Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas (Group 1) | 1m, 3yo | RTE2/ATR
Unless there is a raceday plunge on a Ballydoyle runner, it is Britain who will have the horse to beat in the Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas in Elarqam, favourite on Friday and who is well fancied to improve on his fourth-placed finish in the 2,000 Guineas.
It was always Mark Johnston’s intention to go straight to the 2,000 Guineas without a run, a ploy which paid dividends with Elarqam’s dam Attraction.
Viewed through that prism, Elarqam's effort behind Saxon Warrior is likely to be a fairly accurate reflection of his ability at this stage of his career, though that is not to say he cannot come forward for the run.
Positioned throughout just behind Saxon Warrior’s pacemaker by Jim Crowley, Elarqam was in the right place as the Guineas developed but looked briefly outpaced as the winner swept past him running into the Dip, before rallying to finish a length and a half clear of the reopposing Gustav Klimt.
With four Aidan O’Brien runners in opposition, Hamdan Al Maktoum’s retained jockey will once again face a far from straightforward tactical situation.
Johnston has no concerns about the going and has maintained his belief – expressed strongly before and after Newmarket – that Elarqam is a high-class colt capable of making an impact at a mile in Group 1 company.
Johnston said: “We have no ground preferences. He's run only three times on varying ground. The field looks ideal, the horse looks in great order.
"There are four of Aidan O'Brien's in it, which always makes it a little bit more difficult. I have the greatest of respect for US Navy Flag, who was a great horse last year and bounced back from defeats to win at the highest level."
Pros Fourth-placed effort at Newmarket is as strong a piece of form as any on offer, while his trainer maintains maximum confidence in him
Cons Johnston points to the tactical advantage held by Ballydoyle in fielding four and arguably Elarqam needs a strong pace throughout to be seen at his best over this trip
US Navy Flag, Europe's champion juvenile last year, and Gustav Klimt head Aidan O'Brien's bid for a 12th victory in the Classic – a race the Ballydoyle trainer first won with Desert King in 1997.
Success for one of O'Brien's four runners would give the trainer a 40th Irish Classic win with US Navy Flag and Gustav Klimt attempting to improve on their efforts in the Guineas at Newmarket and Longchamp.
Ryan Moore has opted to partner US Navy Flag, who finished fifth in the French equivalent, in which he was in the lead when stumbling under three furlongs from the finish.
O'Brien said: "Ryan was happy with US Navy Flag in France and with fast ground here he's looking forward to riding him again. Things didn't go his way at Longchamp and in the circumstances it was a good run.
"He improved through the season last year and we're giving him another shot over a mile as his run in France was inconclusive."
Gustav Klimt, who was two places behind Elarqam in the 2,000 Guineas, is the mount of Donnacha O'Brien, who landed his first Classic when partnering Saxon Warrior to victory at Newmarket.
The trainer said: "He was a bit disappointing last time but came out of the race well and we're hoping for a better run. The race will tell us what we might do with him at Royal Ascot."
Completing the Ballydoyle quartet are Threeandfourpence and the the maiden Spanish Point, who is blinkered for the first time.
"Threeandfourpence got bogged down in testing ground on the inside at Churchill Downs last time and we're hoping for a better run from him, while if Spanish Point runs a good race we'll be happy," added O'Brien.
Pros Had an interrupted campaign last season but well regarded and should do better than at Newmarket
Cons Had the benefit of a previous run when sixth in the 2,000 Guineas and will have to improve to beat Elarqam
US Navy Flag
Pros Unlucky not to have finished closer than fifth in French 2,000 Guineas. Took time to hit form last year before twice scoring at Group 1 level
Cons Remains to be seen whether he truly gets a mile
The Fozzy Stack-trained Zihba goes into the race with an unblemished record and steps up to the top level for the first time.
Unraced last season, he is three from three since starting out in December and booked his place in this line up when beating older horses in the Group 3 Amethyst Stakes over the same trip at Leopardstown on his most recent start.
Bought by Al Shaqab Racing since his Leopardstown win, the son of Choisir is the mount of Chris Hayes, who will be seeking a second win in the race having scored on Awtaad two years ago.
Stack said: "We'll have to see whether Zihba is good enough but he's certainly entitled to take his chance after his Leopardstown win. The rain staying away will be a help as he handled the quick ground well last time.
"He'll need to improve but if he can do that he should give a good account."
Pros Unbeaten and unexposed. Beat older rivals in good style at Listed level on most recent start and open to improvement
Cons Facing easily his biggest test to date so needs to step up on previous form
What the rest say
Jessica Harrington, trainer of Landshark
I'm very happy with him. He's going to have good, fast ground which he won his maiden on last year. He's in good form for his first run of the season and has been working well.
Ken Condon, trainer of Romanised
If he relaxes early on I think he'll run a big race at a big price. His Solario Stakes run last year was good and he met with some interference on his first start of the season at Naas. He came out of that race well.
Charlie Appleby, trainer of Symbolization
He's a progressive colt. Two starts ago he was beaten by a nice colt of John Gosden's [Purser], who went to frank the form by winning the Listed Charles II Stakes at Newmarket. Our colt has also won since and came out of that race well. I feel he's improved again. The quick ground over the mile is going to suit him. He's been getting stronger every week and deserves a crack at a prize like this. He's well up to it.
Colin Keane, rider of Would Be King
He hasn't won a race yet but has shown some high class form and is a colt we've always rated highly. I don't think he'll look out of place in the line-up at all.