This is it. For fans of Flat racing, this is where it really kicks off. Fairyhouse, Aintree, Sandown and Punchestown have been interlopers in the early stages of the Flat season in recent weeks, but this Saturday is both the final day of the Punchestown Festival and the day of the first Classic of season at Newmarket which represents the closest thing to a seasonal transition that we have. From now on, the Flat takes centre stage.
Time for Pyledriver to deliver
Before getting stuck into the perplexing puzzle that is the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, I wish to discuss the Betfair Exchange Jockey Club Stakes (15:00) at that track. This is a genuinely fascinating contest with a potentially very good horse in Al Zaraqaan stepping into stakes company for the first time and bumping heads with two horses than have been placed in the St Leger, namely Sir Ron Priestley and Pyledriver.
The one that I have landed on is the Willie Muir and Chris Grassick-trained Pyledriver. I have had a very high regard for this horse even since his impressive win in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot last season and he has rarely had a suitable set of conditions since then.
A free-goer that can wander when in front, he can easily be forgiven his runs in the Derby (too free and didn't handle the track) and the Champion Stakes (ground was much too soft). In between those runs he was again very impressive in the Great Voltigeur at York despite getting to the front early and he ran a tremendous race when third in the St Leger again despite getting there too soon, wandering badly and being stretched by the trip.
It is rarely good practice to make too many excuses for a horse, but I really do think Pyledriver has the ability to be a proper Group 1 horse at a mile-and-a-half if his talent can be harnessed. The hope is that Martin Dwyer will bury him in cover here and be as patient as he dares in delivering his challenge. If he does that, I think Pyledriver will have too much speed and class for his opposition to deal with.
Thunder Moon's acceleration can make the difference
Now, for the main event, the Qipco 2000 Guineas. The stop-start nature of last season made for an unusual campaign characterised by top prospects seeming to take turns to beat each other. No clear pecking order was established by the Group 1 races at the backend of the campaign and with just hours to go until the first Classic of the season, the picture is only marginally clearer.
With there seeming to be so little between the main protagonists, my view is that it may well pay to put even greater than usual emphasis on the likely shape and run of the race. This is a Classic that seems so tightly-knit that the result may well be dictated by which horse gets the kindest, cleanest run in the right part of the track on the day.
So, where is likely to be the place to be in the 2000 Guineas? There is always the lingering possibility of the field splitting into groups over this course and distance, but I suspect they might well end up in one group up the middle in this year's renewal. The stalls are in the centre of the track and Naval Crown in stall 11 may well prove to be the key to the run of the race.
A natural front runner, one imagines that Naval Crown's main role will be to put pace to the race for his stable mates One Ruler (drawn 7) and Master Of The Seas (drawn 2). Given that he is drawn higher than those two, he is highly unlikely to go left from the stalls and is much more likely to edge to his right and come straight up the middle of the track to give the best tow to his companions. The hope is that this will lead to the majority if not all of the field forming an arrowhead formation up the middle of the track.
With that established, focus turns to who it might suit best. After much deliberation, I keep coming back to the form of the Dewhurst and the National Stakes. There are more than a couple of representatives of those form lines here, but the two that stand out on this day are the Aidan O'Brien-trained Wembley and the Joseph O'Brien-trained Thunder Moon.
There is no question that Wembley was better than the bare form on both of those occasions, flying home from last position to finish second in the National Stakes and finishing well for second in the Dewhurst after getting pushed wide into the unfavoured middle of the track. Things didn't go to plan for Thunder Moon on either occasion either, with him doing very well to overcome trouble in-running to win the National Stakes before getting caught wide on softer-than-ideal ground in the Dewhurst.
In truth, there probably isn't much between them on their best days. Both have what is likely to be a favoured middle draw, but Wembley's tendency to be a shade slow to start might see him get a little bit further back than ideal.
Thunder Moon is also likely to have traffic in front of him, but he showed a rare brand of push-button acceleration in the National Stakes that will be a major asset in taking gaps when they appear.
The likely quick ground will also perhaps be more so in Thunder Moon's favour, who has long promised to relish such a surface.
It really is a close-run thing, but at the current prices, marginal preference is given to Thunder Moon.