York opens it doors for the first time today in 2014 for the opening round of the three-day Dante Festival - and mud-lovers will be in their element.
Although warm and sunny weather is forecast, the monsoon-like rain showers of recent days have turned the ground soft, which is just the sort of surface ideally suited to Irish raider Maarek as he bids to clinch the £100,000 Duke Of York Clipper Logistics Stakes, the most valuable race on the card.
Trained by Evanna McCutcheon, Maarek has won almost £600,00 in a memorable sprinting career, which has produced multiple successes in Pattern race company, including the Group 1 Prix de l'Abbeye at Longchamp last October.
Two outings last month including a most recent run at Naas, where he finished second in Listed company, should have helped bring Maarek to concert pitch for this Group 2 showpiece, which has attracted a field of both quantity and quality, including Kevin Ryan's Astaire, who reverts to sprinting after a fifth-placed effort in the Greenham Stakes - a Classic trial - at Newbury last month. Astaire won the Gimcrack Stakes on this course last year before following-up in the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket.
It is, though, a tough ask for three-year-olds against older horses at this time of the year and the seven-year-old Maarek is preferred, despite the fact that he has to concede weight to every one of his rivals. The soft ground will make him hard to beat under Declan McDonagh.
The Tattersalls Musidora Stakes is the other feature race on the programme and this Group 2 contest, a traditional stepping stone to the Oaks, looks a very tricky race to solve.
Cambridge and Madame Chiang, both winners of their only outing, and Queen Of Ice is unbeaten in two starts, while the Queen's twice-raced Shama looked good when getting off the mark at Lingfield last month. Any of that quartet could prove to be extra-smart, while North Yorkshire runners, Lily Rules, Latenightrequest and Lady Heidi have gained more experience and have proved themselves more than capable.
My tentative idea of the winner is Queen Of Ice, trained by William Haggas, pictured, for Cheveley Park Stud, who has impressed with her wins at Newmarket and Kempton.
Sir Michael Stoute, trained of Shama, could still make his presence felt. He saddles Rye House in the opening StanJames.com Handicap and Ryan Moore's mount was a winner at this meeting last year. He was not seen out again and now lines-up off a 10lb higher mark, but he handles soft ground and, as he showed 12 months ago, he goes well fresh.
Stoute also has an interesting runner in the Conundrum HR Consulting Handicap in Idea, a Windsor winner last autumn, who starts his handicap career off a handy-looking mark of 79.
It would be disappointing if North Yorkshire trainers do not make an impact at their local course and there is certainly no shortage of runners from local stables.
Among those with leading claims are Mick Easterby's mud-loving Aetna (2.15) and Richard Fahey's precocious Winstanley (4.25), who receives a handy 7lb from four of his five rivals, who already have winning form in the juvenile contest. That could be enough to sway the race in his favour.
Fahey also saddles the nap selection, Gabrial's Star (5.00), who, like Winstanley, will have the benefit of Ryan Moore as he aims to follow-up last week's win at Chester. Significantly, that success was achieved in an apprentices' race, which means Gabrial's Star enters this showdown without a penalty.
1.45 Rye House, 2.15 Aetna, 2.45 Queen Of Ice, 3.15 Maarek, 3.50 Idea, 4.25 Winstanley, 5.00 Gabrial's Star (NAP).
5.25 Be Bold, 5.55 Bold Runner, 6.25 Stockhill Diva, 6.55 Yankee Red, 7.25 Dream Catcher, 7.55 Sweet Martoni, 8.25 Noor Al Haya.
Today's other meetings: Perth, Uttoxeter and Worcester.
Tomorrow's meetings: Fontwell, Newmarket, Perth, Salisbury and York.