Johnston can rise to Phoenix challenge again with Buratino
Mark Johnston will tomorrow saddle the 2016 2,000 Guineas favourite Buratino when he bids to become the first British-based handler to plunder the Phoenix Stakes since he did so with Princely Heir in 1997.
A year later, Aidan O'Brien won the juveniles' Group One for a first time with Lavery. In the intervening years, the Ballydoyle genius has conquered the six-furlong event a further 12 times, and Air Force Blue is one of three charged with securing him an incredible 14th Phoenix victory.
As the first two-year-olds' Group One of the year, the Curragh's Keeneland-sponsored showpiece, which has risen in value for a second time in three years to €250,000, promises to be hugely informative.
After Air Force Blue was beaten by Buratino in the Coventry, O'Brien described him as a big baby. He certainly has the frame of a horse that should continue to develop, but it is hard to get away from Buratino's superiority.
The Exceed And Excel colt burst clear inside the final furlong in a manner of a proper horse. He and Air Force Blue had looked poised to knuckle down for a bit of a dust-up, but Buratino simply blew the eventual runner-up away under William Buick.
In six starts, the Godolphin charge is three from three over this six-furlong trip. While he won over five on his debut, he has also been beaten twice over the minimum distance.
At this trip, though, he has looked special. Granted, he could probably do with the ground being every bit as fast as it is likely to be and he has less scope to improve than many of his rivals.
Still, Johnston has always been good with this sort of horse, so Buratino is fancied to justify his place at the head of the Classic's ante-post betting.
David Wachman, one of just three other trainers to win the race since O'Brien initiated his domination, relies on the exciting Most Beautiful, which is part-owned by Ronan O'Gara, and will need to be every bit as good as she looked here on Irish Derby weekend, but she could well run a big race.
Jessica Harrington's Rockaway Valley, second to O'Brien's re-opposing Painted Cliffs a day earlier, is the only other local runner. Painted Cliffs won pretty impressively that day, so it's not hard to envisage him figuring prominently, likewise his stablemate Washington DC.
In the Qatar Phoenix Sprint, Tim Easterby's Mattmu is the highest rated of the eight declared runners. A winner and second twice in three of his last four starts in Group races, he has obvious claims.
Evanna McCutcheon's Maarek might need softer ground to excel, so a chance is taken on Anthem Alexander taking advantage of the drop in class.
Eddie Lynam's 2014 Royal Ascot heroine emerged with plenty of credit after her two forays into Group One company this year. If she runs to a similar level or better now for Pat Smullen, she could prove hard to beat.
Earlier, Harrington's Gregoria is fancied as nap material in the seven-furlong handicap. Fran Berry's mount tumbled out of the stalls at Galway, and then had to circumnavigate the field to challenge. In the end, having been well-supported in the each-way market, she did brilliantly to be third behind Romiac, so she will have a big say here provided she breaks sharper.
Over jumps at Downpatrick, Willie Mullins could win each of the three races in which he has runners. The maiden hurdlers Listen Dear and Westerner Lady should both go close for Paul Townend, likewise Childrens List in the conditions race. Having tired at Roscommon, the drop in trip here will suit him ideally.