Hope springs eternal on the Turf, above all at this time of year, and there were plenty of people here yesterday fired with new belief by the decisive success of Elusive Pimpernel. That these included the bookmakers, who scythed his odds for the Stan James 2,000 Guineas, makes one wary of taking too stern a view. At the same time, however, there persists the suspicion they were clutching at straws. For surely the simplest, safest conclusion is that he had confirmed the Guineas favourite to be more or less invincible.
Elusive Pimpernel had last been seen being swatted aside by St Nich-olas Abbey in the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster in October. The Irish colt is going straight to the Guineas, back here a fortnight tomorrow, and will arrive with his form freshly decorated in the Craven Stakes. Horses being horses, of course, it is possible to make a case for the gap having narrowed in the winter. But the Guineas sponsors have perhaps done so prematurely, in quoting St Nicholas Abbey 5-2 and Elusive Pimpernel just 5-1, from 16-1.
The bottom line remains that a four-length defeat of Dancing David, visually striking as it was, represents an improvement of little over a length on their mutual form at Doncaster. And while Ryan Moore never had to resort to the whip, the time this strapping animal required to organise his charge out of the dip remained in telling contrast with the way St Nicholas Abbey cruised through the field at Doncaster.
The Guineas is the one British Classic still to elude John Dunlop, his veteran trainer, and his seasoned perspective allowed him only cautious optimism for the rematch. "Eddie Ahern did say two things straight after riding him at Doncaster," he recalled. "One, that the slow ground didn't really suit; and two, that they hadn't gone very fast. But the winner was terribly impressive, and you can't pretend that would be enough for them to reverse roles. On the other hand this is a very big horse, and he has really furnished and matured over the winter. Maybe the other horse won't have done quite so well."
Suspended yesterday, Ahern is likely to be back in the saddle for the Guineas. Thereafter pedigree and physique together mean that odds offered for the Investec Derby must be resisted. "He has the most wonderful outlook, and settles well," Dunlop said. "But he wouldn't have the size or stamp for Epsom."
Another Guineas candidate, Inler, had produced a business-like piece of work under Tony Culhane before racing – his first public appearance since winning a maiden here over six furlongs last autumn. He went a seventh furlong this time, in the company of two stablemates, but must try one more in the Guineas. John Best is optimistic. "I think that showed that he will stay," the trainer said. "He has done all I could want him to do today, but Tony said he felt a bit ring-rusty, and that it would bring him on."
Confined to debutants, the Wood Ditton Stakes is notoriously difficult to evaluate until the form is tested elsewhere but it would be surprising were yesterday's to prove a vintage edition. Certainly Henry Cecil was playing down the prospects of Diescentric, no doubt in the hope of a manageable handicap mark. "He did it nicely but I don't know what he beat," he said. "A lot of them needed the run, but as you can see this isn't a heavy-framed horse, and he isn't blowing very hard."
He was significantly enthusiastic, however, on the subject of Timepiece, despite her reappearance defeat here the previous day. "The race didn't work out for her," he said. "She didn't have a lot of room as they were quickening, but I'd like to think you'll see a different filly next time. That could be at Lingfield, but we'll see."
It is certainly worth remembering that Midday, subsequently beaten only in a photo for the Investec Oaks and a winner at the Breeders' Cup, likewise started off with an uninspiring defeat in mixed company last year. She then ran away with the Lingfield Oaks Trial, and Cecil's instinct with Classic fillies means that Timepiece warrants perseverance for the time being. After all, as Elusive Pimpernel would reiterate: if you can't be optimistic now, you never will be.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Hindu Kush (4.55 Newbury) Has plunged down the handicap but just too fresh when heavily backed on his debut for a new stable last time.
Rasmy (3.15 Newbury) Can keep up stable's flying start after looking a smart middle-distance prospect in maidens last term.
One to watch
Ocean Bay (J Ryan) Made an encouraging start at Newmarket on Wednesday, green early before finishing strongly for third.
Where the money's going
Gone To Lunch is 11-1 from 16-1 with the sponsors for the Coral Scottish Grand National tomorrow.