Chris McGrath: Rip Van Winkle looks Champion choice to signal autumn awakening for Ballydoyle's fresh battalions

Inside Track

Two months to go to the Breeders' Cup, and Flat racing's big ranches have yet to bring the harvest in.

But the next few days will be fairly critical. Today, for instance, Aidan O'Brien could win three Group One prizes in barely an hour. Next weekend, meanwhile, Godolphin will again depend on the Ladbrokes St Leger to salvage some kind of elite dividend from their domestic campaign. At the same time, O'Brien will probably send St Nicholas Abbey to a racecourse for the first time since May, albeit only for a workout.

These stables, traditional adversaries, must look upon the annals of the Tattersalls Irish Champion Stakes as though upon graffiti on the Berlin Wall. Anyone new to the game might take some convincing that Godolphin once won the race four times in five years, most memorably when Fantastic Light beat Galileo in 2001.

Since 2002, however, Leopardstown's biggest race has been dominated by Irish stables, largely through O'Brien but also in the past two runnings by John Oxx and Jim Bolger, with their Epsom winners, New Approach and Sea The Stars. This time, O'Brien accounts for three of the six runners, with the Maktoums hoping that Mark Johnston might coax still more improvement from Sea Lord, up in distance as well as class.

The people at Godolphin feel themselves judged too harshly on their record in British Classics, and a barren run stretching back to Henrythenavigator's 2,000 Guineas has likewise prompted some to conclude that O'Brien has had a fairly pedestrian season. So far, however, he has won five Group One races in England and four on home soil. He has, moreover, ensured that neither Rip Van Winkle nor Fame And Glory is exhausted in Group One company before the autumn.

Both those horses had the option of running today, but now Fame And Glory is also likely to sit out the Prix Foy at Longchamp tomorrow week and head straight for the Arc. That looks a smart move. Certainly, Rip Van Winkle proved so comfortable restored to 10 furlongs at York last time that it would have been reckless to hold him back for another speed duel with Canford Cliffs at Ascot later this month.

Rip Van Winkle instead renews opposition with the horse he beat at York. Plenty of people fancy Twice Over to reverse form, the theory being that the long straight and a protracted squabble with Byword softened them both up for Rip Van Winkle. But the winner, having finally disintegrated at Santa Anita after a gruelling season last year, is flourishing for a more indulgent approach this time round and could well improve again today.

It is a pity that his prospects of making amends at the Breeders' Cup could be wrecked by the switch to dirt at Churchill Downs, not least because the Mile will surely be too sharp. First things first, however, and he should be hard to beat today.

That much is evident in the odds, of course, and those seeking value should consider 25-1 against Famous Name. He has a fine record round here and, in renewing his career at a lower level, has hinted that he could yet win a big one.

His trainer, Dermot Weld, gets Bethrah back on track in the Coolmore Fusaichi Pegasus Matron Stakes. She has not been seen since the Irish 1,000 Guineas, an amazing effort on only her second start outside maidens but one that also suggested she ideally needs farther. O'Brien again provides formidable opposition through Lillie Langtry, who disappointed in the Falmouth Stakes but has been freshened up since. Her success at Royal Ascot confirmed that she remains pretty unexposed at a mile.

The British leg of O'Brien's Group One quest is the Betfred Sprint Trophy at Haydock, where Starspangledbanner aims to confirm himself the best around at six furlongs after being caught out over five, by a 100-1 shot, at York last month. He ran well enough, in the circumstances, though the notion that he is the fastest O'Brien has trained will stand up better in stallion brochures than on grass.

This test should prove rather more congenial, and he is the obvious class act, but O'Brien does fear that a campaign across two hemispheres will catch up with the Australian import sooner or later. Those looking for an each-way alternative are recommended Markab, who has been given a break since disappointing at Newbury and had previously produced a career best at Ascot.

There remains no more intriguing horse at Ballydoyle than St Nicholas Abbey, the champion juvenile who disappeared after the 2,000 Guineas. A recent entry for a Group race on the all-weather at Dundalk early next month implied that he may yet enter the Breeders' Cup equation.

"We were going to have a look at the Arc trials [next weekend] but he probably won't be ready," O'Brien said yesterday. "If that's so, we will take him away somewhere for a canter instead, and see how that goes before making a plan. It's just been routine work so far, and you wouldn't pick a target out of the air for him. So we'll start him off gently somewhere, not at the top, just to get him started.

"If everything went well, you'd probably still be looking towards next season for the horse, but that's not to say he won't be able to go for one of the big days later this year."

So never mind all this mellow fruitfulness at Ballydoyle. We could yet hear the songs of spring.

Nothing black and white in the case of the Am I Blue coup

The gamble on Am I Blue at Hereford this week has got a lot of people hot under the collar. They have some sound reasons, not least the meekness of the local stewards, but with the British Horseracing Authority now on the case we may soon see if rules have been broken.

Yes, it looks absurd that the conditional jockey originally booked to ride was said to be unavailable variously because he was unwell, at the dentist, and marooned by a puncture. And it seems provocative that he should then have been replaced by Richard Johnson, a senior rider. The horse, moreover, was trained by Delyth Thomas, a name so obscure that few would have sought any reason for Am I Blue to return to the form she had shown when last ridden by Johnson, at Fakenham last November.

Her trainer at that time, Tim Vaughan, has since made a cogent case for her doing so and Thomas herself adds that the mare had thrived for some spinal therapy. Surely nobody is so credulous to think the betting public has "a right" to be notified of absolutely every factor in every horse's training history that might conceivably affect its performance.

This gamble is estimated to have cost the bookies perhaps "a six-figure sum" – which would suggest, at odds from 25-1 to 5-1, few terribly serious bets. If the mare were trained by Barney Curley, say, she would never have been 25-1; but a lot more money would probably have been won. And most punters would have shrugged, admitting a grudging regard at how a touch can be made without stretching the rules. They just like to see it done with a certain etiquette.

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Tuscan Gold (4.20 Kempton)

Desperately unlucky on last visit to the course and distance, as he confirmed at Sandown next time, and subsequent race there (softer ground, inadequate test) did not really go his way. Little question that he remains capable of better than his present rating, still being unexposed at this kind of distance.

Next best

Amazing Star (2.25 Thirsk)

Well backed for his debut for a new stable, this Irish import showed why with an eye-catching run here last week, set plenty to do and not given a hard time to reach third. That ride may have reflected his quirky nature but he certainly has the ability to win off this kind of rating.

One to watch

Sud Pacifique (J Noseda)

May have disappointed those who sent him off as hot favourite for his debut at Newcastle earlier in the week, but this well-bred colt showed lots of ability in coasting through to challenge the winner, only to falter through inexperience.

Where the money's going

Sarrsar is 16-1 from 33-1 with the sponsors for the Totesport Cambridgeshire after his success at Lingfield yesterday.

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