Never mind that Menorah and Hunt Ball meet at Cheltenham today; or that the National winner is to be boldly returned to the fray at Ayr on Saturday; or even if Sprinter Sacre himself tops the bill at Punchestown next week. Always and unmistakably, Newmarket's first card of the season marks the formal transfer of centre stage from jump to Flat racing.
Admittedly, the Craven meeting is not quite what it was, now that so many horses are sent to the Guineas without a trial. Only four colts, in fact, have been declared for the Craven Stakes itself tomorrow. But aficionados will none the less convene today with a sense that they are renewing one of the most gratifying rituals in the calendar.
They will cherish every familiar landmark, down to the very maiden races. To some, perhaps, the most comforting sight of all will be two colts trained by Sir Henry Cecil lining up for the contest he has so often reserved for an emerging star. Commander In Chief, for instance, began the road to Epsom in this race – and both Cecil's runners this time are in the same ownership as the 1993 Derby winner. One of them, moreover, just happens to be a half-brother to the champion who lent their trainer such succour during the past three seasons.
But while Cecil needs a fresh spur, now that Frankel has retired, nobody will have unreasonable expectations of Morpheus after his anonymous debut in heavy ground at Nottingham last autumn. Indeed, Frankel's jockey, Tom Queally, has rejected him in favour of Demonic, who proved terribly green when sent off favourite for his own debut over a mile round Lingfield during the winter.
With that experience behind him, and another couple of furlongs today, Demonic should give a better idea of his potential. But a stiff standard will be set by Improvisation, second on his debut to Ghurair in what turned out to be just about the strongest maiden staged last season. Improvisation did not quite build on that at Goodwood, but disappeared thereafter and is entitled to a fresh start today.
Demonic and Improvisation are among several in the field entered for the Dante Stakes and Derby. And that is the charm of this meeting: a mere maiden has the potential to prove ultimately more significant than a full dress rehearsal for a Classic. Having said that, the Lanwades Stud Nell Gwyn Stakes looks sufficiently well contested to volunteer a legitimate hope for the Qipco 1,000 Guineas. Once again, the race could have a key bearing on life after Frankel at Warren Place, the superbly bred Hot Snap having managed to overcome inexperience to win her sole start at two, over a mile at Kempton. But as a half-sister to Midday – herself, incidentally, now in foal to Frankel – she will do well simply to finish off the race in encouraging fashion now that she drops in trip against more experienced fillies.
The most accomplished among these is Sky Lantern, who suffered such desperate luck in running at the Breeders' Cup. She looks equal to a penalty for her Group One success in Ireland last September, albeit much may depend on her readiness compared with Nargys. This filly was an unlucky second over course and distance in the Rockfel Stakes and, while Luca Cumani's horses tend to progress through the season, he is likely to have this one on fast track with the Guineas in mind.
Perhaps the most interesting runner on the card is Intello, sent over from Chantilly by André Fabre for the Feilden Stakes. Of course, he can hardly fill the gap left by another unbeaten son of Galileo. But while Frankel will be sorely missed this season – by the sport in general, and by Cecil in particular – at this meeting hope springs eternal.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Leitrim Pass (6.30 Kempton) Trainer William Haggas places his horses expertly and this one's optimal eligibility, through his opening handicap mark at the top of the ratings band permitted for this race, suggests it should have been on the radar for some time.
Aryal (2.35 Beverley) Blinkers did the trick after a series of expensive reverses last time and looks fairly treated for his switch to turf and handicap company.
One to watch
Benzanno (Andrew Balding) Has been getting his act together and is worth another chance after failing to settle wide of a steady pace at Nottingham last week.
Where the money's going
Toronado is 7-1 from 9-1 with Betfred for the Qipco 2,000 Guineas ahead of his trial in the Craven Stakes at Newmarket on Thursday.
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