In what can be considered its best renewal since attaining Group One status eight years ago, the 45th Lockinge Stakes at Newbury today should answer a few questions about the eight-furlong hierarchy. For instance, whether or not Domedriver, widely regarded as a Breeders' Cup Mile winner by default, can now take on his own identity. Or whether the highly regarded Olden Times, injured last year, can reward the faith and patience given him. We will see if Where Or When can continue to justify his connections' refusal of one of those proverbial offers. And whether the charismatic Hawk Wing turns up wearing a big girl's blouse or full metal jacket.
The Lockinge Stakes puts down the first marker of the season for Europe's élite older milers, but only rarely has the winner carried his status against all-comers through to the end of the campaign. Habitat did in 1969, Brigadier Gerard in 1972, but none has since Selkirk 11 years ago. In the race's Group One era only two victors have scored again in top company: the first, Soviet Line, but only when he became a back-to-back winner; and the 2001 hero Medicean, who went on to take the Eclipse Stakes.
But it will be a disappointment if today's field, half of whom are already successful at the highest level, cannot produce a better level of future achievement. Certainly Terry Mills and son Robert are conscious of the crucible into which they send Where Or When for his four-year-old debut. "The gloves are off right away," said Mills jun. "These are serious horses and whatever the result the spectacle for the racegoers should be fantastic, with a confirmed front runner and four or five who finish."
In terms of numbers Mills's Epsom stable cannot compete with the firepower of others represented today, but Where Or When would be a pretty big fish wherever he was housed. He ended his 2002 campaign by leaving Hawk Wing, the pride of Ballydoyle, for dead in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot. "It was only what the horse deserved," said Mills. "We'd always believed in him, but throughout the season he hadn't had the best of luck. In the St James's Palace he was checked and in that company if you have to dab the brakes they don't wait around."
Mills senior, a self-made millionaire businessman, will continue to have his name on the training licence this year as the plan to pass the reins at Loretta Lodge to his son have been postponed. "I would have to have taken time off to attend courses that are now required," said Robert, "and that would have been difficult, so we'll leave it until the close season."
A seven-figure sum was turned down for Where Or When, a 26,000 guineas snip as a yearling. "With his big frame we hoped he'd be a better four-year-old," he added. "He put on a phenomenal amount during the winter, 35 kilos, although he's down to 490 kilos now. He's had a good gallop at Lingfield, so we won't be using ring-rustiness as an excuse."
Both Domedriver and Olden Times have had sharpeners but preference is for another seasonal debutant, Hawk Wing (3.00), a colt who can travel like a dream but has not always seemed to relish a fight. But by now the memories of his hard race in the Derby out of his distance may have faded.
One horse for whom quitting is an anathema is Persian Punch, who begins his eighth campaign in the Aston Park Stakes. But for all the 10-year-old's resilience he may have to defer today to a beast six years his junior, GAMUT (nap 2.25).
Yesterday's Newbury winner Sun On The Sea, who out-galloped well-touted Oaks candidate Waldmark in the 10-furlong trial, will be heading for the Ribblesdale Stakes at Ascot.
But testing for Epsom continues in France tomorrow, when Godolphin's Hi Dubai, Summitville (James Given) and Humoresque (Mark Prescott) attack the Prix Saint-Alary.
Half the field in the other Group One contest on the Longchamp card, the Prix d'Ispahan, are from Britain, with brilliant filly Bright Sky leading the defence. And tonight at Pimlico, surprise Kentucky Derby hero Funny Cide tackles the second leg of the US Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes.
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