Another big race weekend in Europe, and another slew of potential Cups candidates emerge as contenders for the Melbourne spring.
Some familiar faces — such as Luca Cumani's Mount Athos, an unlucky fifth in last year's Melbourne Cup — pressed their claims with good performances, while some newer names established their credentials as serious threats for Australia's greatest race.
Others, however, disappointed, leaving question marks over their chances of joining the foreign invasion at Caulfield and Flemington.
Perhaps the most impressive of the potential offshore raiders was the Johnny Murtagh trained and ridden Royal Diamond, who scored narrowly in the Irish St Leger Trial over 2800 metres at The Curragh.
The front running seven-year-old, who won last year's Irish Leger, showed plenty of guts and tenacity to score a narrow half length victory over Dermot Weld's progressive mare Voleuse De Coeurs, with the highly touted Coolmore candidate Ernest Hemingway five and a half lengths away in third.
Royal Diamond and Voleuse De Coeurs ran first and second throughout and the older gelding was able to grind out the win. Interestingly the pair produced their running from two months ago at the same track in the Curragh Cup over the same distance almost to the millimetre.
On that occasion the duo had run second and third to runaway winner Ernest Hemingway, Royal Diamond finishing half a length in front of Weld's mare conceding her six pounds (roughly 2.5 kilos). On Saturday the margin was the same, and the weight difference was five pounds, fractionally less. Ernest Hemingway had been receiving three pounds (1.5 kilos) when he beat Royal Diamond easily that day, but was meeting the latter at level weights on Saturday when he was comfortably put in his place, suggesting that the older horse has improved in the intervening period.
Should he make the journey to Melbourne, as has been touted as a long range plan, Royal Diamond, along with Voleuse De Coeurs (whom Weld has long seen as the sort of horse who could give him a third Melbourne Cup) would surely be strong chances. Both will get the trip and have shown form in the lead up races that have provided a good guide in the past.
Murtagh opted to run Royal Diamond at his home track rather than take him to England's York festival, to run in the high stakemoney Ebor Handicap. He will now seek to gain back to back wins in the Irish Leger.
''We had a big decision to make, whether to go to York or come here. I felt this was the right race for him and as it was just up the road. He has really come on since the last day. He is a specialist over a mile and six, all his wins have come at the trip. He comes good at this time of the year and hopefully in three weeks' time he'll come back here and defend his title,'' the trainer/jockey said.
Royal Diamond's win was a boost for last year's Irish Leger form as the horse he beat in the race by only a head last year, Massiyn, made his debut for Lloyd Williams stable at Moonee Valley in an unsuitably short 1500 metre handicap on Saturday, but trailed in a distant last.
In England Mount Athos put up a good effort when he ran a head second to another freewheeling front runner in Harris Tweed in the 2800 metre March Stakes. The son of Montjeu had disappointed when only eighth in the Goodwood Cup behind another Melbourne bound galloper in Brown Panther last time, but Cumani's charge ran a much better race this time when he just failed to get up against a horse that is a good yardstick in these types of listed and Group 3 European staying races, especially when he gets his way in front.
The Ebor, Europe's richest staying handicap race, went to the well backed Tiger Cliffs, who is now earmarked for a jumping campaign.
Opinion, the Sir Michael Stoute-trained galloper who was touted as a Cups candidate after he scored in a handicap at Royal Ascot in June, could finish only a disappointing 10th of the 14 starters in the 2800 metre race.
The four-year-old colt was slowly away and lost many lengths at the start: although he made up ground and made headway 800 metres from home he quickly faded and was never a winning chance.
Twenty four hours earlier, also at York, Godolphin unveiled another Cups candidate when Ahzeemah narrowly defeated Irish Melbourne hopeful Simenon in the 3200 metre Lonsdale Cup, a Group 2 contest. Six days earlier Sheik Mohammed's stable produced another contender in Royal Empire, who was identified as Melbourne-bound following his win in the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury.
''He's not overly big, but I've never known a horse try as hard as this horse does. We might look at the Melbourne Cup or there is the Qipco stayers' race on Champions Day at Ascot (19 October),'' said Simon Crisford, Godolphin's racing manater.
Saeed Bin Suroor, Ahzeemah's trainer, added: "We'll keep our options about Melbourne and we'll see how he is. He seems to go on any ground.''
Irish trainer Willie Mullins has Simenon entered in the Caulfield Cup, and he said afterwards: "Given he had to make his own running, which was not ideal, it was an excellent run. The desire has been to go to the Melbourne Cup since Ascot last year and he has options in Australia before the big one.
"I just hope he gets in. His chance of doing so would have been better if he had won.''