Chris McGrath: Naaqoos fluffs his lines in opening Classic rehearsal
Saturday 11 April 2009
Given enough time, they say that a monkey with a typewriter will randomly replicate the works of Shakespeare. Admittedly, even that would scarcely account for the way the racing fixture list sometimes seems to have been thrown together. Once a year, however, matters are taken out of the sport's hands. And this time round, as it happens, accident compares very favourably with design.
In theory, thanks to the vagaries of the vernal equinox, the Oddschecker Easter Stakes could be staged at any time between 22 March and 25 April, though apparently it would take 5.7 million years to work through the entire cycle.
Year by year, Easter is pulled hither and thither by the lunar and solar calendars, the disparities between which have exasperated astronomers ever since Meton of Athens first tried to reconcile them in the fifth century BC. The Egyptians bequeathed a solar year – 365 days, five hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds – to the Romans, and in turn the Christians; while the Jews and Islam favoured a lunar one, some 11 days shorter. It would be pushing things to expect the race planning department to sort that one out. In falling where it does this year, however, Easter permits the big race at Kempton today to fit seamlessly into an engrossing nine-day sequence of rehearsals for the first Classics of the new season.
Those godless Gauls began the show yesterday, when Naaqoos made his reappearance at Maisons-Laffitte. Whatever other iniquities are attributed to our own bureaucrats, at least they have so far resisted avaricious demands for racing on Good Friday.
And somebody up there did not take too kindly to the participation of Naaqoos, who started long odds-on for the Prix Djebel. A Group One winner at Longchamp last autumn, Naaqoos had been strong in the market for the Stan James 2,000 Guineas, but produced a very flat trial against only half a dozen rivals here. Fairly keen to post, he made most of the running, but soon came off the bridle, and conspicuously failed to raise his game when challenged by a colt named Le Havre. The chances are that the narrow winner is himself pretty able, but Freddie Head, trainer of Naaqoos, made no bones about it. "We'll get him home, and see how he is, but I would say Newmarket is doubtful," he said. "He will improve, but I am disappointed."
Previously as short as 5-1 with Ladbrokes, Naaqoos was promptly scratched from their betting. They now have Mastercraftsman as 5-1 clear favourite, from Evasive, Rip Van Winkle and Delegator on 8-1. The latter is scheduled to resurface in the Banshahousestables.com Craven Stakes, over the Guineas course and distance, on Thursday.
It must be said that proceedings at Kempton today seem unlikely to prove quite as relevant. Four years ago, admittedly, a similarly disparaging view was taken of Rebel Rebel, who went on to finish second to Footstepsinthesand in the Guineas at odds of 100-1. And many see corresponding significance in the fact that Captain Ramius, one of the two unbeaten colts in today's field, represents the same stable.
The name on the licence may have changed, Neville Callaghan handing over to his son, Simon, but the family firm retains its clinical sense of a horse's quality. More pertinent, perhaps, is the fact that Captain Ramius has himself changed hands since last season, when he won three races over seven furlongs for Mark Wallace – two round here, and a Listed contest at Dundalk.
Wallace has since emigrated to Australia, but Captain Ramius has pleased his new trainer and is evidently well fancied, despite a penalty for that success at Dundalk. He looked an awkward ride last year, however, and as a son of the sprinter Kheleyf cannot be guaranteed to relish the extra furlong in a race likely to be run at a searching pace Even if Captain Ramius is himself ridden more conservatively than in the past, a number of others in the field have responded to positive tactics and that can set things up for Saint Arch (1.50).
This colt briefly looked to be going nowhere in a handicap over course and distance a fortnight ago, but eventually worked his way through the gears and finished off very strongly. Over the years that has become a familiar trait in horses stabled with Mark Johnston, and Saint Arch has an irresistible profile as a hard-knocking, progressive animal who has so far produced far more substantial times than Captain Ramius.
Extraterrestrial (2.05) was foiled only narrowly when recommended here at 16-1 on the opening day of the turf season, and this time faces no rival as unexposed as Manassas. Meanwhile there should certainly be more to come from Scuffle (2.05), who seems to have been found an ideal opening by Roger Charlton.
Channel 4 also has cameras at Haydock, where perhaps better ground will help Young Albert (2.25) sort out his jumping, and the stoutly bred Fredo (2.55) (nap) looks sure to improve for a step up in distance.
If none of these win, however, all blame will be apportioned elsewhere. The monkey will simply be told to keep typing until he gets it right.
Mafaaz is on a mission to break barriers
With due respect to Aran Concerto, who contests a Grade One novice chase at Fairyhouse tomorrow, and his rider, Paul Carberry, somehow patched together again after another ghastly injury, there is no mistaking the most significant mission undertaken by a European horse this weekend.
After winning the inaugural Kentucky Derby Challenge at Kempton last month, Mafaaz might yet emphasise the schism developing in American racing between dirt and synthetic tracks. But there could be no better man than his trainer to show that these new horizons must be approached in a spirit of adventure. As at Santa Anita last autumn, John Gosden is proving an unerring pathfinder across a changing international landscape.
At Kempton, Mafaaz guaranteed himself a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby. By again running him on a synthetic surface in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland tonight, Gosden will not settle the obvious questions about the colt's ability to handle a very different surface at Churchill Downs. But if Mafaaz can demonstrate his eligibility locally, purely in terms of merit, then Gosden will have performed yet another service in breaking down the barriers manned by the sport's parochial rearguard.
Nap: Fredo (Haydock 2.55)
NB: Jorveybrook (Carlisle 4.30)
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