Little Big Bear bids to get his season back on track in a fascinating renewal of the Betfred Nifty Fifty Sandy Lane Stakes at Haydock on Saturday.
Narrowly beaten on his debut last spring, Aidan O’Brien’s colt went on to win his next four races, with a stunning display in the Phoenix Stakes ensuring he ended the year as Europe’s champion juvenile.
Following nine months off the track, O’Brien decided to roll the dice in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket three weeks ago, but the son of No Nay Never pulled fiercely for his head in the rain-softened ground on the Rowley Mile and eventually passed the post last of 14 runners.
Despite that disappointing performance, Little Big Bear is a hot favourite to get back on the winning trail on Merseyside, returning to six furlongs on a quickening surface in the hands of Frankie Dettori.
O’Brien said: “We’re looking forward to seeing him run again.
“It was a possibility that he’d return to sprinting and the Guineas was just a little bit of a non-event for him.
“We felt that if he was going to go for the Commonwealth (Cup at Royal Ascot), then he had to have a run back sprinting before then, so that is why he’s back here.
“It will be nice to get him back on a bit of nice ground and we’ve been very happy with him at home, obviously the Guineas wasn’t that long ago but we’re happy with what he’s done since.”
Little Big Bear is unlikely to have things all his own way in the six-furlong Group Two, with a clutch of high-class contenders prepared to take him on.
The horse rated the biggest threat by bookmakers is the Archie Watson-trained Bradsell, who was brilliant in winning the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot last summer and then suffered a season-ending injury when fourth behind Little Big Bear in the Phoenix Stakes.
There was plenty of encouragement to be taken from his comeback run when third behind the reopposing Cold Case in the Commonwealth Cup Trial at Ascot and Watson expects him to strip fitter for that run.
“I’m very happy with him. He travelled very well at Ascot and got a bit tired late, which was to be expected. I hope he can take a good step forwards fitness-wise from there,” said the Lambourn handler.
“It looks a very strong trial for the Commonwealth Cup. I’d say whatever wins will be the one to beat at Ascot, so at least we’ll all know after the weekend.
“We’re delighted with our horse, so fingers crossed.”
Cold Case’s trainer Karl Burke is expecting another bold showing from his charge, despite having reservations about underfoot conditions.
He said: “It looks a competitive race, but he’s in great form.
“Quicker ground is probably slightly against him, but he’s going to have to face that at some stage and we are very happy with him at home.
“Fingers crossed he can run a big race.”
Little Big Bear is one of two Irish-trained runners along with Kieran Cotter’s Matilda Picotte.
The Sioux Nation filly drops back in distance following an excellent effort to finish third in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket earlier in the month.
“Her Guineas run puts her in the picture and we should be bang there. Her run in Newmarket was an exceptional performance off the pace she set,” said Cotter.
“In an ideal situation we would have liked a bit of rain, but she handled quick ground when she ran at York in the Lowther and she is pretty versatile.
“We’re looking forward to it and hope we come home with a bit of sterling.”
George Boughey saddles Al Dasim, who won three times at Meydan earlier in the year before finishing down the field in the Al Quoz Sprint on Dubai World Cup night.
Norfolk Stakes winner The Ridler (Richard Fahey), Shouldvebeenaring (Richard Hannon) and Mill Stream (Jane Chapple-Hyam) complete the quality field.