Most Improved to deliver on O'Brien debut
A fascinating Irish Derby Festival on the Curragh kicks off with an intriguing spread tonight, albeit the showpiece Eflow International Stakes is possibly the least compelling of all the races that will be held there over the next three days.
Despite a generous €60,000 prize fund, the 10-furlong Group Three has attracted just four runners – three of which represent Coolmore – with the presence of last year's St James's Palace Stakes hero Most Improved meaning the contest will likely feature an odds-on favourite for a fifth year in a row.
Famous Name justified skimpy odds on three of those occasions since 2009 and the suspicion is that Most Improved will prove equally unassailable on its Ballydoyle debut after leaving Brian Meehan's care.
The Lawman four-year-old had problems before and after its moment of glory at Royal Ascot in 2012.
However, his pedigree obviously appealed to Coolmore and there must have been a consensus that he could still enhance his on-track reputation.
Most Improved won't get a better chance than this evening to begin that process, with official ratings pointing to his fellow Aidan O'Brien-trained Flying The Flag as the chief threat.
Whereas Aloof and Uleavemebreathless are respectively 10lbs and 20lbs inferior to Joseph O'Brien's chosen mount on figures, Flying The Flag is just four pounds lower, yet he receives all of 16lbs as a three-year-old.
In theory, he should exploit that, but his tame defeat at Leopardstown last week did little to suggest that he might be winning a race like this any time soon. With that in mind, it will be an enormous let-down if Most Improved fluffs his lines.
The O'Brien father-son axis might also take the maiden over the same trip with The Vatican, likewise making a belated seasonal debut in a first-time visor here.
On its only previous outing at Leopardstown last July, The Vatican finished a fair third to Flying The Flag, when the market made clear that he was the stable's second string.
All told, though, the Galileo colt showed plenty of promise without being knocked about over an inadequate seven-furlong trip, and he is expected to be a more potent force over further now.
Ger Lyons' Saxo Jack stands out as the main danger following an eye-catching fourth to Qewy on its first outing at Navan, while the Meath-based handler is responsible for the night's nap selection in the shape of Dr Funkenstein.
The three-year-old son of Excellent Art takes on a few elders in the 100 to 102 Today FM Maiden over a mile, having kept on with real intent for third over a furlong shorter at Gowran Park last month.
Although this is a pretty decent heat, that was a hugely encouraging turn that he has the scope to build on under Gary Carroll.
Johnny Murtagh could get a busy night under way by taking the juvenile maiden on Calorie, which he also trains.
He could also land the Irish National Stud Handicap on Eddie Lynam's Yulong Baoju, while his Niall McCullagh-ridden Sacred Dragon is fancied to have a big say in the Silken Thomas 40th Anniversary Handicap.
Beaten four lengths behind the smart Roca Tomu here in May, Sacred Dragon had won and finished second at Dundalk on his previous two starts.
He is up against it as the only three-year-old on duty in this 11-runner contest, but he looks deeply progressive.