The stage at Sandown is set today for the 99th running of one of the oldest all-aged championships in the calendar, named after one of the Titans of the Turf. The Eclipse Stakes brings the best of the middle- distance generations together for the first time in Britain during the season, and if today's race may lack the absolute quality of some previous renewals - notably the 1903 running, when four-year-old Ard Patrick, the previous year's Derby hero, beat his contemporary Sceptre, who had taken the other four Classics, with the three-year-old Rock Sand, who went on to complete the Triple Crown, back in third - it remains a fascinating contest.
The expansion of the post-war racing programme has taken some of the gloss off the Eclipse's status and in all the furore over Cigar's much- lauded triumph in the the newest of the top-level events, the Dubai World Cup, the performance of one of today's contenders, Pentire, was slightly overlooked. The four-year-old ran a blinder to finish fourth, and has since been looked after by his trainer Geoff Wragg with this afternoon in mind.
Pentire, only a few pounds behind the very best last year, when his only defeat came at the hands of Lammtarra in the King George, has been putting in some eye-catching work at home on the Newmarket gallops, though he is untried in public on easy ground. He never usually wins by much - four of his six victories were by a neck or less, and timing is of the essence on him. But Sandown is a course that brings out the best in late pouncers, and since his Derby win Michael Hills has been riding with great confidence.
The Godolphin candidate Halling will be bidding to become only the fourth horse this century to win successive runnings, after Buchan (1919-20), Polyphontes (1924-25) and Mtoto (1987-88). Last year he made all and hung on to beat Singspiel, who has declined to take him on again, and though he was a dire disappointment when last in the Dubai race, he returned to turf action in his old zestful style in the Prix D'Ispahan at Longchamp in May.
Valanour, who side-stepped that engagement because of the soft going, comes over from Chantilly, and a win for the French would not be untimely. They harvested the race for a while after the war with seven wins, but, after Trepan's technical disqualification 20 years ago, Javelot, in 1960, remains the last from France on the roll of honour. Valanour, who would be the Aga Khan's first winner on these shores for six years, tends to carry his head high, but he is genuine and, like Pentire, owns a fine turn of foot, which he demonstrated when he beat Luso and Swain in the Prix Ganay at the end of April.
If Pentire and Valanour are best when the ground is riding fast, Ireland's challenger Definite Article will appreciate every drop of rain that falls, and following yesterday's downpour those who backed him at 16-1 when the exchanges opened may now be feeling rather smug. The four-year-old, from Dermot Weld's yard, is a gritty customer, but may lack the ability to quicken needed to win at Group One level.
In the absence of Shaamit, the burden of flying the flag for the much- maligned Classic generation falls on the brawny shoulders of Bijou D'Inde. The Mark Johnston-trained colt, third in the Guineas, was staying on again when he snatched the St James's Palace Stakes from Ashkalani, but whether he can carry on for another two furlongs in this company is open to question.
The field is completed by Beauchamp King, another who is stepping up in distance but who seems held by Bijou D'Inde on this season's form, and Ela-Aristokrati, who stormed home in an Epsom handicap last time out but is stepping up in class.
The state of the ground may be the deciding factor. Halling (4.10) has shown it all comes alike to him and can complete the double at the expense of Valanour and Pentire.
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