The countdown has begun to the next two Classics in the Flat season, the Derby and the Oaks, to be staged at Epsom’s big weekend of the year in a couple of weeks’ time.
But looming just as large on the horizon is Royal Ascot, the greatest five-day meeting in the world.
The past fortnight or so has been packed with evidence and clues likely to have a bearing on both occasions.
Our resident racing expert RICHARD ‘SCOOP’ SILVERWOOD is keeping his thunder dry for now with regard to Epsom. Look out for his Derby and Oaks previews in the coming days.
But he has been busy compiling this pocket-sized list of 20 horses to follow in the weeks ahead.
ABSEIL (2nd, Chester 9th May)
4yo colt (Sir Michael Stoute)
Not many unraced four-year-olds are kept in training by the totemic combination of Sir Michael Stoute and Khalid Abdullah unless they might be very useful. So the hint should be taken with this US-bred colt from a famous Danehill family, who underlined his potential over 7f and 1m on what was his third start inside five weeks. From the worst and widest draw, he was dropped in and still last turning for home before making relentless progress in the home straight.
ADAAY (Won, Newbury 16th May)
2yo colt (William Haggas)
What is always a significant pre-Royal Ascot maiden attracted a quality field -- and yielded an impressive winner in Hamdan Al Maktoum’s debutant, a son of that prolific sire of precocious juveniles, Kodiac. A 240,000-guineas buy, he was initially green when shaken up, but powered home in the style of a colt with a good attitude but with improvement in the locker.
ADVENTURE SEEKER (Won, York 16th May)
3yo colt (Ed Vaughan)
Trainer Ed Vaughan was always sure this grey son of 2003 Arc winner Dalakhani would be better as he matured and over a trip. So it was a pleasant surprise that he was able to win over 1m as a juvenile. But stepping up to 12f in this competitive handicap brought about a dramatic improvement, which he can build on as the season progresses. His run was blocked at a crucial time here, but he still found a telling turn of foot.
BOLD SNIPER (3rd, Newmarket 3rd May)
4yo gelding (Sir Michael Stoute)
An eyecatching seasonal debut (and first run since a gelding operation) over a 9f trip far too inadequate by Sir Michael Stoute’s four-year-old. A lightly-raced sort, he caught the eye on several occasions last term when he was even being considered for the St Leger at one stage. Now, it’s a certainty that he’s being prepared for Royal Ascot (probably the 12f Duke Of Edinburgh Handicap on the Saturday), given that he is owned by The Queen.
CANNOCK CHASE (Won, Newbury 1th May)
3yo colt (Sir Michael Stoute)
Considering the record of this London Gold Cup handicap for helping to turn progressive three-year-olds into high-quality performers (eg: Al Kazeem, Green Moon, Monterosso, Thomas Chippendale and Hillstar), it is so sad that Newbury has allowed prize money for the race to plummet. I have little doubt its pedigree was enhanced even further by the terrific performance of this son of Lemon Drop Kid who, despite his US pedigree, found the Good/Firm ground as fast as he’d like it, according to jockey Ryan Moore.
DANDYLEEKIE (Won, Navan 18th May)
2yo colt (Ger Lyons)
Irish handler Ger Lyons has a couple of smart two-year-olds with which to go to war at Royal Ascot, including this son of Dandy Man who himself acquitted himself well in four successive years at the meeting between 2006 and 2009. A polished and professional debut performance accounted for a strongly-fancied favourite from the Dermot Weld yard, and he’ll now join CAPPELA SANSEVERO on the Lyons plane to Berkshire.
DICK WHITTINGTON (2nd, Naas 14th May)
2yo colt (Aidan O’Brien)
The genius that is Aidan O’Brien is, as usual, assembling a powerful squad of juveniles to send to Royal Ascot, including the likes of WAR ENVOY and THE GREAT WAR. But few will be as talented as this superbly-bred son of Rip Van Winkle, who won a string of Group Ones for the yard in 2009 and 2010. I have little doubt that he would have landed this smart maiden on his debut, given a bit more race-nous and/or a clearer run.
ELITE GARDENS (Won, Newmarket 4th May)
2yo filly (Saeed Bin Suroor)
As strong a maiden for juveniles at the Guineas Meeting as there has been for several seasons. Yet it produced a ready winner in Godolphin’s expensive daughter of top-class Dirt sprinter Speightstown, even though she was taking on the colts. Bullish comments were made about her afterwards by trainer Saeed Bin Suroor, who disclosed that she was only 85% fit for this debut race, the form of which has already been franked.
FORT KNOX (2nd, Newbury 17th May)
4yo colt (Charlie Appleby)
A serious Guineas prospect last season, when trained in Ireland by Tommy Carmody, this son of Dubawi rather lost his way from May onwards. But on the evidence of this debut for Godolphin, he is ready to make an impact again. Unable to get a clear run after being held up in rear, he rocketed home and gives the impression he could well be a Group horse masquerading as a 7f/1m handicapper.
