Things started to get serious on the Flat in the latest week with the wraps coming off a number of Classic hopeful at Newmarket's Craven and Newbury's Greenham meetings. Not all of them passed their mock exams, and here's what our team make of them a fortnight before their acid tests.
STAKING THEIR CLAIMS
In a week that always sees the Flat Turf season crank up a notch the best performance from any of the Classic trials undoubtedly came from Muhaarar in the Aon Greenham Stakes, writes Graeme Smith.
Pre-race it was striking just how much depth there was to the field and a historical standard that suggested a winning performance around 115 seemed to undervalue the efforts of the pair that pulled clear - indeed a standard on pre-race ratings suggested a figure more in the region of 124!
I'm not as hung up as some on the fact the track record was lowered, with the assisting tailwind strong enough to have seen it discarded had this been athletics, while the very promising Intilaaq (awarded an opening mark of 97) ran a faster relative time in division one of the 1m maiden anyway. Still, it was mighty impressive to see the Hamdan Al-Maktoum-pair draw upwards of four and a half lengths clear of their rivals and there's a chance I'll be assessing the form upwards after the Spring Classics themselves.
For now, last year's Gimcrack winner Muhaarar moves up 3lb to 117. That puts him level with the third-placed Ivawood, who'd beaten him both times the pair met as juveniles. Estidhkaar has been moved up 1lb to 116 - the highest that could be reasoned for him from his juvenile efforts is 117 and even that level doesn't look solid. As I say, it may be this initial level proves on the low side but I felt most comfortable with a cautious approach for now with all nine participants returning from absence.
There was very little form to pin the Dubai Duty Free Fred Darling Stakes around, with the pair who fought it out both stepping up markedly from their juvenile efforts. I settled on 106 and 104 for Redstart and Jellicle Ball, which is within the zone of the two methods of historical standards I worked out and also meant the ratings of fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh would line up neatly, working on the proviso I wasn't going to move the fifth-placed Lacing from a solid-looking 95.
Whilst I'm happy with my level for the 'body' of the field at the moment it could easily be that the first two prove themselves better than their current marks, particularly considering both the pace and tailwind meant there was a reasonable emphasis on speed at the 7f trip - these two fillies are bred to excel over further.
So what of last year's Champion Juvenile filly Tiggy Wiggy? She remains the highest-rated of these on 117 for the time being. It's anybody's guess whether she'll stretch out to 1m - she'll certainly have to settle better than here - or even prove as effective this year wholesale, but it sounds as though she'll be allowed to return to her usual trail-blazing tactics when she's next tried.
Over at Newmarket, it looks as though the CSP European Free Handicap was most significant in bursting the Guineas bubble of Faydhan. There were elements of Home of The Brave's two-year-old form that suggested he could improve on his figure of 102 and I now have him at 106. It's clear the field lacked depth though, and I get the impression keeping Home of The Brave on the right path could prove a test of his excellent young trainer's skill.
Osaila was entitled to win the Lanwades Stud Nell Gwyn Stakes with her pre-race rating of 109 3lb above the average winning mark from the last five years. She did just that without having to quite reproduce that level (ran to 105), though I get the impression she will do another day - overcoming an arguably disadvantageous position under just hands and heels as she went to join battle with New Providence and beginning to go away for stronger pressure when Dettori appeared to mistake the winning post.
It's also worth keeping an eye on Beautiful Romance, who improved from her winning debut to a mark of 101 in third. Her pedigree suggests she'll be much more at home as she works her way towards middle-distances.
PLAYING IT KOOL
After nine starts as a two-year-old and ending the 2014 campaign with a mark of 113, Kool Kompany dented a couple of reputations when landing the Novae Bloodstock Insurance Craven Stakes at Newmarket on Thursday, although whether he improved on anything he has shown previously is open to question at this point, writes Dominic Gardiner-Hill.
The key to the race is the fact that Richard Hughes was allowed an uncontested lead on the Hannon-trained colt and dictated throughout, setting a modest early gallop before winding it up at the business end. Given he had the run of the race, I have taken the view he has reproduced his 113 from last year, suggesting that runner-up Nafaqa (pre-race 109) has run to 107 and third-placed Moheet (pre-race 90) has performed to 103 - bearing in mind Moheet was held up off a steady pace there may be more to come.
