No sooner had Fight Your Corner bested his rivals in the Chester Vase round the carousel of the Roodeye here yesterday than his trainer, Mark Johnston, was up and away on his hobby horse. The 12 furlong contest is the second accepted Derby trial that Johnston has won this year with a horse not entered in the Blue Riband and he feels that a process that permits such omissions is thoroughly flawed.
The outlay of money is at the root of his drum-beating. To start on the road to Epsom an owner must pay a fee of some £300 when his or her pride and joy is a yearling and pay various forfeits thereafter. There was a secondary £9,000 entry stage in March this year and those with serious dreams of glory would be able to gamble a supplement of £90,000 just before next month's race.
"The ridiculous system at the moment makes a shambles of the Derby," he said. "It is an active deterrent to having the best contenders in the race and makes the so-called trials a bit of a waste of time. I grew up dreaming of winning the Derby. This year I've got three genuine aspirants and only one of them can be there. It's supposed to be the world's greatest race but if two of the trials winners aren't there how can it be?"
Fight Your Corner and his stablemate Simeon, winner of the Sandown Classic Trial last month, will be essaying any Classic glory in the French version, the Prix du Jockey-Club, at Chantilly six days before the real thing. Johnston's third high-class pretender, Sir George Turner, runs here tomorrow or at Lingfield on Saturday.
"It costs £380 to enter the French Derby at the second entry stage, for a prize of something like £350,000," said Johnston. "It's £9,000 for our Derby, with a prize of £600,000 or so. The simple arithmetic is that you are better off going to France. It is not practical to enter every single yearling that you have for the Derby and it is terribly sad that there is not the opportunity for an owner to enter after the trials at a reasonable, realistic cost. Perhaps the owners of the winners of recognised trials could be given a significant discount on the final late-entry fee."
Though he went through the auction ring for only 15,500gns as a yearling, and thus would not have been an obvious Epsom prospect, Fight Your Corner showed smart form as a juvenile and his dull effort on his seasonal debut at Newmarket three weeks ago was a disappointment to connections. He showed it was also an aberration by clipping half a second off the track record as he burst two and a half lengths clear of Sparkling Water, who is in the Derby, in the final furlong. It may be an omen, but the previous best time was set by Old Vic, who went on to take the Jockey-Club 13 years ago.
It is Johnston's opinion that Fight Your Corner, naturally athletic, had found life and work rather easy at home during the winter and having to live up to his name yesterday will have helped him grow up mentally. Kevin Darley, the man in the saddle, concurred. "The one in front went a terrific clip," he said, "and scrambling round here after him will have given ours something to think about."
The pair hope that the tight contours of the circle enclosed by the old city walls and a loop of the River Dee has a similar therapeutic effect on quirky Ascot Gold Cup winner Royal Rebel, who heads the weights for today's two and a quarter mile Chester Cup, in which the protagonists spin past the stands three times. "He's the class horse and the weight won't bother him," said Johnston. "The question will be if he's on a going day or not. The course might just surprise him."
There are some words that appear on sports pages only periodically, like peloton, or repêchage. Truckle is another, as in the pouffe-sized whole Cheshire cheeses offered as prizes this week. But the biggest truckle of all here is Barry Hills who, although he claims he was was not here when racing first took place in 1541, notched his 108th winner at the course when Fragrant View won the 10-furlong maiden, put herself in line for an Oaks venture and paid a considerable compliment to her Newbury conqueror Islington, one of the favourites for the fillies' Epsom Classic.
Bill Turner, whose speedy two-year-old The Lord is bound for the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot after victory in the opening Lily Agnes Stakes, is a man after Johnston's heart where a bargain is concerned. "I'd never worn or owned a morning suit," the Dorset handler said, "but I saw one on a second-hand rail at the Steam Fair at Stourpaine, a proper Moss Bros one. I had it at the back of my mind that one day I'd have a horse good enough for Royal Ascot. So I bought it for £1."Reuse content