If the form book is a maze, then there are very different ways of navigating through it. Some try to use all available data – the equivalent of leaving a trail of flour, drawing maps, calculating the position of the stars. Others prefer to rely on intuition. As ever, the ideal approach is probably a blend of the two. But certainly the more precision you seek, the more you must beware dogma and literalism.
Consider the debate over Paco Boy, hot favourite for the Juddmonte Lockinge Stakes at Newbury today. Last month Paco Boy won a Group race over one of the stiffest miles in the country, at Sandown. Yet many pundits persevere in doubting that the colt truly "stays" a mile, saying that he got away with it, that day, purely on class. Though a tenable theory, it provoked Richard Hughes, Paco Boy's jockey, into a politely indignant letter to the Racing Post.
The one certainty is that rigid doctrine should not be applied to the mass of bone, sinew and temperament that comprises a thoroughbred. To be adamant that a particular horse "stays" seven furlongs, but not eight, is akin to saying that grass is green but lime is not. It is all a matter of degree. The poor creature is not going to collapse in a sudden heap the moment it passes the furlong pole.
This very week last year, Twice Over was beaten in the Dante Stakes at York, over 10 furlongs, having sat out the 2,000 Guineas over a mile. It was a delicate call, as he had beaten no less a colt than Raven's Pass over the Guineas course and distance, but here he is, back over a mile in the Lockinge. The reality is that he is simply not as good as a lot of people believed. All the agonising over his optimum distance proved a red herring.
Raven's Pass offers another instructive case history. At that time, it seemed he was not quite seeing out the mile, that he might even be a sprinter. Yet he ended up winning the Breeders' Cup Classic itself, over 10 furlongs. The moral is surely that assessing a horse's best trip is not strictly a matter of whether he "stays", or "needs" farther, but a way of establishing its most comfortable environment. Raven's Pass had plenty of pace, but that is why he found Santa Anita so congenial, with its kind surface and sharp turns.
Paco Boy may well not be at his most effective today, even over this less searching track. He remains the most obvious winner, but the going will be more testing today and the odds permit little margin for error.
Virtual could well reverse Sandown form with the favourite, in deteriorating conditions, but perhaps it is worth taking a chance on Alexandros (2.40) at 20-1. He seemed an improved performer during his winter in Dubai, and has since finished well when set too much to do in Hong Kong.
With his stable finding a decent groove of form, he looks much too big a price for a colt, who finally seems to be retrieving the promise of his younger days, when he once made the frame in a Group One race over just six furlongs.
Last season the science of form analysis would have dismissed him as hopelessly out of his depth at that level. But he does seem to have clicked, somehow, and every now and then you find the quickest way out of the maze simply by following a hunch.
Midday still the apple of Cecil's eye even after Charlotte's trial victory
Henry Cecil won his second Investec Oaks trial in seven days at Newbury yesterday but it seems as though he will be relying on the filly who won so well at Lingfield last Saturday, Midday, at Epsom. Apple Charlotte (pictured) instead seems likely to wait for Royal Ascot.
On the final day of the Dante meeting at York, meanwhile, Ask outclassed his rivals for the Emirates Airline Yorkshire Cup, coping easily with the softened ground and surging six lengths clear of Blue Bajan. He will head to Epsom next for the Investec Coronation Cup.
Presvis, the winner of a huge prize in Hong Kong last month for Luca Cumani, tries for another tomorrow in the Singapore Airlines International Cup at Kranji.
Nap: Aqwaal (3.10 Newbury)
NB: Main Aim (3.45 Newbury)