Down by the saddling boxes here, a pink magnolia sapling is twitching reluctantly into bloom, a gash of colour in the damp, grey tableau. Other trees retain the bare, stricken aspect of midwinter. And, judging by events on the track yesterday, different horses are likewise awakening at a different rate as spring creeps across these islands.
Aidan O'Brien was reduced to amiable sarcasm when asked how the defeat of his three runners in the Ballysax Stakes reflected on the general lethargy of his string. "They're mad forward, aren't they?" he said, deadpan. Dermot Weld, in contrast, came away with three winners, and even though his own fancy for the Ballysax, Unwritten Rule, was beaten into third, the success of Moiqen itself reiterated the good form of his stable. Moiqen had come here last month for his reappearance and been thrashed by Famous Name, a colt Weld trains for Khaled Abdulla.
Ireland's last three Derby winners – Sinndar, Galileo and High Chaparral – began their journey to Epsom in this race, but it is difficult to envisage any of this lot following suit. The most plausible of the Ballydoyle trio, Alessandro Volta, admittedly deserves another chance as his saddle slipped. But the similarities to last year, when Mores Wells beat a mediocre bunch, are not confined to the fact that he was trained, like Moiqen, by Kevin Prendergast.
Mind you, Prendergast has had enough good horses in the three decades since Nebbiolo won the 2,000 Guineas to know when one might merit a Derby entry. "He's the best I have, anyway," he observed. Bookmakers treating that endorsement with scant respect, offer Moiqen at 33-1 for Epsom, but then he did hold Hebridean – clearly not part of the elite corps at Ballydoyle – by barely a length.
Moiqen may well return here in a fortnight for the Derrinstown Derby Trial, and presumably O'Brien will also be back in numbers. Washington Irvine, the winter whisper, was unlucky not to beat Unwritten Rule here on his reappearance, while Alessandro Volta looked backward before fading here, not knocked about in fourth.
O'Brien had saddled only his second winner of the month when his first juvenile starter, a Dansili colt named Peter Tchaikovsky, scrambled home in a photo at Naas the previous day. Another two-year-old, Four Star General, started favourite for the opener here only to run distinctly like a corporal. But it is hardly as if the stable has general grounds for alarm. The Bogberry laid down an encouraging marker for its more earnest Guineas candidates (apparently led by Jupiter Pluvius) when third in the Craven Stakes at Newmarket last week, while Moonstone made an excellent debut here behind Winchester, one of Weld's winners. Remember that Peeping Fawn was beaten in three maidens last April, and ended up winning four Group Ones for the stable.
"They look behind at the moment," O'Brien admitted. "It'll be interesting to see where they are in a month's time. They're coming along grand, and we're hoping they keep improving. The weather's grand. Maybe the trainer's behind. But it's a long season."
Either way, there is no mistaking the eagerness of the Weld string, Winchester proving a particularly taking winner. This son of Theatrical could also come back for the Derrinstown Trial and, as a big, galloping brute, looks made to measure for the Curragh. "I see him as a potential Irish Derby horse," Weld admitted. "He's been working extremely well, he just has a little bit to learn."
Weld added that Chinese White, a six-length winner on her only start here last autumn and prominent in Oaks betting, is a little behind her stablemates. "She's been a bit slow to come forward, hanging on to her coat," he said. "The plan is to start her off in two weeks' time at Gowran."
As for Famous Name, he is thinking in terms of either the French or Irish Guineas, being wary of faster ground at Newmarket. The colt might conceivably suggest himself, however, as a solution to the predicament facing Abdulla and his team following the dismal performance of Confront at Newbury on Saturday.
Henry Cecil is plainly disposed to step the Craven winner, Twice Over, up to 10 furlongs in the Dante Stakes at York. But Confront's failure behind Paco Boy (who could yet be supplemented for Newmarket) made it rather harder for Abdulla not to run Twice Over in the Guineas instead. "I don't want to bugger the horse up totally," Cecil said at Newbury on Friday, grimacing over the possibility of a Derby colt having a hard race to finish fourth in the Guineas.
Weld is a more recent recruit to Abdulla's team. With enough rain at Newmarket in the next fortnight, perhaps this slowest of springs could yet alter the equation.
Nap: Sundowner (Windsor 6.25)
NB: Stow (Pontefract 2.40)