Eleven rivals officially stand between Harry Angel becoming the first horse in more than 50 years to win back-to-back renewals of the 32Red Sprint Cup at Haydock on Saturday. His biggest opponent, though, is not listed in any racecard.
The stalls have long been Harry Angel’s nemesis and last time, when he was favourite for the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot, they defeated the brilliantly speedy colt.
Like a human who suffers from claustrophobia, Harry Angel does not appreciate small spaces.
He became so agitated at Ascot that he managed to get a foot stuck and when the gates opened his game was already over. He returned home to Lambourn injured, subdued and, according to Clive Cox, his trainer, “physically and mentally bruised”.
Physically, he has made a full recovery and Cox is adamant he has never had him better but, mentally, will the four-year-old be able to take a deep breath and conquer the metal mechanism that briefly has to contain him?
Only Harry Angel can answer that one and, as Cox observed this week, “Harry is Harry”.
“He’s taken a few years off my life between Ascot and here,” Cox admitted to Alex Steedman in a Racing UK interview this week. “We’ve done everything we’ve wanted to do and needed to do - it’s time for him to do then talking now.
“He’s giving me all the right signals and we’ve had an unhindered build-up after an enforced sideways step. His brilliance last year was very apparent. The performance he put up in this race last year was scintillating and I think he’s as good as ever.”
Cox can take comfort that Society Rock won the Sprint Cup in 2012 after similar stalls problems and he will no doubt seek permission for the general 5-4 favourite to go in last. That is something of a special privilege, though, and he will not be the only one to ask for the concession.
Usually, horses with blindfolds or drawn in odd numbers are put in the stall first, then those who are in evens, but the sequence can alter.
A limited numbers of times a year, trainers can “take a ticket” and request their horse enter last.
George Scott, the trainer of James Garfield, intends to do so to give his stable flagbearer, a top-priced 9-1 with William Hill after finishing runner-up in the Prix Maurice de Gheest last time, the best possible chance.
“The blinkers sharpened him up [at Deauville] and you might have noticed he was loaded very late and was not in the stalls for very long,” Scott told Racing UK presenter Tom Stanley.
“In England, if you have blind on you have to go in stalls first and as a result James has had to stand in the stalls for quite a long period of time in all of his races.
“He’s quite an intelligent horse and I would imagine he’s got fairly bored in the gates and as a result been a little bit tardy out, whereas in France he was last one in and ‘boom’ he was gone. That’s something we will be addressing at Haydock.
“We can take a ticket - I’ll have to speak to starter and make a plan with him.” James Garfield ran below-par on a previous visit to Haydock but Scott said: “That was not reflection of track, more reflection of where he was at his career at that point.”
The Tin Man, a dual Group One winner, is proven at the flat Lancashire venue, having finished second and third in the past two runnings. Oisin Murphy will ride him for the first time after connections decided to dispense with the services of Tom Queally.
“He’s a very, very good horse and obviously has the form to do the business on Saturday,” Murphy said in his blog for QIPCO British Champions Series. “He’s a tough, genuine type which is what you want as a jockey.
“Hopefully, I can get a good tow into the race and be in with every chance in the final furlong.
“The ground is looking likely to come up good to soft, but he has form on all types of ground and we’ll just have to see what cards we are dealt.”
Brando was second in the July Cup, but failed in his bid to win the Maurice de Gheest back-to-back last time out, finishing only eighth.
“I think he should be a shorter price than 10-1,” Peter Tingey, his owner, said. “He’s more or less finished in front of everything in the race at one time or another and hopefully he will put up another good fight. He’s been fabulous over the years and I just wish we could find another one like him.
“We thought he ran a great race at Deauville last time, given his draw. He was first home on his side, but unfortunately he was drawn on the wrong part of the track. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Tony Calvin and Nick Lightfoot analyse the Sprint Cup
William Haggas’ Tasleet was second in three Group Ones last season, including in the Sprint Cup, but the hot summer has not been in favour of the mud-lover.
“He’s only run once this year because the ground has been appalling for him so we’ve had to wait but he’s ready to go and in great shape. I’m pretty happy with him,” Haggas said.
Tasleet is owned by Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, as is Sir Michael Stoute’s Eqtidaar, a Royal Ascot winner in June but well beaten in the July Cup.
“Although he won the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot, he was still quite an immature horse earlier in the season,” said racing manager Angus Gold.
“I am not sure the July Course at Newmarket really suited him last time out. I am not saying that is why he was beaten that day, but he is back in good form now after his break and Jim was very happy with the horse when he rode him the other day.”
Aidan O’Brien reverts classy miler Gustav Klimt to six furlongs for the first time since his two-year-old debut. Placed in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and St James’s Palace Stakes this season, the three-year-old represents O’Brien’s latest chance to win one of the few big races to have eluded him.
O’Brien said: “He worked on Tuesday and we were very happy with him. He is by Galileo, but he is out of a very fast mare.”
Gerald Mosse has struck up a great partnership with David Elsworth’s Sir Dancealot, who has been doing his winning over seven furlongs.
“I really believe he’s a Group One horse. I think if the ground is on the soft side that will suit him. That would be better than if it is too quick coming back from seven furlongs to six,” said Mosse.
“I think he might just struggle to find his stride if it was too quick, but I would prefer it softer and I think he would as well.”