SADDLER'S ROCK, last year's progressive Doncaster Cup winner, faces a proper test ahead of his imminent Gold Cup bid when he reappears on this evening's decent Leopardstown spread.
John Oxx's four-year-old is a 5/1 second favourite for the Royal Ascot feature behind the 2011 hero Fame And Glory, which Aidan O'Brien scratched from tonight's €47,500 Listed race due to its proximity to the big event in 13 days' time. Oxx didn't have that luxury, given that Saddler's Rock hasn't run since his Doncaster coup in September.
Having won three of his last four starts in his debut campaign, Saddler's Rock is clearly a smart Cup prospect, and his Town Moor form has held up really well. That said, he must concede 10lbs to a race-fit Unaccompanied here, and that may just prove beyond him.
At Navan last time, Dermot Weld's classy mare really shook up Fame And Glory, and the suspicion is that she may have a gear too many for Saddler's Rock over tonight's one-mile-six-furlong trip.
She got to within a neck of Fame And Glory when in receipt of 10lbs last time, a feat that compares favourably with the 2009 Irish Derby winner's one-and-a-quarter-length defeat of Saddler's Rock's when conceding 13lbs at the Curragh in August.
The Jessica Harrington-trained Steps To Freedom (third at Navan), Unaccompanied's returning stablemate Sense Of Purpose, Paul Deegan's Midnight Soprano and Mark Johnston's Royal Diamond -- first and second in a Curragh handicap two weeks ago -- are all smart performers that will ensure this is no two-horse race.
Still, the market leaders set a tall standard, and Pat Smullen is napped to get one over his old foe Johnny Murtagh this time.
Murtagh can take the Listed Nijinsky Stakes with Aklan. In a more indecipherable 11-furlong contest, Oxx's once-raced Curragh winner gets the nod over Mick Halford's Sheikh Mohammed-owned Blue Corner, which also won on its only start at headquarters recently.
Ballydoyle's Derrinstown Derby trial runner-up Tower Rock, David Wachman's hat-trick-seeking Tannery and Patrick Prendergast's 1,000 Guineas trial third Coral Wave are all deserving of much respect.
Nonetheless, on his debut, Aklan readily accounted for Hartani and Show Court, two that have franked his form by since winning three times. Given that the Dalakhani grey can only improve, he has the potential to be up to this.
Two of Aidan O'Brien's maidens that might build on initial defeats are Theatre in the juvenile and El Salvador in the concluding three-year-old heat, while Strandfield Lady -- five times a winner at the Foxrock venue -- appeals for Harry Rogers and Sam James in the penultimate handicap.