Eve Johnson Houghton is using the Cazoo Blue Riband Trial as a marker for the rest of the campaign as the unbeaten Sheer Rocks takes on seven rivals at Epsom on Tuesday.
The Iffraaj colt won twice in novice company – over seven furlongs at Chepstow and a mile at Bath – last term and steps up to 10 furlongs and into Listed company for his return.
Sheer Rocks takes on representatives from powerful yards in the shape of Yarmouth debut winner Mighty Ulysses (John & Thady Gosden), United Nations (Aidan O’Brien) and easy Leicester scorer Nahaani (Charlie Appleby).
“He never shows much at home so it is very hard to get a handle on him, but he never showed much at home last year, and he won twice. He saved it for the racecourse,” said Johnson Houghton.
“He looks great, he’s done well physically and basically we’ll know a bit more after tomorrow. He is moving well, he’s done nothing wrong and I think it is the right race to start him off in.
“We will know where we are with him afterwards. All the English horses are all rated roughly the same, within 6lb of each other, so we are all probably in the same boat.”
Like Sheer Rocks, Grand Alliance is rated 88 following a two and a quarter-length win at Doncaster, where he defeated seven previous winners on his first run on turf.
The Churchill colt is on a hat-trick following that fourth run and Charlie Fellowes feels he is on an upward curve.
He said: “He has improved every time. I thought his win last time out at Donny was very impressive considering he hung left towards the rail and did a lot wrong, yet he still managed to win pretty nicely in a decent field.
“The thing is, where do you go if you don’t pitch him into this company?
“He is rated 88 now and most of those high-end handicappers are Stakes- quality. You have the London Gold Cup at Newbury, but the winner of that is normally a Group horse.
“We thought we’d pitch him in and see where we are going.
“We had options, we could have gone to Chester or Sandown, but we felt he would have no problems handling Epsom and the bonus is, if he wins, it is a free entry to the Derby should we go that route, and they all have similar profiles.”
The winning horse, if not a gelding or already entered, will receive an automatic entry to this year’s Cazoo Derby.
The Charles Hills-trained Inverness, who won a Goodwood maiden in September, makes his seasonal bow, while Teumessias Fox represents Andrew Balding, having impressed in winning at Newcastle by over eight lengths when stepped up to a mile and a quarter last month.
Zain Sarinda completes the line-up and seeks a three-timer for Tom Clover, having won his last two starts at Wolverhampton.
He makes his turf debut for the burgeoning Newmarket yard, who hope he can become a flag-bearer this term.
“It is a really interesting race, although Charlie’s or John’s might bolt up, but it is hard to know, but you can make a case for all the runners, really,” said Clover.
“Zain Sarinda is a lovely horse and he has done everything we have asked of him. We love him.
“His form is pretty good so far – he beat Charlie’s horse (Grand Alliance) who has won twice since and even his first run the horses who finished in front of him at Kempton have all won.
“We do hope he is better on turf. He goes well on turf at home and he is a really well-balanced horse and is an extremely good-looking horse.
“For a stable like ours, we are excited to run him. He is well worth his chance in the race and touch wood, at home he seems to keep on improving, week on week.
“I hope he runs a very nice race and if he is placed, then fantastic, we have a pretty nice Stakes horse. If he doesn’t, then he can go in some nice handicaps and races like the Hampton Court and things like that are on the table.
“It is really exciting for us. It is really hard to get good horses and to keep good horses when you are a small to medium-sized stable trying to get going, but it is great that Team Valor have bought half and kept him with us. I hope that he can be a real flag-bearer for us this year.”