Time is right for Annus Mirabilis

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It creaked just a little, but when John Smith, York's clerk of the course, claimed yesterday that today's card is all about quality rather than quantity, you had to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was digesting the news that while 20 runners have been declared for the fifth race on the opening day of the Ebor meeting, only one more than that will contest the previous four. Even if Smith was not disappointed, however, disillusion may well await backers who believe their lives will be made significantly easier.

The obvious problem for punters is that while this afternoon's cast list includes such excellent performers as Bahri, Eltish, Pentire and Luso, small fields often produce unexpected - and certainly unreliable - results. This would be particularly irksome in the Great Voltigeur Stakes, since not one of the four runners has shown any enthusiasm for making the running and if there is no worthwhile gallop, its value as a St Leger trial will swiftly evaporate.

The presence of Halling, who won the Eclipse Stakes from the front at Sandown last month, should at least guarantee a good pace in the day's feature event, the International Stakes. As an added incentive, Walter Swinburn, Halling's jockey, will be well aware that Bahri, the favourite, is a miler who may find the extended 10-furlong trip at least half a furlong too far. Given this doubt, in fact, Bahri's current odds of around 13- 8 are astonishingly thin.

Not that Halling's price of 2-1 is much better. This year's Eclipse was a Group One event in name but not substance, and turned into a sprint from the home turn with Halling already several lengths to the good. Eltish, who re-opposes him today, was one of those who was caught flat-footed when the pace quickened, and it would be no surprise to see him reverse the form this afternoon.

Second place, though, may be the best Pat Eddery can hope for. The International has thrown up some outstanding bets in recent years - most notably Ezzoud at 28-1 in 1993 - and while Annus Mirabilis will start at much shorter odds, even 4-1 seriously underestimates his chance.

Though he is without a victory so far this season, Michael Stoute's colt was beaten less than a length in the Irish Derby last time and is probably better suited by today's shorter trip (he was an excellent second in the Dante over the International course and distance). Stoute has won the last two runnings of this event and it will be a surprise if ANNUS MIRABILIS (nap 3.10) does not complete the hat-trick.

Stoute is represented in the Voltigeur by Singspiel, an improving colt who was second to Halling in the Eclipse. Two of his rivals, though, have recently finished runner-up to even more illustrious names. Pentire lost his unbeaten seasonal record to Lammtarra in the King George, while Luso was just a short-nose behind Carnegie, last year's Arc winner, in the Grand Prix de Saint- Cloud. It is difficult to oppose Pentire (3.45), who has proved several times this year that he has an excellent turn of foot, but stakes should be at a minimum since the race could so easily be falsely run.

It seems a shame that the Voltigeur cannot borrow a front-runner from the Melrose handicap, which may have just five entries but includes three horses - Grey Shot, Crystal Blade and Shaft Of Light - who like to force the pace. This may introduce a different set of problems, as the fancied horses ruin their chances in the fight to lead, and while Saleel (next best 2.35) is short of experience, he should stay on past the tiring pacemakers.

There will certainly be no shortage of speed in the sprint handicap, but there could be an unusual lack of competition since Al Wujud (4.15) is improving rapidly and is still several pounds ahead of the handicapper.

Always Aloof (4.45) is another strong candidate from Michael Stoute's stable in the Londsdale Stakes, and could complete a treble for the yard since Hammerstein (2.05) has every chance in the opener.