Friday May 13 2022, 12.01am, The Times
The master is back. Sir Michael Stoute trained his first winner in April 1972. Since then, the 76-year-old has been champion trainer ten times and won all the classics, including the Derby five times. But in all that half-century he can have had few sweeter moments than when Desert Crown won the Dante Stakes at York yesterday.
The elegant bay three-year-old’s only previous racing experience was winning a minor race at Nottingham in November. A training hitch had slowed this season’s progress, reports of his homework were only adequate and Stoute was customarily cautionary on the colt’s prospects, stating that he was only just ready for this first run of the season.
Yet the yearning for something to lighten this cloudy Derby picture and knowledge of the trainer’s genius still made Desert Crown joint-favourite at the off. Oh, how well did he justify it.
The first test is the mental one and he passed the paddock pressure with admirable calm and did not panic when Masekela flipped and had to be withdrawn from the stalls. In the race, Richard Kingscote settled Desert Crown sixth of the eight remaining runners and Godolphin’s massive White Wolf set off in front with the Ballydoyle hopeful Bluegrass in company, the others stacked up behind them and the Knavesmire waiting to see the tale.
White Wolf kept on well for one so inexperienced. A quarter-mile out the whole field was fanned wide across the track with nearly everything possible. Kingscote was tilted confidently on Desert Crown but with running to do and questions that had to be answered.
In his other life, the 35-year-old jockey throws mighty motorbikes around the trails and as his throttle came out the four-legged power beneath had hooves which bit the turf.
Up the outside and into the lead swept Desert Crown. Across towards the rail, Royal Patronage tried for a few strides to match him, Bluegrass ran through the others but the only question was whether weakness or lack of experience would make the leader falter. He did not, leaving the highly proven Royal Patronage 3½ lengths in his wake, with Bluegrass a full two lengths further back. After weeks of confusion, we had a new Derby favourite and a great trainer back in the spotlight that his eminence has earned so many times before.
He is silver-haired and in his seventies now, and in the past few years has had the sorrow of losing his long-term partner, Coral Pritchard-Gordon. And this year his mornings miss the perennial daily support of the cricket legend and racing devotee Michael Holding.
There had been reports of a saddened Stoute and even of imminent retirement but in his ever reserved way he was on the mettle in the unsaddling enclosure.
“He’s impressed me as he’s had a hold-up and we’ve only just got him up to a race,” the trainer said of his latest hopeful. “I think the Derby trip will be fine for him. He’s a quality horse with a great mind.”
Stoute has now equalled Henry Cecil’s record of seven Dantes but while both Shahrastani in 1986 and North Light in 2004 went on to Epsom glory, others were not so lucky, most particularly the Queen’s Carlton House, who became favourite in 2011 only to have an injury-hit final preparation and even then was an unlucky-in-running third.
The next three weeks will have their usual overload of stress and speculation but on one thing we can be certain: the new Derby favourite is in the very best of hands.