Racing: Classic aces primed for biggest game in town

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The mainstream European Derbys are now in the form-book; all the cards pertaining to the élite three-year-old middle-distance scene are now face up on the table. And events on Saturday at Sandown will go a long way to deciding whose hand holds the trump. Yesterday, 10 horses were declared for the 108th Eclipse Stakes, among them two of the season's aces, the Epsom hero Motivator, who has won hearts with every run, and Chantilly victor Shamardal, so diamond-hard.

The mainstream European Derbys are now in the form-book; all the cards pertaining to the élite three-year-old middle-distance scene are now face up on the table. And events on Saturday at Sandown will go a long way to deciding whose hand holds the trump. Yesterday, 10 horses were declared for the 108th Eclipse Stakes, among them two of the season's aces, the Epsom hero Motivator, who has won hearts with every run, and Chantilly victor Shamardal, so diamond-hard.

The 10-furlong Eclipse Stakes is the first top-class clash of the generations, but this year's edition does seem to be a head-to-head between the two Classic heroes. Coral, the bookmaking firm now in its 30th year of sponsorship of the Group One feature, make Motivator the 5-6 favourite with Shamardal 2-1 second choice. Next in the list is the Luca Cumani-trained Australian import Starcraft, out at 7-1. The five-year-old, nine times a winner back home, was third to Valixir, and only half a length behind Rakti, in the Queen Anne Stakes on his Northern Hemisphere debut.

The star three-year-olds have much in common. Both were top-class at two: Shamardal the leader of the pack with his victory in the Dewhurst Stakes, Motivator close behind after taking the Racing Post Trophy. Both are first-crop sons of sensational new young stallions, Giant's Causeway and Montjeu respectively. And both are unbeaten on turf; Shamardal's only defeat came on a sand surface in Dubai early this year.

In a way, Shamardal, who races for the Godolphin operation, is almost the forgotten horse, despite the fact that since his return to action in Europe this year he is three for three in Group Ones in the space of a month. Frankie Dettori was given more credit than the horse in the French Guineas and Derby, but it was impossible not to be impressed by Shamardal's insouciant three-length success in the St James's Palace Stakes.

Five years ago Giant's Causeway, the so-called iron horse, started his five-of-a-kind Group One sequence in the Royal Ascot race, and continued it in the Eclipse. "It's very much horses for courses in his case," said the Godolphin racing manager, Simon Crisford, yesterday. "Some horses need a lot of space between races, others just thrive on racing and training. Like his sire, Shamardal is a tough horse, and uncomplicated in that respect. And he has momentum on his side at the moment. He's on a roll."

The wheels rather came off Shamardal's progress when, on trial for the Kentucky Derby, he ran himself into the ground in the UAE Derby at Nad Al Sheba back in March, his first run for Godolphin after leaving Mark Johnson's care, and a less physically and mentally robust character might not have bounced back from such a gut-busting experience. "We gave him time to recover and, obviously, he's shown no ill-effects," said Crisford. "At the time, it was a big setback, because it meant he missed the Guineas here. But we don't regret having a go; we're always looking for a Kentucky Derby horse and his pedigree said he might have been one."

The Godolphin camp is relishing the prospect of the showdown on Saturday, when Dettori, banned for York, will be back in the star's saddle. "Shamardal is giving all the right signals," added Crisford. "He did not lose any weight at all at York, and has licked his tub out every night since. Someone will lose, but there is no shame in that. In Britain, there is perhaps too much emphasis on being undefeated. In every other country, competing again and again is what it's all about, and even great champions get beaten occasionally. We just hope both horses turn up at their best, with no excuses."

It could be said that the form of Shamardal's Derby held up better at the Curragh on Sunday than did that of Motivator's. Hurricane Run and Scorpion, second and second-last at Chantilly, provided the first two places, whereas the best of the Epsom participants, Walk In The Park and fourth-placed Fracas, filled the last two.

But such collateral lines can be tenuous, even specious, and there was confident fighting talk yesterday from the Motivator faction too. The Michael Bell-trained pride and joy of the Royal Ascot Racing Club will be trying to join an élite club, though, for only eight Derby winners have followed up at Sandown, the last of them Nashwan 16 years ago and before him, Mill Reef in 1971.

Motivator has thrived since his five-length rout of Walk In The Park at Epsom and, given that he had the Derby won at the two-furlong pole as well as the winning post, the drop back in trip holds no fears. "If he had won the Derby in the style of a real staying horse then the Eclipse probably would not have crossed our minds," said the colt's manager, Harry Herbert, "but he has always looked like one with plenty of speed, and he is maturing mentally and physically all the time. Tactics on Saturday may be critical, but Michael [Bell] said if it came to a sprint between Motivator and Shamardal, he'd back ours every time, and the stiff finish at Sandown should be in our favour."

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