8 May 2005

As a week of Derby trials ended with the good-looking Kong holding off the French favourite Walk In The Park at Lingfield, the best thing I saw happened out of the public gaze. It was Motivator galloping at Newmarket on Friday morning.

True this was only over 7½ furlongs and he had but one opponent. But the Kempton winner Glen Ida is no dud on the racecourse or off it and the way Motivator quickened to smother him at the end of the gallop had class and experience written into every line. That is not something that can be said of the others.

Yesterday’s first and second were a handsome enough pair but Kong looks more of a stayer and when Walk In The Park finally stopped trying to pull Kieren Fallon’s arms out of their sockets he didn’t actually make up that much ground on his rival, and none at all in the final 50 yards. Hopes that the French horse might be more amenable in a big field at Epsom keep his Derby odds as short as 14-1, and while Kong is available at 25-1, neither horse appeals as anything more than a place bet.

You can also get 25-1 about Hattan, who battled home gamely in the Chester Vase on Thursday, but by far the most controversial pricing was the shortening of Gypsy King to 9-2 favourite for the Derby on the strength of his last-stride defeat of the provenly moderate Im Spartacus in the Dee Stakes on Friday. Sure, he was very green, missed the start, jumped a road, and had a lot to do off the turn. But the Derby is only four weeks away for him to get his act together, and even if he gets a clear run at Epsom he will have no chance if he hangs off to the right the way he did on Friday.

The contrast between Gypsy King’s babyishness and the cool organised speed and style that Motivator had shown under Derby jockey Johnny Murtagh that morning suggested that for once the bookies have got their prices the wrong way round. Motivator is an established Group One winner completing an untroubled preparation. He reappears on Thursday in the Dante Stakes at York  where will be opposed by the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Promotion and the Aidan O’Brien contender Albert Hall whom he beat last year at Doncaster.

At this stage the search for potential Derby candidates takes in almost ludicrously inexperienced performers. Motivator himself has run only twice in public, Kong only four times, and a race later at Lingfield, Fallon got the Aidan O’Brien-trained Indigo Cat up in the last stride to score on his debut. Not surprisingly, the chesnut son of super stallion Storm Cat looked awkward almost to the point of unwilling at times but he at least finished strongly and may return here to run in Goodwood’s Predominate Stakes in 10 days’ time.

There he is likely to meet Kong’s impressive stablemate Unfurled, a 10-length winner of his only start to date. Trainer John Dunlop is rarely guilty of over-sell (except for his Arundel Open Day – May 29th, roll up, roll up) but there was a chuckle in his voice as he talked of Unfurled, as he told us not to dismiss Kong’s effort in a race run a ludicrous four seconds slower than the fillies’ trial. And as he trained the six-length winning filly Cassydora, there was self mocking understatement as he said: “I don’t think she is too bad. It is good to have at least a couple to take to Epsom.”

Today at The Curragh, Aidan O’Brien will see if Grand Central can book himself a Derby ticket by reversing places with John Oxx’s Alayan, his conqueror last month. The picture is confused by Alayan not even holding the Epsom entry, something Oxx has reserved for the chesnut Ehsan who looked impressive on his only outing but who shows nothing at home. Ehsan is due to run again in the next fortnight as are Oxx’s two other Derby hopes Shalapour and Raydan.

A fine winning effort by any of them could see then touted as major Epsom contenders. But a day spent riding out at Oxx’s Curraghbeg yard a fortnight ago revealed much more hope than confidence. Ehsan is a bonny, laid back horse, Shalapour slightly more racey looking and Raydan, who was beaten in bottomless ground on his only run, probably the highest regarded.

John Oxx always carries an air of bespectacled, owlish wisdom with him. “These are nice horses who each had little niggles to explain their absence last year,” he said in trying to put the Classic picture into perspective. “Of course they might develop into something but if at this stage you don’t know whether you have a Derby horse, the likelihood is that you haven’t got one.”

Back in Newmarket, the Motivator team have been sure of their Epsom ticket since their horse’s opening effort last August. The mood at Michael Bell’s Fitzroy House stables on Thursday was a mixture of fear and confidence. So much can go wrong that they will almost be holding their own and Motivator’s breath until Thursday. But they believe their horse has all the answers. So do I.

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