Merlin confounds Derby contenders

Since the first Derby was run in 1780, the name has spread worldwide, and these days there are probably 100 different Derbys run in countries which many punters would struggle to point to on a map. So it may be that the Dee Stakes at Chester yesterday will turn out to have been a Derby trial, the only problem being that if Merry Merlin, its winner, ever contests a Classic, it is more likely to be in Slovenia than in Surrey.

Merry Merlin, who started at 25-1, is not among the entries for the original Derby, for no better reason than that he was not thought good enough. He could be entered at the last-minute supplementary stage, but paying a huge fee simply to see him finish down the field does not look like good business.

"I won't be advising the owner [Sir Thomas Pilkington] to fork out £70,000 for the Derby," Michael Bell, Merry Merlin's trainer said. "The horse doesn't have any entries. He is a solid Group Three journeyman type, he'll get a bit further and we'll be looking at a continental Group Three for him."

If that is the height of the ambitions for the winner, it does not say much for the long term prospects of the also-rans. Three Points, the favourite and runner-up yesterday, had been a possible runner in the Derby Italiano, but that may now prove to be asking too much. "He was a bit keen, a bit free," Robert Hamilton, representing John Dunlop, said. "I thought he would have settled better with such a fast pace. He's entered in the Italian Derby, but the way he ran today, he might not stay."

There was rather more promise for the future in the performance of Daliapour, who was second to Oath in last year's Derby and made his debut for Sir Michael Stoute in the Ormonde Stakes. Daliapour toyed with his field, always going sweetly and was nudged into the lead by Kieren Fallon on the turn into the straight. Although Life Is Life closed to within a length at the line, it was merely because Fallon knew his mount had done enough.

For the Aga Khan, who switched Daliapour and 30 other horses from Luca Cumani's stable after another of his horses failed a drugs test, it was a successful return to Chester after 14 years' absence - his last visit to the Roodeye having been to see Shardari beaten by Brunico in the 1986 Ormonde.

"I'm delighted to be back to see Daliapour," he said. "There was a bit of a question mark about how he'd handle the ground but Kieren said he accelerated well on it."

Daliapour will go next to the Coronation Cup at Epsom, before a possible run in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, for which Coral quote him at 10-1. Life Is Life, who was five lengths clear of third-placed Danish Rhapsody, is 16-1 with the same firm for the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.

While Daliapour's seasonal debut went as smoothly as anyone could have wished, the same could not be said of Beat All, who filled the minor place at Epsom last year. Beat All and Kieren Fallon made it as far as the stalls before the Huxley Stakes, but after trotting up and down the track several times, it was decided that the colt was slightly lame, and he was withdrawn on the advice of the vet.

This, though, was much to the annoyance of Stoute, since it soon transpired that Beat All was in fact perfectly sound. His trainer was then seen by thousands of television viewers, arguing angrily with Chester's clerk of the scales, Martin Wright, but to no avail, since the Rules of Racing state that a withdrawn horse cannot be reinstated.

"You go one length up in this game and then get messed up again," Stoute said later. "When I realised the horse was okay I thought I must try to get him back in but they wouldn't let me do it. I suppose it's better to be safe than sorry but it means we'll have to go back to the drawing board with this horse."

The four remaining runners then produced a blanket finish, with Sossus Vlei, swiftly installed as the even-money favourite, beating Rain In Spain by a neck. The efforts of Michael Roberts on the winner were not appreciated by the stewards who banned him for two days for excessive use of the whip.

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