that looks at least as solid a foundation as that laid by Rip Van Winkle. O'Brien's son, Joseph, cannot claim his allowance at this level but showed his maturity on Beethoven that day, sensibly restrained once beaten. Admittedly this colt's Dewhurst win has not worked out especially well, but his sire improved through a busy career and 33-1 looks a pretty generous price.
Certainly Beethoven looks palatable each-way insurance for those discouraged by the odds about the front two.