With Cheltenham in the formbook the beat of the Flat pulse is quickening, no more so than in Newmarket yesterday, where the old firm of Sir Michael Stoute and Kieren Fallon teamed up for the first time this year. On a perfect early spring morning, with the sun as beguilingly bright in the sky as in the former champion jockey's winter quarters of California, but disseminating considerably less warmth, Fallon lobbed twice up Warren Hill with the Freemason Lodge string.
Given the season, it was perhaps appropriate that his first mount was named Harbinger. His second, Imposing, could be considered an eponymous salute to the status he once held in his profession, and which he will work to recover once he returns to the fold in September. Both colts were subjected to only a gentle spin; earlier Fallon had enjoyed more strenuous exercise on a filly named Twist Again from the stable of another regular racecourse employer, Paul Howling.
The Irishman, six times champion, is now more than two-thirds of the way through his exile from the track. Just over a year ago, having been cleared in court of race-fixing charges, he was given a world-wide ban by the French authorities after failing a drugs test but will come back later in the year with a clean slate under all regimes.
Fallon, 44, spent the winter riding behind the scenes at Santa Anita and his rehabilitation as he counts down to the resumption of his career will include work mornings with Stoute's charges, when his experience and input will be invaluable. "It won't be long before I'm 100 per cent fit," he said yesterday. "I've been riding work all winter, I've been running and going out on a bike, I've played a lot of squash and I'm as fit as I can be at this stage."
Both unraced Harbinger, a son of Dansili owned by Highclere Thoroughbreds, and Imposing, a maiden winner by Danehill Dancer who carries Coolmore colours, hold the Derby entry.
But even before Epsom in June, the title is in more immediate focus. On Saturday at Lingfield comes the culmination of the all-weather racing season with the Winter Derby. The 10-furlong Group Three contest, for four-year-olds and upwards, is a Derby in name only, but offers a purse of £100,000, which makes it a classic enough target.
The ante-post favourite Premio Loco was also in action in Newmarket yesterday, stretching his chestnut legs in routine exercise. "He had his final blow-out on Tuesday," said trainer Chris Wall, "and seems in good form and we hope for a good run."
Premio Loco has earned his place at the head of the market with his two-from-two record this year, most recently a most competent two- length defeat of Philario over a mile at Kempton Park last month. The five-year-old will be charting new territory with another two furlongs to travel on Saturday but though he failed on his only previous try at farther than a mile, in the Cambridgeshire last October, Wall quite fairly puts a line through that run as a test of his stamina.
With the disadvantages of an unfavourable draw and one bare foot, the gelding came in an honourable sixth place. "He pulled a shoe off early," said Wall, "which I don't think can have helped him on the fast ground. I can't guarantee that he will be able to get 10 furlongs but he should get most of it. He's a pretty relaxed type and is easy to settle and if he gets the distance anywhere it will be at Lingfield."
The other Derby in focus yesterday was the rather more prestigious version at Churchill Downs in May. At Kempton last night John Gosden-trained Mafaaz earned, and will take up, his ticket to the Run for the Roses by taking the inaugural Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, an innovative nine-furlong contest with a "win-and-you're-in" guarantee.
Wearing first-time blinkers Mafaaz, owned by Sheikh Hamdan and ridden by Richard Hills, held on by a head from Spring Of Fame. The colt finished close behind top juveniles Donativum and Crowded House when fifth on his final outing last year.Reuse content