Joseph O'Brien can upstage dad Aidan in Guineas Classic at Newmarket

Racing has still not got its crowds back -- but this weekend’s Qipco Guineas Festival at Newmarket signals that the Flat season is in full swing again.

Thunder Blue (red and yellow colours) finishes third to the Aidan O'Brien duo, St Mark's Basilica (centre) and Wembley, in last season's Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket. Can Joseph O'Brien's colt gain his revenge on Saturday? (PHOTO BY: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images).

In 2020, the 2000 Guineas and 1000 Guineas had to be delayed a month to make way for the first Covid-19 lockdown before they spearheaded a condensed, but thrilling, campaign.

Now, behind-closed-doors renewals of the two Classics herald a tentative return to normal which, vaccines and virus variants permitting, is expected to be completed by busy grandstands in late June, just after Royal Ascot.

The norm at Newmarket usually entails the genius that is Aidan O’Brien ruling the Guineas roost. He has won ten 2000 Guineas, including four of the last six. And he has bagged six 1000 Guineas, including four of the last five. Not once since 2014 has the Ballydoyle maestro returned home without at last one of the prestigious prizes for 3yos.

Joseph O'Brien, who has emerged as a rising force in the Irish training ranks. (PHOTO BY: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

But son Joseph is the emerging force in the Irish training ranks. The 27-year-old has come a mighty long way since riding Camelot to win the 2012 Guineas and Derby for his dad. Indeed it is a little known fact that he now has more horses in training than his illustrious pater.

Granted, those horses include a sizeable string over jumps. And this week’s preparations for Newmarket have been taken up by the overseeing of operations at the Punchestown Festival, which brings the curtain down on the 2020/21 National Hunt season.

However, Joseph’s progress on the level has been little short of remarkable since he gave up riding five years ago. Successes have included an Irish Derby and two Melbourne Cups, topped by his first English Classic triumph with Galileo Chrome in last year’s St Leger.

That left him hungry for more, and in THUNDER MOON and Pretty Gorgeous, he was set to saddle live chances for this weekend’s two Rowley Mile showdowns that threatened to scupper Aidan’s bid for yet more glory.

Sacred (centre) wins the Nell Gwyn Stakes at Newmarket and is now our expert's tentative fancy for Sunday's 1000 Guineas. (PHOTO BY: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Sadly, the filly has been ruled out of Sunday’s 1000 Guineas at the 11th hour after scoping badly. But hope is still alive for Thunder Moon, who has been well backed, even though his ‘old man’ fields three potentially top-class contenders in what promises to be a fascinating 2000 Guineas, the first race of the tenth year of the Qipco British Champions Series.

Joseph’s son of Zoffany was actually beaten by two Aidan-trained colts, St Mark’s Basilica and WEMBLEY, in the creme de la creme of juvenile races, the Group One Darley Dewhurst Stakes, at the backend of last term.

But after travelling like a winner for most of the race, he seemed to get bogged down in the testing ground. Thunder Moon had previously produced the 2yo performance of the season on much better ground in another Group One, the National Stakes at The Curragh, defying dreadful traffic trouble to unleash an electric turn of foot.

The aforementioned St Mark’s Basilica and Wembley were beaten that day, as were at least two more of his Guineas rivals and, with conditions likely to be in his favour on Saturday, a repeat of that effort, which came on only the second outing of his career, should suffice.

Wembley, the market leader, is still respected, especially as Ryan Moore rides, but of those who finished behind Thunder Moon at The Curragh, I fear MASTER OF THE SEAS most.

The fitting of a first-time hood and new hold-up tactics worked a treat with the Godolphin colt when he was impressive in winning the Craven Stakes on the Rowley Mile two weeks ago. It is telling that William Buick has chosen to ride him ahead of smart stablemate and former favourite for the race, ONE RULER.

The oft-used adage is that if Aidan O’Brien runs more than one or two in a Classic, then he doesn’t possess an outstanding candidate. But BATTLEGROUND was the apple of his eye last term when victories at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood announced him as a serious tool.

A bout of coughing and a minor injury forced him to miss the big autumn races contested by many of his Guineas rivals, but he bounced back from a three-month lay-off with a terrific effort at the Breeders’ Cup and would be dangerous to under-estimate on Saturday. He has been easy to back in the ante-post market, but connections were significantly upbeat about him earlier this week, and Frankie Dettori has been booked to take the mount.

Of the rest, I would question the Group One credentials of Richard Hannon’s challenger, CHINDIT, who won the other major trial this spring, the Greenham Stakes at Newbury.

But a joker in the pack could well be MUTASAABEQ, who has been supplemented for the race and would be a poignant winner after the death earlier this year of his owner, Hamdan Al Maktoum.

His dam, Ghanaati, streaked to victory on this track in the 1000 Guineas of 2009, and this colt looked a chip off the old block when bolting up on his seasonal re-appearance over the same stretch of turf.

MY 2000 GUINEAS 1-2-3-4

1 THUNDER MOON

2 MASTER OF THE SEAS

3 BATTLEGROUND

4 MUTASAABEQ

On to the fillies’ Classic 24 hours later, and the absence of Joseph O’Brien’s star Pretty Gorgeous robs us of an intriguing clash with his dad’s exciting, but unproven, favourite, SANTA BARBARA, and leaves us with a contest sorely lacking the strength in depth of the colts’ equivalent. Four of the last five winners were sired by the great Galileo, yet none of his progeny is represented this time round,

Ironically, Santa Barbara has strong links to Joseph in that she is a daughter of the aforementioned Camelot and a half-sister to the super-tough and talented mare Iridessa, whom he trained to land four Group Ones. But she attempts a 1000 Guineas feat not achieved since way back in 1941 – namely victory in the race on the back of a sole appearance in a 2yo maiden.

OK, she won it nicely, beating colts. But she carried her head incredibly high when asked to go about her business, and the welter of market support for her can be attributed almost entirely to Aidan’s insistence that she is a top-class filly in waiting on the back of homework he describes as “extra special”.

In the circumstances, it is preferable to side with form in the book. However, top-class form, allied to guaranteed stamina for the stiff mile, is thin on the ground.

I expect Jane Chapple-Hyam’s SAFFRON BEACH and Richard Fahey’s FEV ROVER to run honest races, and Aidan’s second string, MOTHER EARTH, should not be dismissed simply because she won just one of eight starts at two. She needs fast ground and showed her class at the Breeders’ Cup.

The one to offer best each/way value, however, is STATEMENT, who gave a scare to favourite ALCOHOL FREE in a cracking renewal of the Fred Darling Stakes at Newbury a fortnight ago. Martyn Meade’s filly, who looked very useful as a 2yo, took the big step-up in class in her stride and is more likely to be suited to the stiff mile at Newmarket than the freewheeling winner of the Newbury race.

Like Alcohol Free, the admirable SACRED is also expected by most to be found wanting over the trip, having specialised in speed and a genuine turn of foot as a juvenile. But given that she won the Nell Gwyn Stakes here so takingly a fortnight ago, and given that the dam’s side of the pedigree suggests she ought to stay, I feel she’s worth taking a chance on in such a sub-standard renewal.

MY 1000 GUINEAS 1-2-3-4

1 SACRED

2 STATEMENT

3 MOTHER EARTH

4 SANTA BARBARA