They are are mere sparring sessions, with headguard and gumshield, but they certainly heighten anticipation for the moment the gloves come off. Yesterday morning, Godolphin exhibited the horses seeking to end a two-year drought at the Dubai World Cup meeting on Saturday. Their solo breezes, in the desert morning, as usual presented a stark counterpoint to the parallel springtime ritual conducted, three days previously, by the stable against which Godolphin's recent difficulties are mercilessly measured. On Sunday, in the rather different environs of the Curragh, Aidan O'Brien had worked his cavalry in regiments – groups as large as 15 of 16. But either process remains equally susceptible to misinterpretation.
When he returned to Ballydoyle, O'Brien was able to analyse individual times, speeds and pulse rates. While he usually ends up no less puzzled than any bystander, at least he is not deceived by the superficial evidence, and could be satisfied, for instance, that Mastercraftsman and Rip Van Winkle had acquitted themselves far more creditably than would be imagined by those who expect Guineas colts to cruise robotically to the front of their posse. The key, as ever, is how they all respond to the excursion. "We always expect a third to stand still, a third to go back, and a third to go forward," O'Brien explained.
With so many middle-distance prospects in his care nowadays, it is natural for people to be curious about the relative progress made over winter by the Ballydoyle three-year-olds. But one of the most exciting pupils at the academy this time round is himself a perfect example of how cautious your judgements need to be at this time of year.
Twelve months ago, Thewayyouare was rated perhaps the best Classic prospect in France. Unbeaten at two, the son of Kingmambo was even being talked about as the one who would finally end André Fabre's quest for an Epsom colt. In the end, Fabre decided to keep him on home soil, but after shaping adequately on his comeback he was very disappointing in the Prix du Jockey Club and thereafter disappeared without trace.
Now he has resurfaced at Ballydoyle – John Magnier and his partners having acquired breeding rights in the colt as a juvenile – and those who recall O'Brien's achievements with another imported older horse last year, Haradasun, will be very eager to see what happens next.
"Obviously we're delighted to have him here," O'Brien said. "Hopefully we can get him to show again what he was at two. Time will tell, but so far, so good. He had a bit of an injury last year, and was in hospital for a while, but hopefully the lads have him sorted out. He came up with a bunch of them on Sunday, went grand, and seems fine since. He has a great pedigree – he's related to Peeping Fawn – and he's a great-looking horse who won a Group One at two. He could be very exciting. If everything went really well, we might have him ready for a race like the Lockinge Stakes."
O'Brien is likely to have his first runners this weekend but expects his usual low-key April. For Godolphin, in contrast, the carnival on their doorstep requires some of their horses to be in peak fettle already. Unfortunately the stable's excruciating luck with its Kentucky Derby candidates has continued, with a recent setback for its most eligible candidate, Midshipman. The onus now switches to Desert Party, impressive in the local 2,000 Guineas, to fill the breach in the UAE Derby on Saturday.
Ironically, he is a son of Saeed bin Suroor's most legitimate Kentucky Derby colt to date, Street Cry – himself a victim of an untimely injury. "He reminds me of his dad," the Godolphin trainer said. "He looks like him, and is always really calm. I have liked him since day one, he is a horse who can do something for us in the future. He is more like a four-year-old, he has improved, looks stronger, and has no excuses. He has to win to go to the Kentucky Derby."
* The gamble on War Of Attrition for the John Smith's Grand National continued yesterday with Totesport bookmakers saying they have been forced to trim the 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner into 16-1 from 20-1. My Will has shortened up a point at the head of the market to 9-1, just ahead of Tony McCoy's possible mount Butler's Cabin at 10-1. "The gamble on War Of Attrition since the start of the week has been relentless," said Totesport spokesman George Primarolo.
Grand National (Aintree, 4 April) Totesport ante-post odds: 9-1 My Will, 10-1 Butler's Cabin, 12-1 Character Building, Black Apalachi, 14-1 Rambling Minster, 16-1 Comply Or Die, Hear The Echo, Big Fella Thanks, Southern Vic, War Of Attrition, 20-1 Snowy Morning, State Of Play, 25-1 others