PUNCH POISED TO FLOOR RIVALS

2 July 2006

 Surely we have already had fairytales enough? Speciosa, Sir Percy, Takeover Target and then last Saturday’s winter-sand to Ascot-sun hero Les Arcs were all stories of the you-could-not-make-it-up variety. Now here comes David Elsworth trying to win the Irish Derby with a horse called Classic Punch.

On the face of it this is just about as unlikely as a mad filly with no steering from the Fens winning the 1,000 Guineas, a bargain-basement horse winning the Derby or a bush-track gelding coming up from Australia to win the King’s Stand Stakes. Classic Punch has won only a minor event at Windsor three weeks ago, and that by a neck at 25-1 to earn a rating a full 30lb behind the chief contenders. This, surely, must be a windmill tilt.

“Well we are certainly pushing it a bit,” said Elsworth as he sipped a lager at the end of a baking day at Salisbury races on Tuesday. “But those of us close to the horse have begun to get very excited about him. We know it was only a little race at Windsor but he blew a lot afterwards and he seems really to have thrived since. We think he’s up to standard although naturally we could be a bit sentimental as he is a half-brother to ‘Punch’.”

That last reference, of course, is to the splendid old stayer Persian Punch, whom Elsworth guided through 20 victories over eight seasons to become the most popular Flat horse since the war; an achievement to match the trainer’s already established claim to immortality with Desert Orchid over jumps. Persian Punch died in front of the old Ascot grandstand in April 2004 and when his half-brother by the also ill-fated sprinter Mozart came up at the yearling sales, Elsworth and Punch’s owner Jeff Smith were intent on buying him, despite neither of them being present.

The 30,000 gns he cost already looks well spent. “As long as he had a leg at each corner,” Smith said, “we were going to have him and you can imagine how pleased we are now. But to be honest,” Smith continued with the nearest thing to huffiness his natural geniality will allow, “neither I nor David need a day at the races. We are going to The Curragh because we believe we have a decent chance. At home he is well up to Snoqualmie Boy [Smith’s recent Royal Ascot winner who failed to stay at Epsom] and I think you can argue that this Irish Derby might be ready for a shock.”

Smith’s theory, and he has one of those slide-rule minds which are dangerous to ignore, is that this bunch of three-year-olds might all be much of a muchness. The Derby at Epsom was a four-way photo with two of the principals, Dragon Dancer and Dylan Thomas, in again today along with the sixth and eighth, Best Alibi and Mountain. Darsi’s victory in the French Derby was officially rated some 4lb behind the Epsom form and the second horse, Best Name, was unlucky enough in running for his trainer, Robert Collet, to believe he can turn the tables this afternoon.

What’s more Andre Fabre, who trained the close third Arras, has chosen to supplement (a cool £69,000 for the £650,000 prize, one of the more expensive 10-1 wagers) the Italian Derby winner Gentlewave, albeit the Italian form does not usually match that of France, England and Ireland. Add the fact that Puerto Rico was a promising winner for Aidan O’Brien but Kieren Fallon prefers Dylan Thomas, and the Smith theory does not sound so ludicrously optimistic after all.

What we do know is that this would be a typical extra twist in the long winding Elsworth story. When he decamped from his Whitsbury base to Edward VII’s magnificent old Egerton House stables near Newmarket this January, most of us tut-tutted and predicted that he was too old a dog to learn new tricks on different gallops. But visiting on a sunny morning in May, with the shaggy white shape of Desert Orchid lording it in the paddock, was to find a man revitalised by the challenge.

“I have taken my time,” he said, “and the horses have been undercooked in their races. But we are getting there and,” he added with a jovial conviction that rings home this morning, “one of these colts might be really up to something.” One of them was Classic Punch. Don’t bet too big against him.

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