1 June 2008

Not enough knowledge and too many impressions: the past seven days have taken us from The Curragh to Newmarket to Epsom and the Derby mood has changed like the weather – in Henrythenavigator’s case – for the worse.

It seems an age ago that the sun shone on The Curragh, the gorse winked golden in the distance and Johnny Murtagh pulled Henrythenavigator out wide of New Approach and lanced home for the 2,000 Guineas double.

The main Epsom quest on this Irish visit had been to quiz Dermot Weld about the possibilities of Casual Conquest. What we were not ready for was Henrythenavigator suddenly billed as Derby favourite.

Unless eyes, ears and other antennae had forsaken me, was Henrythenavigator not the horse of whom at Newmarket his trainer Aidan O’Brien and jockey Murtagh had hailed as so full of speed that he had even been entered for the July Cup over exactly half the Derby distance? But now here was O’Brien boldly saying that the colt is bred to stay a mile and a half (true) and so was that most splendid of entries, a “definite possible”.

It was a perfect piece of pre-Derby spoof. So convincing that for a few wonderful moments you thought it might almost be true. Bookmakers eagerly scribbled “Henry” down as favourite, John Magnier was quoted cryptically that “winning the Derby was what Henrythenavigator was bred for” and those of us who would like Derby participation to be compulsory for the top 20 rated three-year-olds had a silly skip in the heart.

But then we saw Murtagh. At Newmarket he had been adamant this was a speed horse and confronted by this volte-face he superbly kept composure, smiled widely in a “you know that I know that you know” kind of way and said “if he stays he wins”. The sense that this was a happy Ballydoyle day-dreaming was completed when Ladbrokes’ ultra-informed Mike Dillon refused to even put Henrythenavigator in his lists and Dermot Weld’s horse was favourite with him.

On Tuesday night the rains came but in the clear of Wednesday morning the excitement was not in the sunny skies but on the gallops of Newmarket where Michael Stoute was giving separate work-outs to his Derby runners Doctor Fremantle, Tajaaweed and Tartan Bearer. This is always one of the moments of the year: much-vaunted but still unproven three-year-olds winding across the historic grasslands with their day of destiny only 10 days away. But cut the romance and these are actually about as informative as sparring sessions before a title fight – the contender is supposed to look good, it’s only important if he doesn’t.

None of the Stoute horses fluffed their lines but by common consent, Tajaaweed was most impressive in his spin. And while Tartan Bearer’s Dante Stakes still looks best of the British trials, the slightly shouldery way he moves suggests he just might have trouble handling the downward helter-skelter of Tattenham Corner. Mind you, that’s what I said before Golden Fleece bolted home in 1982.

Adaptability is unlikely to be a problem for Luca Cumani’s candidate Curtain Call and not just because he was the only hopeful to show up at Epsom’s “Breakfast with the Stars” on what started as a densely-fogged Thursday morning. Curtain Call is an ideal shape for the demands of the track; not too big but powerfully made and beautifully balanced.

Jamie Spencer may only have cantered him round Tattenham Corner but the controlled purpose with which the colt stretched up this uniquely sloping straight and the gleam of wellbeing in his muscular quarters would have given heart to any backer.

The fog had cleared by the time Curtain Call had finished but the same could not be said for the likely Derby result, however expertly Clare Balding wove her interviews both in person and by phone link. Cumani said nice things about Curtain Call, which we expected, so too did Weld about Casual Approach, but we expected that too as he appeared in person with Mr Dillon and was quick to remind us that among the Weld winners as an amateur jockey was the Moet and Chandon Silver Magnum (the Amateurs’ Derby) over this course, with a Mr Luca Cumani in second place.

On the loudspeakers Stoute gave us his usual no-nonsense headmaster’s summary of his pupil’s prospects – “nice horses but they have to prove it” – and then O’Brien gave us bullish bulletins about all the horses we didn’t want to know about and a profoundly bearish one about Henrythenavigator – “the decision has been taken for us by the weather, the ground is soft and won’t dry (it was now scorching outside), we have to be fair to the horse.” So that’s a “No” then.

So many impressions and an abiding truth that no one actually knows the answer. So – like the pillow – we may have to settle for the last impression that registered. If the O’Brien horses are not good enough, the Stoute ones maybe not ideally suited to the track and Weld’s still too inexperienced, let’s nail ourselves to the banner of the Curtain Call team. Cumani won in 1988 with Kahyasi and in 1998 with High-Rise, but from what I saw on Thursday we have rather more than coincidence in our corner come Saturday.

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