Horses that harness the breed's most exotic virtues to the more mundane ones of consistency and reliability come along about as often as a solar eclipse. But even that discouraging ratio makes them rather more common than the equine Eclipse, whose memory is preserved by the big race at Sandown today.
Eclipse was one of the paragons, both as a racehorse and a stallion. It is the champions of the past, of course, who give dimensions to those of the present day. For one thing, they make a tangible genetic contribution. The 18th-century genes of Eclipse himself feature in the vast majority of modern thoroughbred pedigrees. Having long adhered to the same paths, moreover, great ancestors ensure that an aspiring champion must seek validation from the same, historic tests.
So it is, for instance, that Sea The Stars will again be measured today not just against the nine animals reckless enough to get in his way in the Coral-Eclipse Stakes, but also against Nashwan – the last colt to complete the 2,000 Guineas-Derby double, two decades ago. In the meantime, not one of the four Derby winners who then dropped back to 10 furlongs at Sandown managed to emulate Nashwan's success here.
Unfortunately, Sea The Stars seems to be escorted everywhere by his own personal weather system. This time last week, he had been declared for his home Derby on the Curragh. But his participation was contingent on fast ground, and unexpected rain persuaded John Oxx, his trainer, to wait for today. Then, early yesterday morning, a week of quivering heat came to an abrupt end when violent rainstorms swept the London suburbs. Perhaps they should send the horse on a tour of the world's drought regions.
The official going is now good, but there is apparently little danger of Oxx withdrawing the colt again. After all, there are rather fewer stamina issues here than at the Curragh, when it was radiantly obvious that the Ballydoyle cavalry would guarantee an exacting test at a mile and a half – something they had failed to do at Epsom, where Sea The Stars duly outpaced Fame And Glory.
It was easy, in those circumstances, to have reservations about the prospect of Sea The Stars replicating his Epsom success. This time, however, any hesitation will probably be attributed to an incorrigible weakness for overcomplication.
True, Motivator and Authorized had looked no less brilliant at Epsom before being caught out in the Eclipse. But both those colts were essentially pushing their luck, dropping back from 12 furlongs, certainly compared with this one – a Classic winner over a mile.
Authorized, moreover, was essentially mugged in a messy race by Notnowcato. A more pertinent analogy is perhaps offered by Motivator, who was thwarted by another three-year-old, Oratorio. At the time, few could quite credit what they had seen, and Oratorio would be sent off at twice the price of Motivator when they met again in the Irish Champion Stakes – only to beat him by precisely the same margin.
Oratorio was trained by Aidan O'Brien, who produces a very similar type today in Rip Van Winkle. This colt, likewise, has so far been confined to a supporting role as a three-year-old. Indeed, they both finished fourth in the Guineas, but Rip Van Winkle ran far better at Epsom than did Oratorio. In all three of his starts at Group One level, in fact, this colt has strongly suggested that he will come up with something pretty irresistible when everything finally falls into place.
Johnny Murtagh, the Ballydoyle stable jockey, went so far as persevering with Rip Van Winkle in the Derby, even though Fame And Glory would start a heavily backed favourite. In the event, he set his mount a lot to do and the ground they made up took its toll when he just flattened out in the closing stages.
In the Guineas, Rip Van Winkle had run a rather strange race, ring-rusty no doubt, but angled in fits and starts across the track and never really gathering momentum. All in all, then, the appointment of Jimmy Fortune – to replace the suspended Murtagh – looks like a rather irritated snap of the fingers, to get this colt's attention. Fortune is one of the strongest riders around and, given a very rare opportunity by Ballydoyle, will be keen to make an impression.
This race has long been cherished as the first significant convergence between the Classic generation and their seniors. But the suspicion persists that the older horses are not a vintage crop, partly because Sheikh Mohammed, whose sporting instincts might otherwise have persuaded him to keep going with New Approach and Raven's Pass, is so desperate for new stallions to refresh his stale bloodstock empire.
Conduit's superb performance at the Breeders' Cup confirmed him to have a lot more flair than the average St Leger winner, but his comeback over today's course and distance seemed to confirm that even the assistance of a pacemaker will not ensure a sufficient test of stamina.
Sea The Stars is not only the most talented in the field, but also the most reliable. On that basis, he is much the most likely winner. For those wary of the intervals that divide true greats on the Turf, however, Rip Van Winkle looks a copper-bottomed alternative at 5-1 each-way. After all, you get eclipses all the time. Halley's Comet is another proposition altogether.
Henderson faces quiet period of reflection on punishment
Golly. A £40,000 fine, twice the previous record. And no entries in his name for the next three months. For all the dark suspicions some raised beforehand, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) yesterday punished Nicky Henderson unsparingly for the dope test failed by one of his horses.
The mare in question was owned by the Queen, and many voices had loudly implored the BHA to ensure that Henderson – a cornerstone of the racing Establishment – would receive no special treatment.
So much fuss had been made, in fact, that you had to wonder whether justice being "seen" to be done would become more important than justice actually being done. The former priority, at any rate, has been amply satisfied.
Clearly, there was not the remotest parity between the anti-bleeding medication given to Moonlit Path, before she ran at Huntingdon in February, and the notorious practice of "milkshaking" that recently earned Matt Gingell a two-year ban. And the BHA accepted that Henderson had no sinister intentions in a race he won with the hot favourite. But to treat the mare on the morning of the race was a grotesque error, in so professional a yard.
Henderson described his punishment as "harsh", but is relieved to put the saga behind him. At least the next three months would have been very quiet regardless, as he has only ever had a handful of summer jumpers. And the lasting fidelity of his patrons – not to mention the racing public – seems pretty well guaranteed.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Beauchamp Wonder (9.35 Carlisle)
Hardly the most glamorous race of the weekend, but this horse is bred to stay very well and the ability he
has shown over shorter trips suggests he can beat some real plodders here.
Gassin (5.45 Haydock)
Made good start for new stable when beating a subsequent winner at Nottingham. He seems to be starting his handicap career off a pretty fair mark.
*One to watch
Ithbaat (J H M Gosden) enjoyed the run of the race when stepped up to 12f at Newbury on Thursday, but his genes did not guarantee his stamina at the trip. The way he travelled implied him he is on the upgrade.