The 2,000 guineas hero Makfi's place at the top of the three-year-old milers' leader board, which survived the Poule d'Essai des Poulains at Longhamp two days ago, is likely to come under more severe pressure on Saturday at the Curragh in the Irish version of the Classic. Canford Cliffs and Xtension, third and fourth on the Rowley Mile, will be the yardsticks for that form, but installed as favourite yesterday was Steinbeck, as yet unraced this year but always held in the highest regard by Aidan O'Brien.
The colt has not run since his fine fourth place in the Dewhurst Stakes last October. On that occasion, only the second race of his life after a five-month break, he started second favourite despite his inexperience and finished only half a length behind the winner, his long-priced stablemate Beethoven, after running out of puff in the last 100 yards.
His reappearance was delayed by a setback in March, when he was among the leading fancies for the Newmarket Guineas, but he is now beginning to approach his peak again, mind and physique sharpened by an awayday at the Curragh two weeks ago, and his trainer is only one of those keen in his anticipation. "He's always excited us," said O'Brien, "and though it's never ideal for a horse to have a month off when he's starting to thrive, he's in good order."
O'Brien has already won six Irish 2,000 Guineas, including the last two editions with Mastercraftsman and Henrythenavigator. Steinbeck is one of nine from Ballydoyle among the 20 remaining in the Group One contest, a contingent which also includes another seasonal debutant, Jan Vermeer, and Fencing Master, seventh behind Makfi 17 days ago.
Steinbeck, a son of Footstepsinthesand, is the 11-4 market leader for the Abu Dhabi-sponsored race, with Canford Cliffs, one of five possible raiders from Britain, second choice at 3-1. Fencing Master, well-supported yesterday, is next on the list at 5-1 and Xtension 6-1.
In finishing a length and three- quarters adrift of Makfi at Newmarket, Canford Cliffs was half a length behind his Richard Hannon stablemate Dick Turpin, who was subsequently beaten three-quarters of a length by Lope De Vega in France on Sunday. The Guineas was Canford Cliffs' second defeat in as many runs this term and, having looked special when he ran away with the Coventry Stakes last summer, now has a reputation to redeem.
"Things have not gone to script so far this year," said Hannon, "but he has been in great nick since Newmarket. We know what he can do on the gallops and we hope he will show everyone in Ireland what a good horse he really is."
Hannon already has two Irish Guineas on his CV, but courtesy of horses who won the original, Tirol and Don't Forget Me. One man seeking his first Classic is Clive Cox, the trainer of Xtension, who was a neck in front of Steinbeck, and a nose behind runner-up Fencing Master, in that Dewhurst Stakes tea-towel finish. Lambourn-based Cox is looking forward to having another crack at the perceived cracks. "We've got the benefit of a run under our belts now," he said, "and the ground in Ireland should suit him, it's good with a warm forecast.
"A mile is a pleasing distance for him and a stiff track like the Curragh should suit him well. It's going to be a hot race, as you'd expect for a Group One, but he came out of the Guineas really well. He's a very straightforward horse with a great temperament and we couldn't be more pleased with his progress since Newmarket."
Whatever the result on Saturday, the three major European Guineas will have different winners. The decider will be the St James' Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot next month, already nominated as Makfi's next target.
* Sue Montgomery's Nap
Royal Exchange (2.30 Nottingham)
Just touched off on his debut last month in a race that has already produced three subsequent winners. His experience can stand him in good stead against well-regarded newcomers.
Four Kicks (4.50 Brighton)
Has form on this tricky track and is on an upward roll for her new connections, progress which may be maintained for her step up in distance.
*One to watch
Beautifully bred three-year-old Marywell (J H M Gosden) produced a most promising effort at Warwick on her belated debut, finishing to some purpose after a slow start. She should soon find a race and pay her way over middle distances.
*Where the money's going
Henry Cecil has an outstanding record in the Oaks and punters are showing faith in York winner Aviate, now challenging Rumoush for favouritism at 5-1 in several lists.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
Eager To Bow (3.20 Brighton)