If you spot a besuited figure with a serious expression in the background at Kempton today, that will be the local trading standards officer, ready to pounce if anyone describes one of the three-year-old events as a Classic trial. In theory, the Masaka Stakes, for fillies, and the Easter Stakes are the first steps on a road which leads to Newmarket on Guineas weekend, four weeks from now. In practice, they are a chance for clever trainers to win a Listed event with a second-rater before the serious animals appear.
Between them, last year's winners, Subya and Two O'Clock Jump, managed just two more victories in 10 outings as they slipped rapidly into obscurity. In fact, the apparently insignificant Durante Stakes threw up a much more polished performer, in John Gosden's Presenting, but this too will surely prove to be the exception rather than the rule.
Just four of the field for the Masaka still hold the 1,000 Guineas entry, and these include the ever-optimistic Clive Brittain's Miss Universal, who was unsighted on both her starts at two.
One runner at least, however, is her stable's No 1 hope for Classic success, for the simple reason that she is their only hope. Sil Sila won both her starts at two, a maiden when she started at 50-1 and then a Listed race at Newbury, at odds of 25-1. She was overlooked by punters on each occasion simply because Bryan Smart, who prepares Sil Sila at a small yard in Lambourn, is not the sort of trainer who is supposed to have good Flat horses.
Like many other handlers who do not enjoy the patronage of the Maktoum brothers, though, Smart is more than capable of getting the best from a useful horse which the Sheikhs have somehow managed to overlook.
Sil Sila is available at 40-1 for the 1,000 Guineas, and Tamnia, runner- up in the Group One Moyglare Stud Stakes last year, will provide a stern test of her Classic credentials. John Dunlop's filly is likely to start among the market leaders today, but Sil Sila (3.15) has surprised backers before and can do so again.
Line Dancer, another to finish second in Group One company as a juvenile, is the obvious form choice in the Easter Stakes, but the less exposed Wood Magic (4.15) makes more appeal. David Loder, his trainer, was all but unbeatable in the early months of last season.
The Queen's Prize Handicap, over two miles, is by some distance the day's most interesting event from a punting point of view. A surprising number of the 18 runners are not certain to see out the trip and others have not shown their best form for months or even years, while River Keen, three times a winner on the all-weather this winter, never runs nearly so well on turf.
Proton will find supporters simply because he is trained by Reg Akehurst, who won this race last year with Wishing, but this season's candidate surely has too much weight. The likely winner is at the other end of the list, where STALLED (nap 3.45) is set to carry just 7st 11lb. Peter Walwyn's gelding stays two miles well and has been running admirably for the Marchioness of Blandford in amateur events. With the excellent claimer Matthew Henry now taking hold of the reins, he has an outstanding chance this afternoon and is a tempting 20-1 with Ladbrokes at morning odds.
A stayer at a rather shorter price will be Double Eclipse (1.30) in the opener at Haydock, a race which should be a formality before Double Trigger's full brother moves on to more serious matters in the season's top marathon events.
Out On A Promise (next best 2.00) will enjoy the step up to 12 furlongs, while even under a penalty, Westcourt Magic (2.30), who is ideally suited by the minimum trip, should take the Field Marshal Stakes.Reuse content