FOXY FOREVER (3rd, Newmarket 15th May)
4yo gelding (Michael Wigham)
Jockey Richard Kingscote received a lot of unwarranted stick after his ride on Michael Wigham’s lightly-raced but ultra-talented sprinter. The gelding is a fragile type, requiring kid-glove, hold-up treatment, especially on what was his first run back after an absence. But there’s no doubt he was the best horse in the race and should have won. If Wigham can keep him sound, the gelded son of Kodiac can land two or three big prizes.
G FORCE (Won, York 16th May)
3yo colt (David O’Meara)
Not many good ones slip through the fingers of Richard Hannon. But you can bet your bottom dollar he will be regretting the winter sale of this young sprinter after seeing his explosive victory to demolish a richly-competitive handicap. After a couple of runs as a two-year-old with Hannon, the exciting colt is now with David O’Meara, who can be entrusted to oversee his progress into Group company in the coming months.
HORSTED KEYNES (Won, Yarmouth 29th April)
4yo gelding (Roger Varian)
After five starts on synthetic surfaces, this son of Giant’s Causeway was finally unleashed on turf -- and promptly blew away the opposition in a decent 7f handicap with stacks in hand. Trainer Roger Varian reports that previous soundness issues are now behind the four-year-old, so we can expect to see him upped in class towards Group level during the summer, beginning at Royal Ascot.
INTRINSIC (Won, Ascot 10th May)
4yo colt (Robert Cowell)
It has become one of racing’s worst-kept secrets that Robert Cowell is so adept at training sprinters. Therefore it’s no coincidence that two of his latest recruits feature on the list. This well-bred son of Oasis Dream showed little and was hard to keep straight when with the great Sir Michael Stoute. But Cowell appeared to have conjured immediate improvement on the evidence of this smooth success on his seasonal and handicap debut.
MUSTAJEEB (Won, Leopardstown 11th May)
3yo colt (Dermot Weld)
Wily trainer Dermot Weld has carried all before him so far this season in Ireland. And one of his flagbearers as the year continues could well be this Hamdan Al Maktoum-owned son of Nayef, who is on course for a tilt at the Irish 2,000 Guineas at the weekend after a seriously impressive Group Three victory on his seasonal bow. He was no match for War Command on his final start as a juvenile, but seems to have come on a bundle since then.
OBSIDIAN (5th, Newbury 17th May)
3yo colt (John Gosden)
There have been no better 10f maidens this term than the opener at Newbury last Saturday. Any number of runners went into the notebook, most significantly this big, lengthy son of Street Cry. Frankie Dettori gave him an educational ride in rear for most of the contest, but the way he surged home in the final 2f suggests decent races can come his way on quick ground through the summer. Gosden trains his full brother, while the dam won the French Oaks.
PATIENCE ALEXANDER (Won, York 16th May)
2yo filly (David Evans)
I was very taken by the quality of this good, competitive and truly-run Listed affair on the Knavesmire. So for it to produce such a sparkling winner suggests the daughter of Kodiac out of a Sadlers Wells mare is well above-average and with realistic claims in the Queen Mary on day two of Royal Ascot. A winner on debut by a whopping nine lengths, she handled the considerable step-up in class with aplomb, travelling, gliding into contention, quickening and then battling.
SPEED HAWK (2nd, York 16th May)
3yo colt (Robert Cowell)
Nothing sniffed the winner (G FORCE) of this sprint handicap for unexposed three-year-olds. But Robert Cowell’s US-bred colt deserved a lot of credit for finishing a clear second on not only his first outing of the campaign but also his first on turf after a couple of efforts on the all-weather last season when he was regarded as the trainer’s sharpest juvenile. Showing speed and a turn of foot, he can develop into Pattern material.
TABREEK (Won, Newmarket 15th May)
3yo colt (Richard Hannon)
The form brought into this good-quality 10f maiden by the favourite could hardly be faulted. So for Richard Hannon’s colt to beat him in a sustained final-furlong duel warrants rich praise, especially as he extracted oodles of improvement from his debut just a month earlier. As a son of two Grade One winners in the USA, he cost 340,000 dollars, which might turn out to be money well spent by the end of the campaign.
VIA VIA (Won, Ripon 18th May)
2yo colt (Clive Brittain)
Even in his 80th year, Newmarket handler Clive Brittain is finding decent two-year-olds to keep his career going. Step forward the latest, a son of dual 2010 French Classic winner Lope De Vega, owned by Saeed Manana, fresh from his 2,000 Guineas success with Night Of Thunder. A fast-run contest played in to the hands of his stamina late on, but few could argue with the way he cosily reeled in the warm favourite, who’d had the benefit of a previous run.
WRANGLER (Won, Salisbury 4th May)
3yo colt (William Haggas)
Few horses have come on so much for their seasonal debuts than this Highclere-owned son of brilliant 2002 Derby winner High Chaparral. Something of a talking horse during the winter (when connections even mentioned the Derby), he looked anything but when a slow, one-paced eighth in a maiden at Newmarket’s Craven meeting. However, stepped up to 12f, this was a different story and he now looks a handicapper to go to war with for the rest of the season, starting at Royal Ascot.