As the runners for the Racing Post Trophy paraded before their defining moments here yesterday a rainbow appeared in the sky to the east, arcing with perfect clarity against a clearing charcoal sky. The timing was perfect; the winner St Nicholas Abbey emerged from the last Group One juvenile contest of the British and Irish season as clear winter favourite for both the 2,000 Guineas and Derby and surely a crock of gold awaits.
The Aidan O'Brien trained colt faced 11 rivals, of whom three, like him, brought unbeaten records, massive reputations and the highest hopes to the fray. The son of Montjeu, with quicksilver in his feet, made them look leaden-hoofed. The change of gear he found off a pace that was only ordinary was startling; unleashed through a packing field from last place by Johnny Murtagh, he burst to the front going to the final furlong and stretched nearly four lengths clear.
Elusive Pimpernel did best of the rest and he was in turn, two an a half lengths in front to Al Zir, the three – at 13-8, 4-1 and 9-2 – finishing in market order.
"That was point-and-go," said Murtagh. "I've not ridden many, of any age, who can quicken like that. He does it all very easily; you just have to press the button once and he's gone."
All season O'Brien and his three-year-old battalions have been operating in the shadow of the season's champion, Sea The Stars, but after yesterday's race, and his one-two-four in the Dewhurst Stakes a week earlier, the balance of two-year-old power is back at Ballydoyle.
Before yesterday St Nicholas Abbey (named after a 17th century mansion in Barbados) was already Derby favourite, on the strength of his previous Beresford Stakes win; now he is as short as 3-1.
One of his stablemates, Steinbeck, had shared Guineas favouritism in an open market at around 8-1 but Ladbrokes' Mike Dillon indicated that should O'Brien seriously point his latest star at the mile Classic, the colt would be no more than 2-1.
Sea The Stars was a rare enough thoroughbred who coupled the electric speed to win a Guineas with the stamina to take the Derby over a mile and a half and O'Brien feels that racing fans may be blessed with another the same in the quickest succession. "He's bred to stay," he said, "but he has that light and natural turn of speed. He has such quick reflexes and reactions that make him very special."
The man who has recce'd that quality at home in Co. Tipperary is work-rider Sam Curling, formerly with Nicky Henderson. "He's done a great job," added O'Brien. "He told Johnny that he'd have to move only once, and the horse would be gone. Johnny took that on board, and was able to ride with great confidence.
"The pace was slow early on and that can make it harder to get into top gear. But it actually didn't matter whether they walked or went fast."
St Nicholas Abbey – whose intelligent head carries the same arrow-shaped white marking as a previous Ballydoyle star, Galileo – has yet to encounter fast ground. Yesterday's going was eased by rain to good-to-soft, which would have not specially favoured Elusive Pimpernel. O'Brien, though, has no real concerns about any underfoot conditions St Nicholas Abbey may face next year. "With a horse like him, you don't worry," he said. "He's just such a beautiful low, light mover."
John Dunlop, Elusive Pimpernel's trainer, seeking his first top-level win for seven years, was aware of the quality of the performance he had just seen. "Ours ran a very good race," he said, "and I think time will show that it was no disgrace to be beaten by that winner."
St Nicholas Abbey and his talented contemporaries will keep Flat dreams warm until the spring. On the other side of the Pennines there was a thrilling reminder of spectacles to come, in rain or shine, through the winter.
There can be few more heartwarming sights than a bold grey horse in full flow over black birch on a fast, flat track and at Aintree yesterday Monet's Garden rolled back his years with a comprehensive front-running display in the Old Roan Chase.
The springheeled 11-year-old, carrying top weight, crossed his fences with enthusiastic accuracy in a relentless, metronomic rhythm that had most of his rivals in trouble half-way round the final circuit. The only one to make any sort of race of it was Tidal Bay, who began to close going to the penultimate obstacle, but two more powerful, fluid leaps gave Monet's Garden his second victory in the two-and-half mile Grade Two contest in three years. "He jumped simply as good as you could ever wish a horse to jump," said rider Barry Geraghty.