At York this week, with a Group One contest on each of four days and £2.76m in prize-money on offer, comes the last of the summer wine before the season's seamless shift towards autumn. And today's centrepiece, the Juddmonte International, is a glass to be savoured, despite a field of just four. It may not be much of a competitive betting contest, but a fine vintage can surely be enjoyed just for its own sake.
The John Oxx-trained grand cru Sea The Stars had already frightened away most rivals for the £600,000 purse even before yesterday's defection by a lame Tartan Bearer. The opposition to the winner this season of the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Eclipse Stakes is now down to a trio of Ballydoyle stablemates, headed by Mastercraftsman.
Sea The Stars is the third Derby hero in succession to run in the 10- furlong contest which, perhaps sadly, says much about the way the tail, the breeding industry, is wagging the dog of racing. Before Authorized prevailed two years ago only five Epsom winners had taken part, of whom Roberto won in 1972, the inaugural running, and Troy in 1979. It seems that a mile and a half is no longer considered the optimum distance over which a high-class future stallion must prove himself, but the maximum.
That rather waspish observation, though, should not detract from the pleasure of seeing the handsome star on the Knavesmire this afternoon. Not every Derby winner is as good as this one has so far shown himself; the thoroughbred has long reached its evolutionary limits and at the top level there must necessarily be poor crops as well as good ones.
If the Derby is broken down into decades, it can be seen that the "Noughties" are so far holding their own. The last century yielded just 36 Epsom victors who could be rated better than average among their kind. Some decades were more blessed than others with genuinely great horses: the Thirties, for instance, which produced Hyperion, Windsor Lad, Bahram and Blue Peter, and the Seventies, with Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Grundy and Troy. By contrast, the Twenties had only Captain Cuttle and Coronach rising above the mean, the war-torn Forties only Dante and the Nineties only Generous and Lammtarra.
This century, the racing public has already enjoyed four superior Derby winners in Sinndar, Galileo, Authorized and now Sea The Stars. But none of that quartet, though undoubtedly very, very good, were or are among the brilliant best of the bests; that takes a rating in the high 130s. The one without peers, Sea-Bird, had a mark of 145.
Sea The Stars, currently officially judged at 133, will have to confirm his superiority over his contemporary Mastercraftsman, fifth in the 2,000 Guineas, in explosive style to elevate his standing. And all credit to Aidan O'Brien and the Coolmore team for having another crack at the crack, having already tried and failed with a 12-furlong specialist, Fame And Glory, in the Derby and with a miler, Rip Van Winkle, in the Eclipse Stakes.
Mastercraftsman is trying 10 furlongs for the first time after victories in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and St James's Palace Stakes. It may be that the intermediate distance proves ideal for the powerful grey and the dicing between team Ballydoyle and the Currabeg singleton will be thoroughly tactical and has the potential to be thoroughly fascinating.
But Sea The Stars (3.25), with pace, speed, stamina and a rock-solid temperament in his armoury, will be long odds-on to prevail. And although it should not be forgotten that this race produced one of the shocks of all time when Roberto lowered the colours of 1-3 shot Brigadier Gerard, it may again require the assistance of a bee if history is to repeat itself.
Historically, the Knavesmire has been the scene of retribution rather than redemption, notably when Dick Turpin met his grisly end on the York Tyburn in 1739, but this afternoon Poet's Voice (2.15) can carry on the return to grace of the Godolphin youth squad. Last year Saeed bin Suroor sent out just 19 juvenile winners; this term the score is already 24, including some of real potential.
Poet's Voice, by Dubawi, is regarded as one of the Blues' best and his progress since running away from his rivals at Newmarket last month can take him past his first-time-out conqueror Elusive Pimpernel.
The St Leger winner may well be on parade in the Great Voltigeur Stakes, for 13 horses have completed the York-Doncaster double, most recently Lucarno two years ago. Royal Ascot winner Father Time (2.50) can stake his claim for the longest and oldest Classic and, in the day's handicap feature, Sonny Red (1.45) should be aided by a return to both the minimum trip and fast conditions.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Poet's Voice (2.15 York) See preview
Bollin Judith (8.00 Nottingham)
Stoutly bred filly who should appreciate the step up to two miles and has dropped 3lb since two honest efforts over shorter in slightly better company.
One to watch
Averroes (C G Cox) Among many promising types in a seven-furlong maiden at Newbury on Friday, he belied his 50-1 SP with an eye-catching fourth. The well-related Galileo colt, entered in next year's Derby, looks sure to make his mark over further.
Where the money's going
Changingoftheguard is a solid 7-2 favourite across the board for tomorrow's Ebor after being drawn in stall seven, perceived as favourable.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
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