So much to savour as Flat fizzes into life
How appropriate that, just as we finally begin to think spring might arrive after all, the Flat season gets out of first gear. Mud and Flat racing (and high heels) don't mix, in my book.
Although we have little idea of the pecking order at Ballydoyle, Battle Of Marengo is the first of Aidan O'Brien's Derby contenders to be launched. Kingsbarns misses the Guineas, but should be back for the Derby, and there will be many more potential stars fired from O'Brien's shotgun in the coming weeks.
Newmarket awoke after its long hibernation – there's nowhere more miserable than a Flat racing town in the grip of a bitter winter – this week with the Craven meeting and its first set of breeze-up sales.
Toronado made headline writers everywhere purr with pleasure as he "tore apart" a small Craven Stakes field. He won't be much of a price to give Richard Hannon a first 2,000 Guineas since Tirol in 1980 – although he'll have to beat Jim Bolger's Dawn Approach, sizzling hot favourite at about 2/1.
And a double for Henry Cecil in the Nell Gwyn with Hot Snap, a half-sister to the brilliant Midday, and Tickled Pink in the Abernant Stakes, means he might have some ammunition in the year following Frankel's grand exit to stud. Quite honestly, it's just a delight that Cecil continues to keep the upper hand in his battle with cancer.
Another horse to keep an eye on is Intello, whom Andre Fabre, France's master trainer, brought over to win the Feilden Stakes over a mile and a furlong. The colt is by Galileo out of a mare who was second in the French Guineas and who traces back to the extraordinary broodmare Fall Aspen.
Twelve of Fall Aspen's 13 foals to race have won, eight of them at Group level, including four individual Group One winners – that's powerful blood to be carrying and Intello is from a very smart family developed by the Wertheimer brothers (who own Chanel, among other things). Fabre doesn't seem to be looking at Epsom for the colt, more like the French Derby at Chantilly.
The first Classics are coming over the horizon fast. Then it's a headlong charge through a multitude of Derby trials to Royal Ascot. And there we should see something a little bit special – not, sadly, her grace Black Caviar, but another travelling superhero in Animal Kingdom.
I saw the Kentucky Derby winner massacre the World Cup field on a thrilling night last month in Dubai and can't wait to see him in either the Queen Anne Stakes or the Prince of Wales' Stakes. He's an absolute monster – a rippling, gleaming chestnut under the spotlights at Meydan.
It's a bold call to ask a horse to win on dirt in America, the artificial Tapeta surface in Dubai and then the turf at Royal Ascot, but Animal Kingdom did, in fact, win a small claiming race at Gulfstream Park on grass in February 2012 – and he was only beaten a length and a half by Wise Dan in the Breeders' Cup Mile on turf last autumn.
It's a really sporting venture by his British-born trainer Graham Motion and his owners, Team Valor, and one that definitely recoats Royal Ascot with some of the international gloss that was lost in Black Caviar's decision to stay at home and eye up a new career in the breeding shed.
But, before we get carried away about the Flat, we've got Ireland's best week of jump racing still to come. What a cast too – Hurricane Fly, Solwhit, Quevega, Champagne Fever are among the Cheltenham Festival winners on show, while Rock On Ruby, Sir Des Champs and Long Run will be on a serious mission of vengeance.
And we'll get to see the biggest star of them all, Sprinter Sacre. Nicky Henderson knows the titan of the National Hunt world has hardly broken sweat in his four races this season.
This, folks, will really be a sight to behold.
Quevega has three entries – the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle over three miles, the Rabobank Champion Hurdle over two and the ITBA Fillies Scheme/EBF Mares' Hurdle over two-and-a-quarter miles. She's won the first of those for the past three years, but Solwhit – which beat her in the Champion Hurdle here in 2009 – might just spoil the party. He came on a ton between Cheltenham and Aintree and, providing his legs are up to it, should have the measure of her.
Willie Mullins won't send her up against Hurricane Fly in the two-mile option, which leaves the mares' race. But that has the unbeaten Annie Power's name all over it – unless she tackles the mixed-sex Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle the day before. I fancy Jezki to turn around the form with Champagne Fever, despite the form boost of My Tent Or Yours' Aintree victory.
But I can't see Long Run getting past Sir Des Champs in the Gold Cup. Mullins' horse was two-and-three-quarter lengths ahead of Henderson's charge at Cheltenham and I think the fact that Sir Des Champs has considerably fewer miles on the clock – 16 starts, compared with 25, will tell.
It could be another spectacular week for the all-conquering Mullins – and it could have a significant effect on the jockeys' title as well. Davy Russell is nine in front of Ruby Walsh as I write this, with 100 winners to Walsh's 91. He should stay in front and take a second championship, but it's not out of Walsh's grip yet.
An Irish jockeys' title is about the only thing AP McCoy hasn't won. He had a fall at Cheltenham on Thursday when Quantitiveeasing unshipped him and was taken to hospital with a suspected chest injury.
It transpired that he had broken a couple of ribs and was due to be kept in hospital until the doctor was happy to release him. He will, thus, be unable to ride at Punchestown.
Due to be crowned British champion for the 18th time next week, McCoy will be missed by his legions of fans at the Kildare racecourse during the week.