The late withdrawal of then-favourite Age Of Aquarius from the St Leger because of injury was testament to the fact that racing's chief miracle is not that a horse wins a race, but that the beast gets to the track in the first place. More than two centuries of evolution and selective breeding seems to have honed not only athletic ability in thoroughbred, but also the knack of twisting, tweaking, cracking and bruising virtually any part of its anatomy.
Saturday's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes is a case in point. The race should identify the season's best colt over a mile; the perceived top three in the division – Rip Van Winkle, Delegator and Aqlaam – are set to take part. But for two of them, physical vicissitudes have beset their road to the top.
Rip Van Winkle has long been one of Aidan O'Brien's favourites and he may yet end the campaign as the highest-rated performer at Ballydoyle. After three top-level placings behind Sea The Stars, the three-year-old was rewarded with his own Group One prize in the Sussex Stakes in July. But his participation at Goodwood was a close-run thing after he hurt a hind hoof; his trainer judged him sound enough to compete only after he had seen him trot to the start.
There was nothing wrong with the way the son of Galileo galloped back as he pulled clear of Paco Boy but since then his foot problems have meant an interrupted preparation. As a precaution O'Brien also declared his second-best miler Mastercraftsman at yesterday's penultimate stage for the Sony-sponsored Ascot showpiece, though Rip Van Winkle is its general even-money market leader. "If Rip is OK, he'll get preference," O'Brien said yesterday. "We've not had a clear run with him since Goodwood but we're getting there and we're happy enough."
If O'Brien has been treading softly, softly with Rip Van Winkle for the past month, William Haggas had to wear the velvet gloves for nearly a year in nurturing Aqlaam's innate talent. The four-year-old Oasis Dream colt, who runs for Sheikh Hamdan, suffered a hairline pelvic fracture after winning the Jersey Stakes at Royal Ascot in June last year and did not appear again until May.
Though rest and recuperation will heal the body, the mind can be more difficult to deal with and patience in this area is not just a virtue, but a necessity, for it is not possible to explain to a horse in words that his discomfort is behind him. Haggas and his team have shown the utmost skill in getting the fragile Aqlaam, who has also suffered knee problems, back to his best. "If a horse associates running with pain," said former jockey Michael Tebbutt, now one of the regular Somerville Lodge work riders, "then even after he's sound he'll tend to save a bit for himself, won't put himself under pressure.
"You have to be very careful in building up his confidence again to the point where he realises that, hey, this isn't going to hurt after all. It can take time but when you feel a horse who has been injured moving happily and confidently again, it's very rewarding."
After a couple of near misses at the top Aqlaam, too, fulfilled his Group One potential last time out with a defeat of Famous Name in the Prix du Moulin at Longchamp. He is only third favourite for Saturday's showdown, though; second spot on the betting list goes to the Godolphin challenger Delegator, bringing the promise of an elite clash between the Co Tipperary and Dubai superpowers.
Delegator, runner-up in the 2,000 Guineas to Sea The Stars when Rip Van Winkle was fourth, failed narrowly against Mastercraftsman at Royal Ascot, after which he was transferred to the Blues and won at Group Two level at Goodwood last month.
The 11 remaining in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes include a selection of Ballydoyle pacemakers and the overall mile champion-elect, the French-trained filly Goldikova. She, though, is highly unlikely to run; her target is the Prix de la Forêt on home soil the following weekend, after which she will head to California to defend her Breeders' Cup Mile title, very probably against Saturday's Ascot winner, who qualifies automatically for the Santa Anita race.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Dorback (3.00 Beverley)
Well-entered colt who impressed in beating a subsequent Group winner on his debut. Flopped in tacky conditions next time but is worth another chance on better ground.
Tafaool (4.20 Folkestone)
Beautifully bred filly who will progress for her belated seasonal debut and looks to have been found a perfect chance to enhance her value.
One to watch
Protector (A G Foster) won his "race" on the unfavourable stands side in Ayr's Silver Cup on Saturday but had 10 in front on the far side. His turn should soon come for real, particularly with more ease in the ground.
Where the money's going
Charm School has been halved in price to 12-1 second-favourite for the Cambridgeshire by Sky Bet since winning at Newbury on Saturday.
Chris McGrath's Nap
William's Wishes (2.10 Stratford).