By Chris McGrath
Even Eden had its serpent, and yesterday the racing authorities twice introduced a sombre note of vigilance to an afternoon that otherwise seemed the epitome of innocent pleasure. Here, despite a somewhat provocative ride on the favourite for the big race, the stewards found nothing to cloud the gorgeous, sunlit panorama of Ladies' Day; down in London, however, their masters found themselves obliged to challenge a trainer in the service of the monarch herself.
Nicky Henderson's stable has just completed an excellent season over jumps, but he faces a mortifying epilogue after the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announced that Moonlit Path, a mare he trains for the Queen, tested positive to a prohibited substance after finishing sixth at Huntingdon in February.
Henderson has been charged with the raceday administration of tranexamic acid, apparently a treatment against bleeding. The rules permit the BHA to suspend a trainer for up to five years, but if Henderson is found to have behaved in ignorance of the rules - rather than indifference to them - it may be that a fine, and a crimson blush, is deemed punishment enough.
His embarrassment seemed plain yesterday. "The substance concerned was administered by my vet entirely in the interests of the horse's welfare, which is always paramount," he stressed. "There was no intention to enhance performance - and it is worth pointing out that we won the race in question with the odds-on Ravello Bay."
A different scenario in the Virgin Money Chester Vase doubtless stimulated some dark mutterings among punters who backed Masterofthehorse. In this instance the favourite was set an awful lot to do by Johnny Murtagh, and proved unable to reel back Golden Sword - a 25-1 shot, also trained by Aidan O'Brien, who made all under Colm O'Donoghue at 25-1.
The stewards asked Murtagh to explain his tactics and, after he did so, decided that no further action was warranted. He repeated his version of events afterwards, thus: "Aidan said to me, 'I know it's a tight track, but I would love to see him dropping in. Get him to relax and get him to finish his race.' Colm got three lengths on the turn into the straight, and he was able to maintain it. You have to ride horses for what's best for the horses. Sometimes it turns out [well] and you're great, sometimes you get beaten, and you're not. That is part of the business."
For this colt to get within two lengths of Golden Sword, after being ridden with such extravagant patience, suggests he merits his place in the Investec Derby field. Detached in last passing the stands for the first time, he still had a good 10 lengths to make up approaching the final turn. Obliged then to circle the field, he passed every other rival and so confirmed the impression he had made last year, when finishing well against no less a colt than Sea The Stars at the Curragh, that he would develop into a smart colt over middle distances.
It does seem hard that those who backed him should already be despairing with a circuit to go. But they have to acknowledge that O'Brien's priority, in sending horses to this eccentric track, is to give horses experience. Nor could they expect Masterofthehorse to be given a hard race first time out. Neither factor, of course, disqualified him as a potential winner. But anyone betting in Classic trials, not least on horses making their first appearance of the season, needs to make allowances for the role of these races in a thoroughbred's career development.
Golden Sword himself, moreover, was no mere "rabbit". He had shaped well on his own reappearance, in France last month, and on pedigree was entitled to improve for stepping up to a mile and a half. Still, that the best colt did not win was shown by Ladbrokes, who offer Golden Sword at 40-1 for Epsom, and Masterofthehorse at 16-1.
The top Derby hope at Ballydoyle remains Fame And Glory, who runs at Leopardstown on Sunday, but the stable fields another marker today in the Addleshaw Goddard Dee Stakes. Drumbeat has plenty of experience, and will be fitter for his trip to Newmarket, and those factors together might enable him to win. But South Easter (2.15) has the potential to approach Drumbeat's standard sooner rather than later.
Sadly, Free Agent misses his first scheduled appearance since his success at Royal Ascot, having bruised a foot. In the circumstances, his owner is likely to have greeted the news rather less stoically than her subjects might expect. For Free Agent runs in the same colours as Moonlit Path. It seems safe to suggest that one was not amused.