You do hear a lot of nonsense about supposed flaws in the "narrative" of Flat racing – most of it traceable to the pompous mis- apprehensions of marketing men who might profitably be introduced to the idea of "branding" as understood by cattle. But this season is already proving a real page-turner.
The moment Sea The Stars passed the post in the 2,000 Guineas last Saturday he was made favourite for the Derby. There was never any danger of the plot growing stale with a series of intriguing new characters again being introduced with each new chapter. Epsom's new sponsors, Investec, already seem guaranteed a ripping yarn.
True, the different Epsom rehearsals could yet prompt cynics to reduce the storyline to the words of Claude Rains, as Captain Renault, in Casablanca: "Round up the usual suspects." Aidan O'Brien won two of the three trials staged at Chester this week, could take another at Lingfield this afternoon, and runs his most radiant Derby prospect, Fame And Glory, at Leopardstown tomorrow.
His stable's hegemony is easy to understand as the two stallions nowadays most eligible to sire a Derby winner, Galileo and Montjeu, both stand at Coolmore Stud, which is in the same ownership. O'Brien will again need the limbs of an octopus if he is to carry all the saddles he needs into the parade ring on Derby day.
But nobody should be deceived that the plot has become predictable. Those Chester winners started at 9-1 and 25-1 and every sensible punter acknowledges that O'Brien regards trials primarily as an exercise in sharpening a raw three-year-old, both physically and mentally.
And it is not as if everyone is rolling over meekly in his path – especially his compatriots. John Oxx, trainer of Sea The Stars, commands the warmest respect from O'Brien, while his own mentor, Jim Bolger, reiterated his enduring mastery when placed in both Classics at Newmarket last weekend.
That same feat, moreover, was matched by Brian Meehan, who risked ridicule with his confidence beforehand but was amply vindicated by his runners. We will learn whether his judgement has been equally assured over Crowded House, his own Derby colt, when he reappears in the Totesport Dante Stakes at York on Thursday.
Having said all that, there is no mistaking the central figure on the road to Epsom, or his conviction that these trials are sometimes only a means to an end. Indeed, tomorrow O'Brien leaves Fame And Glory to Johnny Murtagh's deputy, Seamus Heffernan, and instead sends his stable jockey to Paris to ride Westphalia in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains. Bolger lies in wait with Vocalised in that race. The colt won his third race of the spring only on Monday, and is adamant that the best is yet to come from this colt, who has got good ground for the first time. But the most interesting runner on the card is surely Fantasia, who contests the equivalent race for fillies after sitting out the 1,000 Guineas last Sunday. Her owner had the odds-on favourite at Newmarket, Rainbow View, but his strategy backfired when she failed to make the frame. Fantasia had produced a stunning performance on her reappearance and will surely be hard to beat.
With the future in mind, however, proceedings at Leopardstown will perhaps warrant greater attention. By tomorrow, of course, there should be a fresh name in the equation, as the trials staged at Lingfield today – as a test of stamina and agility, a pretty precise simulacrum of Epsom – can always produce a stronger candidate than the strict form might suggest.
As tends to be the case, the fillies' race is more of an end in itself, bestowing precious "black type" status for their breeding careers. It can be hard to tell which fillies are trying to steal a place, and which are legitimately testing the water for the Juddmonte Oaks itself. A hunch is that Ralph Beckett, having acquired a taste for both races with Look Here last year, means business with ANICE STELLATO (2.40) who was well backed prior to beating a big field of maidens on her debut at Newmarket last summer. Given that she was only ever going to blossom as a three-year-old – being a Dalakhani half-sister to Irish Derby runner-up Definite Article – that was a very auspicious start.
AGE OF AQUARIUS (3.15) can then resume the Ballydoyle parade, looking abundantly qualified to build on the foundations he laid last season. Promoted from an all-weather maiden straight into Group One company at Saint-Cloud, he was beaten by little more than a length by Fame And Glory himself and is likely to prefer the faster conditions expected today.
Exactly the same proved true of Fame And Glory when he produced that dazzling comeback in the Ballysax Stakes, hardly looking the type to have ground out a win over 10 furlongs in deep ground as a juvenile. Plenty of people fancy the runner-up to reverse form in the Derrinstown Derby Trial. Mourayan, representing the same stable as Sea The Stars, certainly rallied well after being hampered that day but the suspicion is that Fame And Glory will himself have improved a good deal for the run.
Measured against all the quantity in the yard, at this stage Fame And Glory seems to have luminous quality. It will be disappointing should he fail to set himself up as much the most formidable barrier to Sea The Stars. In fact, as Captain Renault might put it, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Murtagh fails to convince as the jester of Chester
Only a world-class curmudgeon could fail to relish three days at Chester, but allowances should be made for jockeys. As Johnny Murtagh has discovered this week, this claustrophobic track can sometimes addle the judgement even of the very best. After overdoing a waiting ride in the Vase on Thursday, Murtagh was yesterday embarrassed by a mere boy in a ludicrous "race" for the Betchronicle Ormonde Stakes.
No fewer than five withdrawals left just three runners. Murtagh's mount, Frozen Fire, won the Irish Derby last year and duly started odds-on, but none of the jockeys proved willing to make the running once the gates opened. They literally walked their horses through the first couple of furlongs until William Buick decided to take charge of the situation on Buccellati. Though still crawling in the lead, he was best placed for the sprint for home and neither Murtagh nor Richard Hughes, on Scintillo, had a prayer of clawing him back.
This was a race that could have been timed, not with a stopwatch but a sundial. Frozen Fire may not be a terribly hearty creature anyway, but his backers failed to see the funny side and some gave Murtagh a hostile reception. Andrew Balding, trainer of Buccellati, admitted Buick had ended up following "Plan Z" – but at least that put him 25 steps ahead of two of the most experienced riders in the weighing room.
Nap: Kildare Sun (7.40 Thirsk)
NB: Age Of Aquarius (3.15 Lingfield)