There may be more valuable races around the world than the Vodafone Derby, but none is more precious. Certainly there remains no better way for André Fabre to test his belief that Visindar, hot favourite at Epsom today, is the best European colt of his generation. As champion trainer of France for each of the past 19 seasons, Fabre can be assumed to have a rough idea of what he is talking about. How ironic, then, if the peculiar demands made by the great race should reveal Visindar to be not even the best colt in his own stable.
After all, when it comes to this venerable challenge, there are many dimensions to the word "best". It is not enough merely to be the quickest in the field, or the most agile, or the hardiest. These individual qualifications might well identify three different colts. The glory of the Derby is that it tends to be won by the horse closest to the paradigm, the "best" compound of miscellaneous assets.
Of course, having the best jockey as well can do no harm to your chance. Again, however, that is a relative concept. The midweek stampede to back his chosen mount, Horatio Nelson, confirmed that Kieren Fallon has taken over the mantle of Lester Piggott as the modern master of this most fiendish of tracks. Three of his last five Derby rides have won.
In contrast Frankie Dettori has yet to gild popular esteem by winning the race, and he makes no secret of the way this gnaws at his sense of fulfilment. Yet his wins in the Oaks and Coronation Cup leave no doubt that he rides the course beautifully, and circumstances have conspired in his favour today.
Dettori rides Linda's Lad, perceived by Fabre as a yeoman understudy to Visindar and duly available at the working man's price of 14-1. Yet this colt must answer far fewer questions than the favourite, and looks bombproof each-way.
It would be typical of the fitful fortunes of his vocation if Dettori, now 35, were finally to nail the Derby in the year when he had most despaired of success.
As stable jockey to Godolphin, he rides some of the most valuable thoroughbreds in the world: horses like Dubai Millennium, who suffered his sole defeat when boiling over and failing to get home in the 1999 Derby.
Unfortunately, Sheikh Mohammed's flagship stable has hit rough seas this season, and Dettori was reconciled to riding its last feasible Derby candidate, a rank outsider named Winged Cupid. Last Sunday, however, it was decided that Godolphin should miss Epsom altogether, and Dettori was suddenly free to take the mount on Linda's Lad.
None of his 17 rivals have demonstrated as thoroughly as this colt that he will both stay the distance and handle the dizzy descent round Tattenham Corner. Linda's Lad won the Lingfield Derby Trial, of all the rehearsals much the closest replica of the Derby course and distance. He coasted downhill that day like Franz Klammer, and showed ample speed to claim a position among the hustle and bustle of a bigger field.
True, he did not look quite so impressive once off the bridle, hard driven to beat an unexciting rival in a photo. But he was carrying a massive penalty for his success in an élite race in France last autumn, and was plainly uncomfortable on the fast ground.
Conditions will be kinder today, though rain would certainly not harm his chance. And this has never been a colt to waste energy in pointless swagger. The better the opposition, the better he runs. He will never look flamboyant, but the most demanding stamina test he has faced seems guaranteed to yield a career best today.
Visindar is a far more flamboyant colt and could conceivably justify even the extravagant expectations that have preceded him since the spring. But odds of around 9-4 offer no value at all. He has run only in small fields on flat tracks over shorter distances, and his record is more style than substance.
Though his sire, Sinndar, himself won the Derby, his dam's family tree brings together several branches of American speed and you could not be adamant that he will get home. Overall the potential excuses for defeat are too numerous for anyone to be making such generous assumptions in Visindar's favour.
Horatio Nelson evidently worked best of the four Ballydoyle runners earlier in the week, and will presumably emulate the improvement made by so many other horses in the yard for their first run this season. But he is not absolutely guaranteed to stay, and he should not be half the price of the colt that beat him in the Dewhurst last autumn and ran so well in the 2,000 Guineas.
Sir Percy has the best form in the race and only reservations about his stamina tempers hope in his chance.
Septimus looks too dour to win a Derby - the St Leger could be his race - whereas Dylan Thomas is a doubtful stayer, and did not seem especially happy to be given such a hard race in his trial.
Fallon must have been tempted by Papal Bull, also owned by his patrons but trained by Sir Michael Stoute. This progressive colt demonstrated the necessary stamina and agility in the Chester Vase, and his slothful demeanour disguises the likelihood that he should give Robert Winston a most exciting first Derby ride. He was certainly in significant demand on the eve of the race, William Hill cutting his odds to 8-1.
The fact that Stoute recommended that Papal Bull be supplemented commands attention, and likewise the faith shown by the trainer of Hala Bek, despite his worrying lack of experience. Atlantic Waves will stay but probably lacks class, leaving Championship Point as the best remaining value.
He would be unbeaten but for bumping into Linda's Lad at Deauville last summer, and his remarkable trainer would love to wrest attention from the trifling distraction of England v Jamaica. But even Mick Channon may have to accept that the dominant figure today would sooner treat success as an omen for Francesco Totti and friends.
The Experts' Predictions
* CHRIS McGRATH
1. Linda's Lad
2. Papal Bull
3. Sir Percy
Best outsider: Championship Point
* SUE MONTGOMERY
1. Linda's Lad
3. Championship Point
Best outsider: Mountain
1. Papal Bull
2. Linda's Lad
Best outsider: Dragon Dancer
The unlucky 13 - Dettori's Derby record of underachievement
1992 Pollen Count 16th
1993 Wolf Prince 8th
1994 Linney Head 10th
1995 Tamure 2nd
1996 Shantou 3rd
1997 Bold Demand 9th
1998 Cape Verdi 9th
1999 Dubai Millennium (left) 9th
2001 Tobougg 3rd
2002 Naheef 7th
2003 Graikos 8th
2004 Snow Ridge 7th
2005 Dubawi 3rd