Both Nafaqa and White Lake (seventh) were keen enough early on as they dawdled and it would be no surprise if Barry Hill's colt hadn't shown quite the same level of form as he did when winning a listed race at Doncaster and runner-up in the Royal Lodge last season - he retains his current rating of 109.
There is an argument that I could have gone 2lb higher on the race but, for the reasons given, I have stayed on the conservative side for the time being. Once the various Guineas have been run around Europe, I will be more than happy to return to the race and re-evaluate if subsequent events suggest I need to.
HORN BLOW FEILDEN RIVALS AWAY
Newmarket's listed Feilden Stakes has been won impressively by lightly-raced improvers such as True Story and Intello in recent years, and this year's renewal also looks set to prove a race worth following, writes Adam Barnes.
John Gosden's Golden Horn impressed many when making a winning debut at Nottingham last autumn and he took this marked step up in class in his stride, ultimately running out a decisive winner from the 106-rated pair Peacock (now 107) and Disegno (unchanged on 106).
This form has a solid look to it and Golden Horn's rating has now been raised to 111. That looks very unlikely to prove his limit too, impressing with how readily he moved from the rear to lead before showing clear signs of lingering greenness - perfectly understandable on just his second racecourse appearance - in shifting to his left in front, all in all looking just the sort to go on improving as he moves into pattern company. Early reports suggest he's off to the Dante next.
ASTAIRE DANCES HOME
Even though last week's main focus on the Flat was rightly on the classic trials, the sprinting world started to step up a gear as well with the first pattern race in Britain in that sphere, namely the Group 3 6f Connaught Access Flooring Abernant Stakes at Newmarket's Craven meeting.
The eleven-strong field looked well up to scratch, headed by the 112-rated Music Master, a standing dish in most of the top 6f domestic sprints last season. However the honours on the day went to the Kevin Ryan-trained four-year-old colt Astaire, who was registering his first success since his two-year-old days when he landed the prestigious Group 1 Middle Park Stakes at the same venue.
Soon bowling along at the head of affairs as is his wont, he had the field on the stretch entering the Dip and dug deep to hold off fellow Yorkshire raider Watchable, with Music Master a further length and a quarter back.
In recent years the average winner has been in the region of 109 and Astaire went in to the race rated 110. However given the strength in depth this looks a shade above average, and with both the historical and pre-race standards suggesting at least a figure of 111 for Astaire I eventually settled on that level. That ties in neatly with the pick of his form last year, which included finishing runner-up in the Group 2 6f Duke of York Stakes on the Knavesmire in May.
As for the placed horses, this certainly represents a career best for the largely progressive five-year-old Watchable, who took the transition from top handicaps to pattern events in his stride. Rated 104 going in to the race, he's been credited with an improved rating of 109. Music Master returned a rating of 106, a respectable first run of the season, particularly given he raced plenty keen enough through the first half of race. He remains on 112 and it'll be no surprise if all three renew rivalry at York in a few weeks' time.
CHELTENIAN NO DEPUTY
With the late defection of the Tony Martin-trained I Shot the Sheriff (officially 12lb well in), the Grade 2 QTS Scottish Champion Hurdle had a very open look to it, writes David Dickinson.
The start for this race is on a bend and, given the size of the field, both starters and jockeys deserve considerable praise for getting this fast-run race off at the first time of asking with no obvious hard luck stories at the start. Slick jumping was always going to be an asset in such a contest and serious errors by Irving at the third and Gassin Golf at the fifth didn't help their chances. Gassin Golf appeared to impede Pearl Castle on landing too.
Winner of the 2011 Cheltenham Festival Bumper, Cheltenian was having only his13th race since when taking Saturday's race. In handicapping terms, he had paid his dues having been placed in the last two Betfair Hurdles and made the frame at last year's Aintree meeting, His latest effort when eighth in the County Hurdle came on three shoes!
Ifandbutwhynot moved up to dispute the lead at the third last but made a mistake and it soon became clear this was between Cheltenian and Sign of a Victory. Despite both edging left after the last Cheltenian held on by a neck and moves to a career-high handicap mark of 153, as does the runner-up.
If there was an unlucky loser it was probably the fourth home Handiwork, whose saddle began to slip with a circuit left but under the emerging talent of Sean Bowen, the combination kept going and finished best of all, despite racing from 2lb out of the handicap.