Having divided nine of the past 10 titles between them, you suspect that not even Sir Michael Stoute or Aidan O'Brien would begrudge Richard Hannon a second trainers' championship to add to the one he won in 1992. Certainly, if the tide of goodwill among neutrals could be harnessed by his horses during the final two months of the season, Hannon would be past the post.
As it is, however, his challenge remains on a knife-edge. For one thing, the home fires have only been smouldering lately, with his strike rate dwindling to six winners from his last 114 starters. And yesterday he extended a series of overseas misadventures with an exasperating defeat for Paco Boy in Paris.
Hannon himself professes indifference about the idea of another championship to seal the unprecedented strength of his stable, in the evening of his career. It is precisely this lack of vanity that nourishes public affection, of course. Sure enough, the possibility of supplanting Stoute at the top of the table did not influence his deployment of Paco Boy, who was quoted among the favourites when given a surprise entry for the Betfred Sprint Trophy at Haydock on Saturday.
Yet again, however, Hannon has received zero reward for diverting to a foreign field one of the horses most competent to win domestic prize-money. Over the past month Strong Suit, Memory and Libranno have all lost an unbeaten record abroad. At least Paco Boy's failure in the Prix du Moulin, as hot favourite, did not especially compound anxiety about the stable's form.
Though only fourth of six, Paco Boy finished more or less on the bridle. It is possible, admittedly, that he was a spent force regardless. But it was not a ride calculated to soothe any hangovers chez Hannon, whose son, namesake and assistant had been married the previous evening. Settling Paco Boy behind the front-running Siyouni, Richard Hughes found himself short of options in the straight and ultimately gambled on a half-gap on the rail. It promptly closed, leaving him as a spectator of arguably the best Group One finish of the European season, Rio De La Plata just running down Siyouni in the shadow of the post, only to be collared in turn by a tremendous burst from Fuisse.
The winner is a big, brawny colt trained by Criquette Head-Maarek, who indicated that he may now bid to enhance France's excellent record in the Emirates Airline Champion Stakes at Newmarket next month. That would entail a return to 10 furlongs, over which distance he finished second in the Prix du Jockey-Club last year before disappearing with a back problem. Fuisse caused a lengthy delay before yesterday's race, getting loose twice, but his acceleration once reunited with Stéphane Pasquier implied new maturity and prowess.
If the race proved unhappy viewing for the Hannons, then it must have been worse still for the Godolphin team, so fleeting was the illusion of success for Rio De La Plata. Things did not improve later in the afternoon, either, Cavalryman again failing to retrieve the form he showed for André Fabre last year when only third at Baden-Baden.
In Paco Boy's absence, the big prize at Haydock was won by Markab, whose blossoming at the age of seven confirms Henry Candy an outstanding trainer of sprinters. Candy said yesterday Markab may be put away for next season.
Starspangledbanner seemed low on fuel, after being campaigned in two hemispheres, but O'Brien duly won both the other Group One races in his sights on Saturday, with Lillie Langtry and Cape Blanco. The latter seemed a revelation restored to 10 furlongs, over which distance he beat Workforce at York in May. In the meantime, of course, Workforce had run away with the Derby, and both horses had in turn been beaten out of sight behind Harbinger at Ascot. One way or another, this season has featured a series of runaway wins in championship races and one or two must surely be too good to be true.
In this instance, it seems possible that Rip Van Winkle was feeling the effects of a generous effort at York just 18 days previously. Regardless, O'Brien has heartening momentum as he appraises big international targets this autumn. Take Await The Dawn, one of four Ballydoyle winners on the Leopardstown card. After a recent return from an absence of nearly a year, his impressive Group Three success came on only the fourth start of his career. O'Brien, remember, also plans to give his sleeping giant, St Nicholas Abbey, a racecourse workout this weekend.
Perhaps the most intriguing footnote from Leopardstown, however, concerned a horse not seen since suffering an injury behind Sea The Stars on the equivalent day last year. Dermot Weld reports the 2008 Derby third has been gelded, is returning into training, and may yet try his luck over hurdles.
Chris McGrath's Nap Isobar (4.10 Bath)
Bumped into a well-ridden, well-treated rival when stepped up in distance for his handicap debut at Folkestone, but pulled clear of the rest after travelling well and likely to enjoy a still longer trip today.
Next best Celestial Girl (4.40 Bath)
Had been flourishing prior to a disappointing effort last time, conceivably because of softer ground, but worth forgiving that lapse regardless as she steps up to a distance likely to suit her better again.
One to watch
Annedah (J H M Gosden) made a really encouraging start at Salisbury last week, trapped wide in a big field but closing very smoothly before running green, switching leads and staying on again late for second.
Where the money's going
Hitchens and Redford are both 16-1 from 20-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill Ayr Gold Cup on Saturday week.
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