Chris McGrath: O'Brien puts Abbey back on map and remains hot on Classic trail

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

These are the days when the racing calendar settles into its best rhythm, as the horses herd along familiar paths towards the summer ground of Epsom, Royal Ascot and Goodwood.

From the Guineas meeting last weekend, their migration takes them to Chester, on to Lingfield today, Leopardstown tomorrow and York next week, as reliably as the returning swifts.

At least this seamless cycle has been spared a vacuous new veneer. Indeed, the authors of the British Champions Series must have been aghast at the possibility that Frankel could make his next start in the Totesport Dante Stakes, at York on Thursday. As it is, the young champion obligingly stays at a mile – and in a Group One race – at Royal Ascot. But how they must envy the American Triple Crown, with its immanent blend of heritage and marketability.

The Triple Crown works so well only because it developed organically. In fact, the Kentucky Derby is the youngest of the three legs. Mind you, it is questionable whether the modern American thoroughbred is still equal to the challenge. It is now 33 years since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner.

Today one of the 19 colts lining up for the 137th Kentucky Derby will step forward and become the sole eligible candidate to satisfy the craving for another – first in the Preakness and then, potentially, in the Belmont. And the process of establishing his identity will command unusual interest this side of the ocean.

For one thing, the race usually clashes with our own first Classic. This time round, however, the 2,000 Guineas has already been run – and won, as it happens, by a colt named in honour of a great American trainer. Bobby Frankel's dying regret, perhaps, was that he never won the Kentucky Derby. It is, demonstrably, an excusable omission on any CV. Even so, the performance of Master Of Hounds will be assessed unsparingly by the locals, who have not always seen Ballydoyle horses at their best at the Breeders' Cup in recent years. It seems a long time, certainly, since Aidan O'Brien saddled Johannesburg to that breathtaking success in the 2001 Juvenile.

The same horse could not cut the mustard when returning the following May, and O'Brien has not tried again since. Master Of Hounds has already restored one forgotten frontier for his stable, however, becoming its first runner in Dubai since 2005. His superb run in the UAE Derby showed that he has thrived from two to three, but the synthetic surface at Meydan bears no resemblance to dirt, and this colt's pedigree essentially disposes him towards turf. It is true that Kingmambo has sired a Belmont winner, Lemon Drop Kid, but Master Of Hounds was confined to the grass course when sent on reconnaissance at the Breeders' Cup last autumn – running creditably enough, granted, over an inadequate trip.

O'Brien would surely settle for any kind of prominent showing from Master Of Hounds, who has won only a maiden race in seven starts. The trainer's morale will be high, however, after a highly productive raid on Chester this week. Yesterday he won his fourth race of the meeting when the champion juvenile of 2009, St Nicholas Abbey, made a welcome return to form in the Boodles Diamond Ormonde Stakes. Sixth when hot favourite for the Guineas last year, St Nicholas Abbey had exhausted the patience of most when finally surfacing at the Curragh last month, to be well beaten at odds-on. Raised in trip, however, he roared nine lengths clear in the short straight and looks ready to retrieve the heights of his youth.

A year after being scratched as Derby favourite, St Nicholas Abbey could now head to Epsom at last for the Investec Coronation Cup. O'Brien deserves much credit. It would have been easy to tell his owners to cut their losses, and he was on a hiding to nothing at this level. With the Australian import, So You Think, and Await The Dawn impressing deeply in recent days, he has some exciting fresh blood among his older horses.

As for the Classic generation, Together was collared only late in the 1,000 Guineas last Sunday, but Roderic O'Connor finished as dazed as any of Frankel's other pursuers the previous day. O'Brien put it vividly, saying that the colt "came back with his eyes rolling all over the place". Things are shaping up nicely for Epsom, however. Wonder Of Wonders really looks the part for the Investec Oaks, while tomorrow O'Brien seeks a ninth success in 12 runnings of the Derrinstown Derby Trial at Leopardstown, with Recital and two others. He will then send Seville over to meet Carlton House and World Domination in the Dante. Whichever of these colts can complete the journey – all the way to Epsom on 4 June, or Belmont a week later – nobody could ever lose the path.

Hurricane's breeze leaves all serene on Turf

Of all the compliments extended to Frankel, perhaps none tells you more than the fact that Hurricane Fly's performance at Punchestown yesterday remained only the second-most impressive of the week. Because the way he mocked his rivals for the Rabobank Champion Hurdle permitted little doubt that Hurricane Fly must be much the most talented hurdler since Istabraq himself.

True, the opening phase of the race was as ridiculous as its denouement proved magnificent. All six jockeys were so reluctant to lead that they barely moved when the starter raised the tapes, and several seconds elapsed before Tony McCoy suddenly decided that he might profit from the situation by rushing Binocular into a clear early lead.

Binocular did not repay his initiative, losing ground at most obstacles, and Menorah, had taken over before the home turn. Binocular rallied briefly but their duel already seemed quite academic. Ruby Walsh was restraining the champion hurdler on the bridle, and stared humorously at his frantic rivals when allowing him to ease into the lead approaching the last. In the end a formal margin of five lengths hardly reflected the abyss dividing Hurricane Fly, winning his ninth Grade One, from Thousand Stars. "He was just awesome," Mullins said, "as good as I've seen him." Coral concurred, cutting Hurricane Fly from 3-1 to 7-4 to retain his crown at Cheltenham next year.

In the space of seven days, and barely a month after the flagellations of Aintree, two contrasting exhibitions of theatrical brilliance have suddenly made the Turf seem a much happier place.

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Chosen One (6.30 Thirsk)

Represents a stable full of well handicapped horses, after a long spell in the doldrums, and this course winner looked ready to contribute to the revival when finishing best at Musselburgh last time.

Next Best

Shernando (2.55 Nottingham)

Very stoutly bred and looked certain to relish this longer trip when third at Ascot last summer. Had won first time out so clearly goes well fresh.

One To Watch

Blue Bajan (David O'Meara) has plenty of miles on the clock, but looks like joining the list of those rejuvenated by his new trainer after staying on for sixth in the Chester Cup on Wednesday.

Where the money's going

World Domination continues to attract support for the Investec Derby, ahead of his second start at York next week, and is now 7-2 from 4-1 with William Hill.