O'Brien holds all aces in bid for six
The first Classic of the 2010 Flat season wants for little in terms of all-round quality.
A total of 19 horses are set to go to post in the Stanjames.com 2000 Guineas at Newmarket this afternoon, with the runaway Racing Post Trophy winner St Nicholas Abbey heading Ballydoyle's three-strong challenge.
Of the 18 tasked with denying Aidan O'Brien's favourite, Awzaan and Elusive Pimpernel may be best equipped to spoil the party. Unbeaten in four starts for Mark Johnston last year, to some extent Awzaan has slipped under the radar.
A son of Alhaarth, the top-class mile and 10-furlong horse, he completed his sequence in the Middle Park Stakes in October. While it is 19 years since Rodrigo De Triano did the Middle Park Guineas double, Awzaan's Group One win rubber-stamped his class.
Having only raced over six furlongs, though, his stamina is unproven. Nonetheless, his breeding suggests that he should get a mile, and it's worth remembering that when Johnston won the 1000 Guineas with Attraction six years ago, it was also her first attempt beyond six furlongs. At a general 10/1, Awzaan is each-way value.
As he showed in the Craven a fortnight ago, Elusive Pimpernel is likewise a horse of huge potential. John Dunlop's charge did everything right then and will surely play a big part again here, but it's hard to see him reversing form with St Nicholas Abbey.
At Doncaster in October, Elusive Pimpernel came out a poor second best to the Montjeu colt.
While there was an unsatisfactory element to that Group One in that it wasn't run at a true pace, St Nicholas Abbey simply annihilated the field, when he might have been the one expected to struggle most in the circumstances.
Instead, out of an established middle-distance trial (Authorized, Motivator, Brian Boru and High Chaparral were previous winners), St Nicholas Abbey emerged a real Guineas prospect. As O'Brien goes in search of his sixth win in the race, it is worth acknowledging that Viscount Nelson and Fencing Master are also not without hope.
However, the 2000 Guineas invariably falls to a horse of exceptional quality. With a drop of rain forecast, it's hard to deny that St Nicholas Abbey looks to be that horse.
The only other Irish representative on the Newmarket card is Eddie Lynam's Sole Power in the sprint that follows the big race. An improving three-year-old that has won two of its last three outings at Dundalk, Wayne Lordan's mount is worth a speculative investment.
After accounting for older rivals on his reappearance, that he steps out of his own age group again here is not a major concern, and it is significant that three of the last four renewals of this have gone the way of the Classic generation.
On official ratings, Sole Power comes out well at the weights, so the double-figure prices that can be had about him look too big.
In the opening Stanjames.com Suffolk Stakes, Marvo has plenty appeal. As a relatively exposed six-year-old in a competitive handicap, Mark Tompkins' horse may not jump off the page, but the prospect of rainfall makes him interesting.
Last August, Marvo won over today's trip of nine furlongs on soft ground. Off an inflated mark, he subsequently made little impression in three outings, but caught the eye when second on his reappearance at Pontefract two weeks ago.
On that occasion, Marvo had been dropped from 86 to 82, 6lbs higher than the 76 he won off in August.
He competes off 82 again today and, when you factor in his rider's 5lb claim, he is effectively just 1lb above his winning 76.
One other to consider is Rashaad in the Newmarket Stakes. A winner of his sole start as a juvenile, Barry Hills' colt is the unknown quantity in the five-runner field. At around 9/2, he may be underestimated.
Best bet: St Nicholas Abbey