Though racing here has a rare day off on Friday, there is still an event of some significance to consider during the afternoon. Naaqoos, one of last year's top two-year-olds and one of a handful of horses jostling for position at the head of the market for the 2,000 Guineas, contests the Prix Djebel at the Parisian track Maisons-Laffitte and, should he prove decisively that his precocious ability remains intact, then the first Classic of the season will surely have a new favourite.
With no one colt standing obviously above the potential elite milers, the division is waiting to spring to life. Naaqoos, based in Chantilly with Freddy Head, proved himself top of the juvenile pile in France with his spirited success in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp six months ago and although there has been no Gallic success in the Guineas since 1995 the contest is the target of choice for Head.
The trainer, who won the Rowley Mile showpiece 27 years ago on Zino in his days as a rider, yesterday reported his charge in fighting fettle for his eagerly-anticipated three-year-old debut. "He's had a good winter and has done very well," he said. "His coat is great and it's so far, so good. We'll see what happens on Friday, but at the moment I couldn't be happier with him."
Naaqoos, owned by Hamdan Al Maktoum, had two of the best in Ireland, Intense Focus and Mastercraftsman, back in third and fourth places last October. The typically hardy Jim Bolger inmate Intense Focus, who franked the form by taking the Dewhurst Stakes 13 days later, lost little in defeat under a penalty at Leopardstown last month; Mastercraftsman, backed to narrow favouritism in the Guineas lists after positive vibes from Ballydoyle, had a racecourse workout last week but will not race before the big day.
Of Naaqoos's other perceived potential rivals, neither Evasive, who missed some work with the Sir Michael Stoute string last week because of a foot infection, nor Crowded House will take in prep races either. Indeed Crowded House, who has the Derby as his prime target, may swerve the mile Classic altogether. "We'll see what the trials throw up," said his trainer Brian Meehan, "and then we'll decide."
One who is something of a forgotten horse, at least according to Karl Burke, is Lord Shanakill, due to appear in the Greenham Stakes at Newbury on Saturday week. "He worked very nicely this morning," said the Middleham handler yesterday, "and physically has definitely improved. And as every line of his juvenile form has worked out and most of it crosses with horses at the top of the Guineas betting, he seems at a huge price at 33-1."
At Pontefract yesterday Barry Hills had good fortune along for the ride when he duly notched the 3,000th success of his celebrated career with odds-on shot Chapter And Verse. The three-year-old took the opening ten-furlong maiden by a neck under his trainer's son Michael, but only after runner-up Mt Kintyre threw the race away by veering violently right in the closing stages.
Hills, 72, had his first success 40 years ago this month and those in the interim have included 46 at the top level worldwide, including 10 Classic heroes and heroines. "It's been a long journey but I've enjoyed it all," he said, "and they all count; even the little ones make a difference. A winner's a winner and sometimes you need a bit of luck."
At least one of Chapter And Verse's owners would cherish that particular quality right now. The grey colt carries the colours of one of Hills' oldest patrons, Jack Hanson, and a newer recruit to the Lambourn yard's roster of patrons, Sir Alex Ferguson.