Even in a year that some are already condemning as ordinary, the legion of blue-blooded Derby contenders from Ballydoyle still command a fascination denied to their more basely-housed brothers. Here yesterday the latest to emerge this season from the Co Tipperary fastness, Midas Touch, notched a first among his fellows in that he actually won an Epsom trial.
And not just any trial; the Derrinstown is Ireland's premier such contest and the one favoured by Aidan O'Brien for his best prospect. In the past he has collected it with his two subsequent Epsom winners, Galileo and High Chaparral, and two since in the frame, Dylan Thomas and Fame And Glory.
By that reckoning Midas Touch should be judged high in his stable's pecking order and perhaps, with his professional defeat of three rivals which included his pacemaker At First Sight, he has now thrust himself up the ranks.
But he may have ideas slightly above his station as he had originally been earmarked for a lower-grade prep at Chester and was drafted in for yesterday's task only after an injury to Mikhail Glinka. Moreover, in shortening him to 14-1, bookmakers still rate three of his stablemates ahead of him in the Derby market: the 3-1 favourite St Nicholas Abbey and a pair yet to appear this term, Cape Blanco and Jan Vermeer.
Still, Midas Touch, a son of Galileo, could not have stepped up to the plate more stylishly than he did. Held adrift in fourth place by Johnny Murtagh until the straight, he wound up his considerable stride thereafter and top gear was engaged by the time he caught the other 2-1 co-favourite, Address Unknown, inside the furlong mark.
He had two lengths to spare at the line. The winning time was one second faster than Fame And Glory's last year, though the ground then was much softer than yesterday's good to firm.
"I've got to be pleased with that," said O'Brien, winning his eighth edition of the 10-furlong Group Two contest. "The pacemaker did his job and it was a good, solidly run race. Johnny just let him find himself and his stride, and he found plenty for him."
O'Brien accepts that his bigger guns have been firing peas rather than shells so far this year, but the curve of the graph is turning upward. "The horses we ran at Chester had excuses," he said. "Rocket Man came home very sore behind and Encompassing probably didn't stay. And at Lingfield on Saturday Johnny said Captain James Cook [who suffered a fatal injury] would have been in the first two.
"With the bad winter we had we're further behind than usual but the horses are coming forward all the time," he added, "and this fellow will as well. The fact that he won is extra encouraging."
O'Brien may also take heart from the views of Address Unknown's rider, Pat Smullen. "That rode like a good trial," he said. "The pace was good and I came to win my race [but] the winner went by us like a very good horse."
St Nicholas Abbey will resume fast work again this week on his road to the Investec-sponsored Classic after his sixth place in the 2,000 Guineas. Cape Blanco, unbeaten in three last year, has Thursday's Dante Stakes at York as his target; a minor nick in a heel at exercise yesterday is not thought to compromise his chance of participation.
But Jan Vermeer, who had Midas Touch in fourth when he won a French Group One at Saint-Cloud in November and is as short as 8-1 in the Derby lists, is by no means a certain runner at Epsom. His only trial option is the Irish 2,000 Guineas on Saturday week, and the Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly the day after Epsom is his more likely Classic target. "If he goes to Epsom we'd like to give him a run," said O'Brien, "but if we can't manage that then he could go to France without one."
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Caldercruix (4.50 Redcar)
Ran notably green in an eased-down victory on his seasonal debut here last month. Was value for more than his winning margin and can go on despite a higher mark.
Shelfah (7.10 Windsor)
Produced a creditable effort in a narrow defeat last time, when the winner had a better run through the race, and steps back up to a more favourable trip today.
One to watch
Path Of Peace (J Bethell), fifth in what could prove a smart fillies' maiden at Chester, should soon add to the fine record of her dam Persian Song, who has already produced eight winners in 20 races.
Where the money's going
After Timepiece's Lingfield defeat, the 1,000 Guineas seventh Rumoush is now as short as 5-1 (with Ladbrokes) for the Oaks without leaving her box.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Essexbridge (6.10 Windsor).