St Nicholas pursues path to Stars

Beresford victor favourite among unbeaten quartet who head Post trophy hopes
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The giant shadow cast by Sea The Stars over his contemporaries and elders this year will, necessarily, envelop the younger generation as well. One such as he comes along only rarely and whatever takes the Racing Post Trophy, an accepted spotlighter of future Derby candidates, at Doncaster on Saturday may be acknowledged with only qualified praise.

Four of the season's most exciting prospective middle-distance talents – the unbeaten quartet St Nicholas Abbey, Coordinated Cut, Elusive Pimpernel and Al Zir – were among yesterday's 22 penultimate declarations for the Group One contest, the last at the top level of the domestic season. Yet surely the winner can't be another... can he?

History says it is unlikely, but not impossible. Using the Derby, the top prize for three-year-olds, as a yardstick, none of its winners can be judged bad horses against the general run of the racehorse herd, but as a group can vary widely in ability. It is simply not possible for each generation to be better than the last and nearly two stone separates a paragon like Sea-Bird from lesser beasts like Signorinetta or Felstead.

Some decades seem more blessed than others in producing superior Derby winners. During the last century, the Thirties, for instance produced four properly great horses in Hyperion, Windsor Lad, Bahram and Blue Peter, and a very good one in Bois Roussel. During the Seventies we enjoyed Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Grundy and Troy. By contrast, the nonentity Nineties gave us the likes of Erhaab, Benny The Dip, High-Rise, Shaamit and Oath.

The first decade of this century has proved better than most, starting with the superior pair Sinndar and Galileo, progressing with High Chaparral, Authorized, Motivator and New Approach, all well up to standard, and ending with another superstar. Is it too much to ask for another golden year? Well, Mill Reef followed Nijinsky, and Galileo came straight after Sinndar.

High Chaparral, Motivator and Authorized all won the Racing Post Trophy and the favourite for Saturday's renewal, the Aidan O'Brien-trained St Nicholas Abbey, is already at the head of the Epsom market, on the strength of his determined success in the Beresford Stakes (won last term by Sea The Stars, no less) at the Curragh last month.

As short as 2-1, the son of Montjeu is perceived as the pick of the six from Ballydoyle still engaged on Town Moor but, as Saturday's Dewhurst Stakes – won by the stable's apparent third string, the 33-1 shot Beethoven – demonstrated, not even their trainer can be certain of what will happen on the racecourse.

O'Brien has won the mile contest four times, most recently with the subsequent Classic winners High Chaparral (2001) and St Leger hero Brian Boru (2002). Those who have failed as first string since include the Irish Derby winner Frozen Fire, Derby runner-up Eagle Mountain and high-class stayer Septimus, who finished in front of a stablemate who subsequently proved far better, Dylan Thomas.

St Nicholas Abbey, who may have the Ascot winner Joshua Tree as back-up, cost the Coolmore partners 200,000 guineas last year; one of those jostling for second spot in the betting for Saturday, Al Zir, had a price tag of $1.6m (£975,000) when Godolphin secured him. So far, the son of Medaglio D'Oro has looked the part; unbeaten in two runs, he powered home by five lengths at Doncaster last month.

Coordinated Cut, representing Authorized's trainer Peter Chapple-Hyam, also took his maiden on the South Yorkshire track and Elusive Pimpernel, from John Dunlop's Sussex stable, comes on from a doughty, well-advertised success at York.

If the Derby is the first focus in the future on Saturday, it is not the only one. The jump season is gathering pace and at the weekend the overlap will be complete with the domestic baton finally passed from one code to the other. At Aintree, some high-class chasers are due to turn out for the Old Roan Chase, including one once viewed as a contender, at his best, for top jumping honours.

Two seasons ago Tidal Bay was a star novice but, despite some good efforts in defeat, did not last season fulfil the high hopes held for him. But the eight-year-old has undergone surgery to help his breathing, which his trainer, Howard Johnson, hopes will do the trick. "He's looked good jumping fences at home, " Johnson said, "and it looks like he's carrying more condition this year, which is good because he's always been gawky. We're looking forward to getting him started again."

Turf account: Sue Montgomery

Nap

Gifted Apakay (2.30 Lingfield)

Made a satisfactory debut when third to Mr Mahoganeigh at today's track last month and, although none of those behind her have advertised the strength of the contest, the daughter of Leroidesanimaux has shown in her recent homework for trainer Ed Dunlop that the experience was not lost on her.



Next best

Karasenir (Exeter 5.10)

Stoutly bred debutant (by Sendawar, the sire of this year's County Hurdle winner, out of a half-sister to the classy multicode performer Kasthari) from Philip Hobbs' yard, which is in sparkling form.



One to watch

Vivona Hill (G A Swinbank) has won two of his four bumpers (and finished runner-up in the other two) and is judged by his shrewd trainer to have a bright future in novice hurdles. May appear at Aintree at the weekend.



*Chris McGrath's Nap

Arte Viva (2.20 Yarmouth)

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