11 May 2008

Pacemaking can  be a funny business – especially when the apparent pacemaker doesn’t set the pace and, as yesterday, when the favourite Curtain Call cries off because of the drying ground. Before the Lingfield Derby Trial it appeared that King of Rome was very much the work-horse of the Aidan O’Brien pair. But once the gates opened it was stablemate Alessandro Volta who hustled for the lead and stayed there to the finish.

David McCabe did not draw his riding fee for doing little more than getting King of Rome in the stalls – although that in itself turned out to be a tricky process. He positioned himself handily at the quarters of Johnny Murtagh on Alessandro Volta so that within a quarter-mile the pair of them were in charge of the tempo with the other three runners stacked up behind.

Most inconvenienced was Frankie Dettori on the Godolphin-owned favourite Campanologist, who may not ring bells but whinnies a lot. Dettori was stuck in behind the Irish duo and had to decide whether to attack right round the outside of the leading pair or to hang in behind and challenge up the inside. He chose the latter and despite getting up alongside Alessandro Volta two furlongs out could not sustain his challenge and indeed lost out by a neck to King of Rome, who was only three-quarters of a length behind the winner.

At the moment Ballydoyle are getting very much the best of things in the annual Formula One-type head-to-head with Sheikh Mohammed’s team who, not for the first time, are taking their time to re-acclimatise on their return from Dubai. Any more days like yesterday’s scorcher should help the process, but the Derby is just three weeks on Saturday and, while Rio De La Plata might hit the bull’s-eye in the French 2,000 Guineas this afternoon, he has looked much more a candidate for that mile trip than for Epsom’s mile and a half.

More likely Godolphin Derby hopes, McCartney and Young Pretender, are due to appear in York’s Dante Stakes on Thursday, where Ballydoyle also have a full quiver of entries, as indeed they do at Leopardstown this afternoon, highlighted by Washington Irving in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial. Washington Irving has run just twice, most recently when touched off in soft ground at Leopardstown in April. After that O’Brien said: “He’s still not ready but we think he’s a smart colt and now he has to go to prove it.” Before the Derby it is a song that applies to them all.

So let’s give credit to Alessandro Volta who, in Murtagh’s words “has definitely put himself into the mix”. On yesterday’s showing he lacks the classic acceleration usually needed to win the Blue Riband, but to win round Lingfield’s gradients means that the Epsom switchback won’t inconvenience him any more than fast ground, which saw big Derby fancy Curtain Call taken out in the morning. Murtagh has already won three Derbies and is too canny to start committing himself to any specific Ballydoyle runner at this stage.

“Aidan O’Brien has a very strong hand and shuffling the pack is his worry,” said Murtagh. “I am just lucky to be riding them and at the moment it’s going very well.” Murtagh will be on one of the Ballydoyle contingent in the Dante, which he won on Motivator before winning the Derby in 2005. Indeed, three of the last four Dante winners have gone on to win the Derby and this year may add to the list even if not from the two racing superpowers.

Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte operation, owner of Dante and Derby favourite Twice Over, is nothing if not a major player. But for a long time they have specialised in quality rather than quantity and the Henry Cecil-trained Twice Over certainly fits into that category. Victory there and at Epsom would be a supreme triumph for Cecil, not only for overcoming his battle with cancer but for the key strategic decision not to be tempted into an attempt at the 2,000 Guineas after beating Raven’s Pass in the Craven Stakes.

Training decisions are often unsung and few more than those of Clive Cox, whose Lingfield Oaks Trial winner Miracle Seeker will now be his first Classic runner when he saddles her in the Oaks itself next month. “I have always liked the filly,” he said of his charge, who was winning for the first time in four runs, “and I think the way she dictated the pace here and came home entitles us to pursue the dream.”

Cox will be aided in this enterprise by the very considerable prowess of his landlord, John Francome. “I have been riding her at home,” drawled the seven-times champion jockey, turned commentator, turned novelist, turned everything else, “and of course I will just add the final touches.” As usual you are never sure how much he was joking.

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