It was just like old times at Newmarket this week, when Infallible, Twice Over and Raven's Pass all did their best to restore the fading reputation of Classic trials. For good measure, Twice Over was saddled by Henry Cecil, whose resurgence has become a matter of communal, bittersweet yearning. His haggard aspect no longer betrays the glamorous ravages of youth, of course, but the challenges of the present. Thankfully, his skills and dignity remain unimpaired, and the racing public is cherishing every opportunity to reiterate their affection and good wishes.
That Twice Over is a legitimate Classic colt is beyond question, though it is harder to judge whether destiny summons him to Epsom or back to the Rowley Mile. Cecil's own instinct is plainly to send Twice Over to York next month for the Totesport Dante Stakes, en route to the Derby, but he must first persuade the colt's owner-breeder, Khaled Abdulla, to turn his back on the Stan James 2,000 Guineas.
That process might yet be simplified when the week's rehearsals are concluded at Newbury today. Sir Michael Stoute saddles another of Abdulla's colts, Confront, in the Bathwick Tyres Greenham Stakes, and a convincing performance might make it easier to hold back Twice Over.
Mind you, the changing habits of trainers can make these things hard to assess. Last spring, for instance, Adagio started favourite for Stoute in the Guineas after an impressive reappearance in the Craven Stakes, but finished only 12th. Instead, four of the first five home had arrived without a previous race, the exception being Dutch Art, who had shaped with little promise when beaten at odds-on in the Greenham.
His startling improvement during the next fortnight showed that some horses, or trainers, still value the old-fashioned virtues of an earnest public examination before the Guineas. And the bitter winds at Newbury yesterday emphasised how awkward it can be to toughen the precious egos of some Flat horses at this time of year.
The Heath telegraph suggests that Confront has approached his schedule this spring with striking purpose. Judging from his build, two promising performances last year represented a mere downpayment on what might be expected this time. His victim at Ascot in October, Stimulation, was unfortunate not to beat Beacon Lodge next time – ostensibly putting that colt's chance today in perspective – and made a winning return at Newmarket on Wednesday.
Sir Gerry has runs on the board, having won the Gimcrack Stakes last summer, but must prove his stamina for a seventh furlong. Over the years, this race has often been a refuge for sprinters in denial. In contrast, Confront may come into his own over longer distances, as a son of Nayef from the family of Elmaamul and Reams Of Verse. It is perfectly feasible for him to be just caught out, perhaps by the fitness and acceleration of Paco Boy, and still lay solid foundations for the Guineas. In the good old days, after all, that kind of thing would happen all the time.
Gosden momentum points to Michita
It is difficult to know quite what Muthabara would have to do in the Dubai Duty Free Fred Darling Stakes to corroborate some of the more excitable accounts of her work at home this spring. So far as the rest of us can judge, her public form falls well short of that achieved at York last summer by Nahoodh. But that filly's subsequent disappearance, and her habit of hanging under pressure, prompts wariness today.
With Muthabara unlikely to represent value, a chance could be taken with Michita, whose stablemate, Infallible, had likewise won her sole start last autumn before impressing in the week's other fillies' trial, at Newmarket. With John Gosden's three-year-olds in bristling fettle, Michita (3.25) can be expected to have her wits about her, and it may be premature to assume that her slow-motion success over a mile disqualifies her from this test of speed. That was more about inexperience than anything else.
The Bloor Homes Spring Cup is either going to prove impossibly competitive or a cakewalk for Sound Of Nature (2.50). Injured in the van on the way to Royal Ascot last year, he remains lightly raced, and drying ground can help him sustain his trainer's vintage start to the season.
Oaks clues remain thin on the ground
Two of the last three Oaks winners introduced themselves on the card staged at Newbury yesterday, but Ladbrokes will give you 40-1 against Clowance following suit after her maiden success. Still, her eminently rational trainer, Roger Charlton, suspects that she may return for the Oaks trial staged here next month, and Henry Cecil seemed to think more of the runner-up, Montbretia, than Burn The Breeze, who won him the second division of the same maiden.
That took Cecil's score to five wins from his last 11 runners, Unnefer having taken the same race he chose for Light Shift last year. He had no grand aspirations for this "sweet little horse" but it would be nice to see him follow Light Shift's hoofprints to the most enchanting meeting on the spring circuit. As if anybody needs an excuse to go to Chester.
Opera the best call with Walsh aboard
It could be a different story on grass, but on paper the Coral Scottish National has been hopelessly distorted by the participation of Halcon Genelardais. Just foiled in the Welsh version after Christmas, he is 13lb higher at Ayr today after a fourth behind Denman at Cheltenham, leaving only two others in the handicap. True, Old Benny is only 2lb "wrong" after his success at the Festival, but others are less fortunate than his stablemate – including some ideal types for the race in Philson Run, Noir Et Vert and Leading Man.
The logical solution is Opera Mundi (3.40). His form at Haydock in the autumn proved strong, more so than an 8lb higher mark would allow, and the longer trip will vitiate the drying ground. His stable is seeing out the season with vigour and his jockey lacks peers in marathons.
Their best chance on the card, however, is Pacha D'Oudairies (4.20), given rather a lot to do by an amateur rider on his handicap debut at Aintree last time.
Back Great Leighs to confound cynics
At long last, Great Leighs stages its first meeting tomorrow, but it is going to be another month or so before the place is deemed ready for paying customers. Having only passed a final inspection yesterday, the management will admit only a maximum of 350 invited guests. Even so, it is the first new racecourse to open its doors to anyone since Taunton in 1927.
And, after so many postponements since October 2006, it will be a relief for the entrepreneur, John Holmes, to silence all those cheap gags and see his vision finally taking material shape. Newmarket being notoriously on the way to nowhere, convenience alone will surely win Great Leighs many friends there, quite apart from the racing surface, which was warmly praised by participants in the trials held last week.
Construction has been held up by everything short of a plague of locusts, but chronic cynicism is a far worse adversary. Great Leighs has demanded plenty of patience already, and any teething problems will doubtless call for more. But it will be well worth it in the end.
Derby hints aplenty in Ballysax Stakes
In the shorter term, the most significant meeting staged tomorrow is not at Great Leighs, but at Leopardstown, where Aidan O'Brien tests the Derby water with three runners in the PW McGrath Memorial Ballysax Stakes. The Ballydoyle trainer has had only one winner during April, and most of his runners at Newmarket this week failed to get themselves involved. But most of them were "sighters" and he will surely have been heartened by the way The Bogberry crept from the rear for third place to Twice Over in the Craven Stakes.
Lying in wait in the Ballysax is Unwritten Rule, the colt who narrowly thwarted one of the stable's more plausible Epsom types, Washington Irving, over course and distance, a fortnight ago. With Hebridean having the look of a pacemaker, attention this time will focus on Alessandro Volta and King Of Rome. Both are sons of Montjeu, the former progressing well to win a Listed race here last autumn, the latter proving too immature when sent over to Doncaster in October to contest the Racing Post Trophy.
He is also sending his first juveniles up the ladder, one at Naas today and another in the opener at Leopardstown. These are always intoxicating days on the Flat. It might still be frozen in the trees, but in racing men the sap is sweetly on the rise.