This time last year Aidan O'Brien had won all seven of the Group One juvenile races in Europe open to colts that had been run. Twelve months on, after a virus-plagued summer, his score in the division is, by the usual Ballydoyle standards, measly: three wins, courtesy of Hold That Tiger in the Grand Criterium at Longchamp and Spartacus in the Phoenix Stakes and Sunday's Gran Criterium in Italy, three second places (from Tomahawk in the Middle Park and Dewhurst and Van Nistelrooy in the National) and one race, the Prix Morny, uncontested.
The next in the series is the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster on Saturday, followed by the Criterium International and Criterium de Saint-Cloud in France next month. O'Brien is taking his catch-up responsibilities seriously, yesterday providing eight of the 15 entries for the Town Moor contest.
Rumours that prominent members of Britain's National Trainers' Federation have been seen hanging about Porton Down with vials are entirely unsubstantiated.
Although the perceived best of the Co Tipperary youth team, Hold That Tiger, is among the Doncaster octet, he is scheduled to jet off today to Chicago for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Saturday. The composition of the O'Brien raiding party in South Yorkshire on Saturday will not be finalised until later in the week but whichever of Brian Boru, Chevalier, Delacroix, France, Powerscourt, Some Kind Of Tiger and The Great Gatsby are given the assignment they should not be underestimated as substitutes.
In a similar scenario last year, the superstar Johannesburg went off to America and won his Breeders' Cup race, about three hours after one of his so-called lesser stablemates, by name High Chaparral, had scored at Doncaster.
The one of this year's contenders with the best public form is Brian Boru, a head runner-up in the Group Three Beresford Stakes on soft ground at the Curragh nine days ago after an illness- induced break and, like High Chaparral, is a son of Sadler's Wells. All the others bar The Great Gatsby have broken their maidens in the past fortnight.
Officials at Doncaster are expecting the ground to remain on the soft side for the £200,000 one-mile race, the last of the season at Group One level in Britain.
After wet and windy weather in the last 48 hours the going is good to soft and track manager Malcolm Taylor said yesterday: "We've had 18mm overnight, it's absolutely pouring it down now and the forecast is awful."
One among the domestic opposition who remains untroubled by the prospect of a bog is Mark Tompkins, whose Inch Again will be bidding to go one better than his Newmarket handler's charge Even Top, second seven years ago before occupying the same position in the 2,000 Guineas. Inch Again is on a hat-trick, having already scored twice over a mile, in his maiden at Yarmouth in August and then a novice contest on easier ground at Ayr last month.
"It is a long way up in class, but soft ground is a great leveller and he's done nothing but progress," said Tompkins, in whose colours the son of Inchinor competes. "We hadn't originally planned to take him through to the end of the season because he'll be a lovely three-year-old, but he hasn't yet told us we should stop, in fact his work has been very pleasing. He's not raced on very soft ground but his action says he should cope and he's a big strong horse."
Tompkins has taken heart from the recent Group One strikes by lower-profile trainers, but is keen that trainers like Henry Candy, who won the Cheveley Park Stakes with Airwave, and Fulke Johnson Houghton, hero of Saturday's Dewhurst Stakes with Tout Seul, should not be stigmatised as the "little man".
"It's only that operations like Coolmore and Godolphin are extraordinary," he said. "The rest of us are normality, and if the horses are the best in the race, like Tout Seul was, then there are an awful lot of trainers perfectly capable of training them."
The race that Inch Again won at Ayr was taken last year by no less a celebrity than Bandari, who then went on to a cruising success in Pontefract's premier juvenile race, the listed Silver Tankard. Yesterday's edition of the mile heat at the West Yorkshire track went just as easily to the Ed Dunlop-trained Battle Chant, who, despite taking a keen hold in the slowly-run early stages, showed an impressive burst of speed in the straight to outclass his four rivals by six lengths.
* There will be a 9am inspection at Newcastle today to determine whether, following heavy rain, racing can take place at the track tomorrow.
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