People grumble about the way the Flat season meanders through its opening weeks, but that is no less than you would expect in a concert hall. First you have the dissonant digressions of individual instruments, tuning up; at length an expectant hush settles over the auditorium; and then, finally, the conductor draws up his baton – and releases the magic.
Sometimes, a residual uncertainty infects the opening movement, the themes of the symphony suggested only opaquely. This week, however, the orchestra has burst into life with a thrilling sense of purpose. Both the major Classic trials at the Craven meeting were settled by performances free of all equivocation.
In the case of Fantasia, admittedly, that itself created its own indecision, in that her owner had assumed that he could have no better candidate for the Stan James 1,000 Guineas than Rainbow View. For what it is worth, it seems quite barmy for anyone to expect him to run them against each other. Either way, however, it was certainly heartening to see Classic trials won by authentic Classic horses.
In recent years, we have become accustomed to damning Guineas rehearsals, in particular, with faint praise. Last year, true, the subsequent winner of no less a race than the Breeders' Cup Classic had made his reappearance in the Craven Stakes. Many trainers, however, seem increasingly wary of risking a big effort so close to the Guineas.
The fact is that the last four winners of the 2,000 Guineas all arrived without a previous run that spring. In terms of mental or physical readiness, however, some such rehearsal remains imperative for many horses.
Take Sariska, for instance. This filly did not venture into public until the very last meeting staged at her local track Newmarket last year, but was so impressive that she is quoted as short as 10-1 for the 1,000 Guineas. This afternoon, just 15 days before the Classic, she gets the chance to discover a bit more about life as a racehorse in the Dubai Duty Free Fred Darling Stakes at Newbury.
She will have to be a fast learner, with no fewer than 17 rivals, but then she did look a natural when easing through a similarly big field on her debut. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of that performance, over seven furlongs in a fast time, was that her dam's genes should in time prove replete with stamina. She obviously has plenty of class, but can hardly hope to "wing it" in the same way against this much tougher field.
In Maoineach, she meets a filly whose debut was still more striking, beating experienced rivals in a Group sprint at the Curragh last August – proving herself at home in the sort of ground expected today. Though disappointing on her only subsequent start last year, she reiterated her quality when resuming at Leopardstown last month, outpacing Heart Shaped.
The runner-up that day was not knocked about, in fairness, and likely improvement makes her good each-way value for the Guineas at 33-1. Maoineach's own trainer, Jim Bolger, was in turn dismissive about the idea of sending her to Newmarket, instead emphasising his undiminished faith in Cuis Ghaire. But with his stable in such rampant form, and none of her rivals having achieved so much while retaining scope for further improvement, Maoineach (3.10) will surely go close today.
Bolger also has a sound chance in the equivalent test for colts, the Bathwick Tyres Greenham Stakes. Finjaan and Shaweel – third and fourth to Intense Focus in the Dewhurst Stakes last autumn – will command renewed interest after their form was bolstered by Delegator (and indeed Ouqba) at Newmarket during the week, but the front four that day were all favoured by their tactics and mutual experience. Certainly, it seems interesting that Bolger, who trains Intense Focus, is prepared to take them on with Vocalised (3.45).
This extremely well-bred colt has already acquired something of the hard-knocking profile associated with so many of Bolger's champions, and there will be no fitter animal in the field after he made all – in similar ground – on his reappearance at Leopardstown. Perhaps the best prospect among the home defence remains Cityscape, manifestly the type to progress again this year, but his stable has not been rushed and he is entitled to come on for the run.
The other Group race on the card, the Dubai Tennis Championships John Porter Stakes, can go to a trainer, like Bolger, really prospering this spring. Tastahil (2.05) looked an improved horse at Doncaster, having been gelded during the winter, and could be value against Spanish Moon, who produced a career best in Dubai but must regroup in very different conditions here.
Mia's Boy (2.35) (nap) proved up against it when recommended against Expresso Star in the Lincoln Handicap, but found himself isolated on the wrong side of the track, idling after dealing smoothly with his targets there. Comfortable on softer ground, he should enjoy heavier traffic here and looks the bet of the day at 12-1.
Channel 4 is also at Ayr, for the Coral Scottish National, but caution is advised on drying ground that required an inspection after the first race yesterday. Native Coral (3.25) has had a light season and, with his stable back in better form, no weight on his back and potential to relish this new test, he could prove the pick at 33-1.
But the tempo followed by these dour animals will be andante at best, perhaps even lento. And, after a week like this one, you really want to keep things allegro.
Sight Unseen's win has Cecil's son out of pocket
A dank afternoon, and a card strictly for cognoscenti, made for a fairly muted atmosphere at Newbury yesterday. Yet every time you turned a corner, you were liable to bump into some head of state, or emir. The Queen was there, to see her colt Four Winds impudently outstayed by High Heeled, yet another winner for Barry Hills and now a possible candidate for the Oaks. Also present was Sheikh Hamdan, and at least Hills managed to win him a handicap, with Makaamen.
The most striking performance of the afternoon came from Sight Unseen, a debutant by Sadler's Wells out of a half-sister to Observatory. Henry Cecil admitted that he had told his son, Jake, to back his other runner, Hyades, who had started favourite. "I'll have to give him his money back now," the trainer complained cheerfully.
Little wonder the colt was not entered for the Derby, though perhaps he will eventually turn up at Royal Ascot. Epsom is very much on the agenda at Leopardstown tomorrow, however, when Fame And Glory, a Group One winner on only his second start, reappears in the P W McGrath Ballysax Stakes. Aidan O'Brien has three other runners, but he has been biding his time this spring and John Oxx provides a formidable opponent in Mourayan.
Nap: Mia's Boy (2.35 Newbury)
NB: Maoineach (3.10 Newbury)