there was only one moment of discord in the spring sunshine here yesterday at the pre-Epsom media day. Aidan O'Brien had just lined up St Nicholas Abbey, Jan Vermeer and Cape Blanco neatly on the grass infield of the exercise ring to face a bank of photographers when, out of sight beyond the high perimeter fence behind them, came the sudden tittuping clatter of elegant female hooves.
Cue men behaving badly. The trio launched themselves into a macho display of rearing, bucking and spinning on the end of their lead-ropes, testing their handlers' strength and skills to the limit. The Derby favourite and two of the next four in the betting for next month's premier Classic charging loose was not O'Brien's first choice scenario but happily order was swiftly restored.
Significantly, it was the two sons of feisty Montjeu, St Nicholas Abbey and Jan Vermeer, who were the first to kick off and the last to settle. The rodeo display of Cape Blanco, by phlegmatic Galileo, was the most half-hearted. "Typical," said O'Brien. "Montjeus have brilliance, but also nervous energy. The Galileos have class, too, but they have minds of concrete."
It was St Nicholas Abbey, favourite for the Investec Derby since his scintillating victory in last year's Racing Post Trophy and despite his defeat as hot favourite for last month's 2,000 Guineas, who was the centre of attention yesterday. And the message from O'Brien was that he still believes in the rangy bay with his markedly powerful hind-leg action.
The trainer admits that he and his team may have misjudged their target in sending St Nicholas Abbey to the Rowley Mile, where the high-mettled colt ran with the choke out through the early stages. "Before the Guineas," he said, "his times were faster than all the best milers we'd had here before, and that was on the bridle. We didn't want to compromise that natural ability he was showing by asking for more in his work, but maybe we should have done. Then he might not have been so fresh; he got a bump from another horse just after the start and went straight from first to fifth gear.
"But again, he was ready to run a hard, true mile, which you'd normally expect in a Classic on fast ground, only it didn't turn out like that, it was slow and then a sprint. They're only flesh and blood and circumstances can conspire against them and given all those circumstances, we were happy enough. He was only three lengths behind the winner and staying on at the end."
Attention to detail and assimilation of information from all quarters is one of the watchwords in this corner of Co Tipperary, Europe's most successful training operation, but may have contributed to St Nicholas Abbey's slight fall from grace. "If we hadn't had those times from the gallops," said O'Brien, "maybe we'd have waited and given the horse a more conventional Derby prep, starting at Leopardstown or York over ten furlongs. Sometimes maybe too much information can be dangerous."
St Nicholas Abbey has had a couple of weeks downtime at home to allow him to get over his Newmarket experience, but will start his build-up to Epsom this week. O'Brien's task will not only be to get the colt physically fit to run for his life but to maintain his mental balance, sharpening his focus on his job without removing the innocence that will let him face the hardest task of his young life with generosity.
St Nicholas Abbey may be backed up by some of his stablemates on the day, but he is still the stable's number one hope to bring the great prize – this year's purse is £1.25m – back home for the first time since High Chaparral (who followed Galileo) eight years ago. "I'm not going to hype him," said O'Brien, "but our enthusiasm for him has not dwindled. Yes, he'll have to step up on his 2,000 Guineas run but I'm sure the ability is still in there. He's naturally very quick and sharp and he's very intelligent, and like some intelligent people sometimes likes to be left alone. But we'll gentle away with him and try to keep that brilliance. We've messed him up once and we don't want to be doing it again."
Sue Montgomery's nap
Fuzzy Cat (2.20 Yarmouth) Scored first turf victory four days ago and will have the same competent apprentice on board.
Hidden Glory (3.40 Warwick) Fourth over further against potentially smart handicappers on his seasonal debut.
One to watch
Perfect Point (W Swinburn) should be as good a servant as half-brother Pinpoint.
Where the money's going
Workforce is now 5-2 joint favourite (from 11-4) with Paddy Power for Thursday's Dante Stakes.
Chris McGrath's nap
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