If that was the dress rehearsal, then bring on opening night, wherever it may be. In yesterday's Eclipse Stakes Nathaniel, ridden by William Buick, defied his trainer John Gosden's pre-race warnings about lack of match sharpness by taking the 10-furlong Group One prize by a hard-fought half-length. The four-year-old had not run for nine months but his class and courage overcame any perceived disadvantages as he repelled all comers, headed by the favourite Farhh, after a long strike for home up the most demanding run-in on the circuit.
Nathaniel, last year's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes hero, had missed his planned seasonal prep because of a mild infection, and although it was assumed yesterday's contest was a warm-up for his bid for a repeat in the 12-furlong Ascot showpiece in 13 days' time, his success over the shorter distance has opened the door to an intriguing alternative.
When Nathaniel first ran as a juvenile he was beaten half-a-length by another debutant who has turned out rather special, by name Frankel. "It would be fun to take him on again," said Gosden, "and the Juddmonte International would be an option."
That 10-furlong contest, next month at York, would allow Nathaniel a longer recovery time, something of which Gosden is keenly aware. "He's a super horse," he said, "but it has been difficult to get him right as he has had a respiratory problem. It's only two weeks to the King George and that's not great. He's put in a massive effort here so we will now have a good think about whether we run again so soon."
Gosden and Buick are in the best of form – the Newmarket stable's 22 winners in June included a Royal Ascot five-timer – and the jockey's first reaction after this success was to credit his boss's skill. "It was a fantastic training performance to get Nathaniel here and in the shape he's in," he said. "I've always had a lot of faith in the horse and he showed today how really good he is."
Fair enough. But praise must also go to the young rider, who took full advantage of the way the contest panned out perfectly for him. One of his rivals, City Style, may have been the pacemaker for the Godolphin attack of Farhh and Monterosso, but he could not have done the job better for Nathaniel either.
Buick sat in the leader's slipstream until the turn-in and then, on the one horse in the field with proven 12-furlong stamina allied to top-level class, kicked clear to face the half-mile uphill drag to the line. Cityscape and Crackerjack King went in pursuit but could not cope, and it was left to Farhh, brought from off the pace by Frankie Dettori, to provide the challenge.
That progressive colt, the 11-4 market leader, proved his good Royal Ascot showing at this level behind So You Think – denied his swansong in the Eclipse by lameness – was no fluke, but his best yesterday was not quite good enough. He was almost level deep inside the final furlong but Nathaniel's determination was such that as he stuck his head forward his neck seemed to lengthen.
In the final furlong Twice Over ran past the fading Cityscape, in the same Khalid Abdullah colours, to claim third in a race he won two years ago, with the ex-Italian Crackerjack King a respectable fifth.
If Gosden and Buick are on fire, then so are Nathaniel's owners, the Rothschild family. Nathaniel was their seventh winner from as many runners including, less than an hour before the Eclipse Stakes, the star colt's year-younger sister and stablemate Great Heavens, who ran away with the Lancashire Oaks at Haydock.