23 October 2005

Each October we try the same trick. We peer into the Doncaster gloom and try to believe that one of the two-year-olds slogging towards us in the Racing Post Trophy will become a star next season. It has not been easy but in each of the past four seasons the winner has gone on to Classic glory. Now Palace Episode has to complete the hand.

His length-and-a-half defeat of Winged Cupid and odds-on Irish challenger Septimus was achieved decisively enough but soft ground conditions and the comparatively unsung status of his trainer Kevin Ryan had the papers in dismissive mood. You can find 50-1 for him in the bookmakers’ lists for the Derby. If he was trained by Sir Michael Stoute he would be a quarter the odds. If Epsom came up soft, it would be far from impossible. Time therefore to study his trainer.

Kevin Ryan was a journeyman Irish jump jockey but for the past seven seasons has  has been training on Yorkshire’s famous Hambleton Hill with increasing success. He has had to work at the lower end of the market but his successes have become increasingly numerous, yesterday was his 74th of the year. Palace Episode is not even his fastest two-year-old. Stable companion Amadeus Wolf had earlier won both the Gimcrack Stakes and the Middle Park.

This is a convincing enough career pattern and Ryan’s reaction to yesterday’s triumph was full of the self-critical professionalism of which great trainers are made. “Thank God for that,” he said in the unsaddling enclosure, “it makes up for the cock-up I made with the horse last week in the Dewhurst.”

In that race Palace Episode had seemed to run well enough before finishing a seven-length fifth to Sir Percy. To outsiders that appeared to be about his level but Ryan was having none of it. “I had been thinking of taking him to America and had fed him up too much,” he said. “The moment I saw him beforehand I could see he was far too fresh. I said to Con (Marnane, the owner) that I had overdone it and that we should come here. Today he was cool and calm in the paddock. I was sure he would run a big race.”

Optimism is one thing but beating a three-strong Aidan O’Brien challenge in vain pursuit of wresting the trainers’ title from the also represented Stoute, was quite another. Yet when the typically aggressive pace set by the Mark Johnston runner Winged Cupid began to get the Ballydoyle contingent in trouble, it was Palace Episode who was the likely challenger.

It was the sort of soft ground, Aidan O’Brien called it “desperate”, which was going to ask young horses to dig deep. Septimus, Dylan Thomas and Arabian Prince may be bred in the purple and trained in the pink but they were not as tough as Palace Episode was prepared to be yesterday. Fully 300 yards out Neil Callan struck for home. He and his trainer’s ambition at the start of the season had been to win a Group One race. Amadeus Wolf had done the deal in the Middle Park, Palace Episode never faltered in making it number two.

It was Callan’s 137th winner of the year, 46 successes coming on the all-weather over which Neil will be plying his trade this winter. “I have had some offers to go abroad,” he said, “but I think I should keep my head down and keep going over here.” These are working men keen to ride their luck into the higher pastures. Palace Episode only came to them because the owner, having bought him as a $100,000 yearling, could not sell him as a two-year-old. It looks as if they are getting the luck they deserve.

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