After a midweek vacillation, Aidan O'Brien yesterday declared Steinbeck for the Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh tomorrow – taking his team for the Classic to six out of 13. But he admits the colt to be "only just ready to run" following his setback last month and, given the overall profile of the Ballydoyle three-year-olds this spring, Steinbeck should certainly profit both mentally and physically for only the third race of his career.
After all, O'Brien is promising significant progress for their own comeback races from both St Nicholas Abbey, when he lines up as favourite for the Investec Derby a fortnight tomorrow, and Fencing Master, generally perceived as second string to Steinbeck at the Curragh. In the circumstances, backers of St Nicholas Abbey will be keeping an anxious eye on Fencing Master's performance tomorrow. The stablemates finished sixth and seventh respectively in the Newmarket Guineas, divided by just half a length, and if anything it was Fencing Master who had looked the more obvious candidate to improve as they strolled around the parade ring beforehand.
The word from Co Tipperary had permitted no doubt that St Nicholas Abbey was rated superior and Steinbeck, likewise, has long had a more glamorous reputation. But Fencing Master achieved as much as Steinbeck, in a similarly brief campaign at two, and any neutral at Newmarket would have identified him as more imposing physically than St Nicholas Abbey.
He looked sure to tighten up during the months ahead, and remained very short on experience. In the race itself, he briefly seemed flat-footed before keeping on under a sensibly conservative ride. "He's a grand, laid-back horse," O'Brien said yesterday. "Maybe in an ideal world, we'd have preferred it if they had gone a little bit faster for his first race back. Maybe that would have helped him get into a rhythm, as he is a little bit lazy. Since then, our horses have been improving a good deal for their first run."
It is not inconceivable that a big run from Fencing Master might yet enable him to join another very deep Ballydoyle squad for Epsom, albeit his pedigree would make him a doubtful stayer. There would be no such reservations about Jan Vermeer, already a runaway winner at Group One level in France last autumn. O'Brien had this colt in reserve for Steinbeck tomorrow, but told At The Races that he would instead step him up to 10 furlongs for the Airlie Stud Gallinule Stakes on Sunday's card. "He is still in the Derby picture," O'Brien said. "But we need to see him first and see how forward he is. We feel he's just ready to start, but obviously he'll come on a lot."
His traditional adversaries at Godolphin are developing a fascinating new strategy, and the stakes are correspondingly raised for the showdown between one of their recent transfers from André Fabre, Cutlass Bay, and one of the key older horses at Ballydoyle, Fame And Glory, in the Tattersalls Gold Cup on Sunday. Rewilding certainly made an impressive start for Godolphin's Newmarket wing at Goodwood on Wednesday, and is now no better than 14-1 for Epsom.
These, of course, are the superpowers of the Turf, whose spending requires consistent dividends in its top races. It is always heartening, then, to see them shown the way by such implausible adventurers as Chip Woolley, who last year brought an unknown gelding named Mine That Bird up from New Mexico to stun everyone in the Kentucky Derby. With his handlebar moustache, cowboy hat and crutches, Woolley showed that David really could slay Goliath on the 21st-century Turf. Now, however, he must come to terms with a less romantic side of the American sport, where horses are routinely and unsentimentally moved to other trainers.
Woolley is "devastated" that Mine That Bird has been removed from his barn. The only comfort, for romantics, is that his owners have chosen to send him to no less a genius than Wayne Lukas – once the dominant trainer in North America, but now in the evening of his career. If Mine That Bird could restore him to centre stage in the Breeders' Cup Classic, public gratification would only be briefly tempered by due sympathy for Woolley.
Mabuya (4.10 Chepstow) Gelded during his absence, and looked an improved horse on his reappearance at Ffos Las, unlucky not to get up after meeting traffic problems.
Destinys Dream (4.20 Catterick) From a small yard in top form, this mare being a case in point. Unlucky at Newcastle and then always going smoothly at Thirsk last time.
One to watch
Hypnotized (M L W Bell) Suffered a typical Goodwood hard-luck story on Wednesday, repeatedly short of room while the leader stole a decisive advantage.
Where the money's going
Anna Salai is 4-1 from 5-1 with Totesport to win Mahmood Al Zarooni his first Classic in the Etihad Airways Irish 1,000 Guineas at the Curragh on Sunday.