Chris McGrath: Rip Van Winkle poised to give O'Brien seasonal reawakening

Inside Track

The Derby, no doubt, remains more venerable; Royal Ascot, more intense; and the Breeders' Cup, more exhilarating. Even Chester, next week, or Goodwood in high summer, must be acknowledged more enchanting milieux.

But Flat racing offers its connoisseurs few rituals more satisfying than this weekend, when the first two Classics of the season, the Stan James 2,000 Guineas and 1,000 Guineas, are staged over the Rowley Mile at Newmarket.

Overnight, moreover, in distant counterpoint, the Americans will discover their 135th Kentucky Derby winner. And the perennial joy of this game is that each of these races is not just a consummation, but a new beginning. By tomorrow, we may already be craving the possibility that the new champion of Churchill Downs will end up meeting the 2,000 Guineas winner at Santa Anita in November.

First things first, however. For the Guineas is akin to the first sampling of a new vintage, and the palate can take a while to savour every subtlety. Last year, for instance, Raven's Pass finished only fourth but ended up winning the Breeders' Cup Classic. There is generally an immediate frisson, however, to suggest whether or not this year's might prove a golden crop.

Sure enough, while Raven's Pass hesitated before his destiny, last year Henrythenavigator and New Approach pulled four lengths clear of the pack. Between them, these three colts ended the season with nine Group One prizes, New Approach emulating Sir Percy a couple of years previously by winning the Derby after finishing second in the Guineas.

Both New Approach and Sir Percy had won the Dewhurst Stakes the previous autumn, so restoring the big juvenile races as legitimate foundations for a Classic campaign. Not every trainer, of course, seems able to keep a three-year-old going the way Aidan O'Brien, Jim Bolger and John Gosden did the three big guns in the Guineas last year. By the same token, as masters of their profession, all three again command attention this weekend.

O'Brien has made another low-key start to his campaign, but his most conspicuous success to date, with Fame And Glory in the Ballysax Stakes, identified an obvious Derby favourite. The Classic focus seems as sharp as ever at Ballydoyle, then, and it once again seems safe to predict a purposeful contribution from the stable to proceedings at Newmarket.

O'Brien runs two in his quest for a sixth 2,000 Guineas, and Johnny Murtagh has chosen to ride Rip Van Winkle, even though the colt suffered a stone bruise earlier in the week. The alternative, Mastercraftsman, was the more precocious juvenile, whose most impressive performance came in a sprint on fast ground. The undignified nature of his success over a seventh furlong next time was attributed to heavy ground, but he travelled smoothly for a long way and his pedigree makes it possible that he may struggle to last the mile today.

The genes of Rip Van Winkle, in contrast, bring together the physical and mental robustness of the great Galileo and the speed of a Stravinsky mare. After winning twice last summer, Rip Van Winkle disappeared until the Dewhurst and was caught out by inexperience, finishing only seventh. Dropped out from a wide draw, he soon found himself with too much to do and Murtagh concentrated on teaching him about his vocation, threading through traffic to be beaten barely two lengths. Murtagh scarcely bothered with the whip and left an instant conviction that none of those in front of Rip Van Winkle (3.10) would beat him another time.

One was Delegator, who also ran well for a green colt in fifth. His work at Manton this spring has prompted a lot of chatter, and he certainly outclassed some inferior rivals when given a trial over course and distance a couple of weeks ago. But now that it is so much easier to get a horse fit at home, these days many trainers are wary of giving a horse a run so close to its main target. It will be interesting to see if Delegator matches his Craven Stakes form.

But Cityscape is unlikely to have been bottomed out by his comeback over a trip short of his best while Evasive made giant strides last autumn and has been persuasively touted in Newmarket. Galileo's half-brother, Sea The Stars, may enter the Epsom equation; likewise Gan Amhras, who represents Bolger this time round.

Gosden must wait until tomorrow to see if he can gild his brilliant start to the campaign with a Classic. As the outstanding juvenile filly of 2008, Rainbow View is the one to beat in the 1,000 Guineas, but potentially has more scope for mental disintegration than physical development. Heart Shaped, will definitely go well at an each-way price, but preference is for Cuis Ghaire (tomorrow, 3.15).

Very highly regarded by Bolger, she represents the same formula as Rip Van Winkle, by Galileo out of a fast mare, and bumped into that colt after her win over six furlongs at Royal Ascot last year. She then ran poorly in soft ground and was not seen again, but has evidently renewed confidence with her work this spring.

It would be rather startling, for both Guineas winners to have met in a four-runner race at Leopardstown the previous July. But O'Brien and his mentor, Bolger, clearly think along parallel lines. And, when it comes to testing the vintage, it is always wise to leave yourself in the hands of the master sommeliers.

Mullins' winner machine grinds on with Mikael

If he has made the entire season his masterpiece, Willie Mullins certainly scrawled his signature across the final corner of the canvas at Punchestown this week. Another three winners yesterday took his tally for the Festival to 11 – a staggering achievement, and all the more so for the number whose best days still lie ahead of them.

As expected, for instance, Mullins dominated the Land Rover Champion Novice Hurdle, Mikael D'Haguenet outstaying his stablemate, Cousin Vinny, to complete an immaculate first campaign for the stable. Both horses are now likely to go chasing. "Mikael must be a machine," Mullins said. "Cousin Vinny did some tremendous work last week, but the chances are he has run the race of his life to finish second."

Mullins had been obliged to settle for third with Quevega in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle, where Solwhit confirmed his arrival among the elite at the narrow expense of Punjabi. Damned with rather faint praise after his success at Cheltenham, if anything Punjabi enhanced his reputation in defeat, but Charles Byrnes will be after his crown next March. "He has the lot," Solwhit's trainer said. "Speed, stamina and toughness as well." Solwhit is down to 9-1 for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle with Coral, but there are no prizes for remembering who trains the 5-2 favourite, Hurricane Fly.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Rip Van Winkle (3.10 Newmarket)

NB: Lennie Briscoe (4.40 Goodwood)