20 April 2008

A spring day cold enough for thick sweaters starred a filly still wearing her winter coat. Muthabara took her time to win the Dubai Duty Free Stakes at Newbury but from the look of her beforehand, not to mention the position she was in two furlongs out, it was surprising she got there at all.

For while she walked tall and elegant round the paddock, when her rug was removed we could see that she carried the sort of thick, trace-clipped winter coat you normally associate with jumpers here in November. This does not necessarily make horses go any slower but it does suggest that the biological clock is nowhere near the early summer peak you usually need to win the 1,000 Guineas in exactly a fortnight’s time.

Such pessimistic thoughts only darkened when she was already working hard with five horses in front of her with a furlong and a half to run. But April is no time to panic, especially not with a filly that has not appeared since the previous July and has spent the first half of the race on what transpired to be the wrong side of the track.

Muthabara had been drawn 10 of the 12 runners and Richard Hills had joined his two wider rivals to make up a trio who ended up racing by themselves in the middle of the course. Two furlongs out he had to come to the unhappy conclusion that while his filly might be going much the best of her bunch, she was already at a considerable disadvantage to the other group.

To Hills’s credit there was no sudden frantic rush about as he manoeuvred back across the course. Indeed, he was calm enough to make you first wonder if Muthabara would have legs enough to even get involved in the finish, let alone continue her quest as one of the leading fancies for the 1,000 Guineas. But festina lente (hasten slowly) is one of the best maxims in all sport and there was a lot to like about the way John Dunlop’s filly finally stretched out to swoop down on Dream Day to have over a length advantage at the line.

At first look it was still quite a bit less impressive a trial than that of her two principal market rivals, Infallible and Natagora, at Newmarket and Maisons- Laffitte earlier this week. The former was hugely convincing in the Nell Gwyn on Wednesday, while the latter’s performance in taking the Prix Imprudence on Monday confirmed that she is in at least as good a shape as when collecting Newmarket’s Cheveley Park last autumn. But trials, and hopefully the weather, are likely to be very different from conditions at Newmarket for the first fillies’ Classic two weeks today.

By then Muthabara should have shed her woolly blanket and will relish both the extra furlong and the faster ground that she will meet in this 1,000 Guineas. “I think this keeps her in the loop all right,” said Hills as he left the course last night. “It was soft ground. She is very laid-back and has been off since last July, so when we first started chasing it took a couple of hard cracks to get her going. But once she began to stretch she cut them down really well. It is something to look forward to.”

No such optimistic bulletins from the colts’ connections after the Greenham Stakes, whose winner, Paco Boy, is not even entered for the 2,000 Guineas. This was one of those trials whose service is to highlight inadequacies rather than put forward candidates. The fallibilities in question being those of hot favourite Confront, who if he is to have any Classic future, it will have to be over a lot further than yesterday’s seven furlongs. In the race he was always struggling to hold a position and eventually finished eight lengths behind the winner, stylishly-ridden by Richard Hughes.

But Confront’s owner, Prince Khalid Abdullah, will still be represented in the 2,000 Guineas as the Henry Cecil-trained Twice Over has now been confirmed to renew rivalry with Raven’s Pass, whom he beat narrowly in Newmarket’s Craven Stakes on Thursday. That race was, of course, over the same track and distance as the Guineas itself but to quote Raven’s Pass’s trainer John Gosden: “two weeks can be like two months at this time of year”.

Gosden believes that Raven’s Pass was still short of fitness and that his superior speed can turn the tables on Twice Over in the 2,000. Deep in the snug of the owners’ bar a small, ruddy, and contented figure agreed with him. “I think that Gosden horse has the acceleration,” said Pat Eddery, who may now be in the training game but whose Classic winning credentials give his opinions unique weight. “You need real speed to win the Guineas and I think Raven’s Pass could pick him off next time.”

Back in 1984 Eddery won the 2,000 Guineas on El Gran Senor with the most uplifting piece of acceleration I have ever seen on the Rowley Mile. Raven’s Pass may be no El Gran Senor, but does he need to be?

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