Racing: History and weather may douse Dragon's fire

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The Independent Online

The band of rain that swept across south-east England yesterday was bad news not only for Tim Henman but also for Dragon Dancer. Tennis players do not like the ground slippery underfoot; some horses do not like it hard. As far as the the Derby runner-up is concerned the clouds that seemed centred on SW19 were 100 miles too far south. They missed the Curragh, scene of Sunday's 141st Irish Derby, entirely, leaving the ground unsuitable for the colt. And today is the day when trainer Geoff Wragg must decide whether or not to enter the Dragon.

It will cost owner John Pearce some £70,000 - around a quarter of his Epsom earnings - to put his son of Sadler's Wells in line for the £1m purse, Ireland's richest prize, at the supplementary enrolment stage. But his view may be swayed by artificial precipitation on the Co Kildare track and by the weather forecast for later in the week.

"It has been misty and damp here," said the clerk of the course, Paul Hensey, yesterday, "but there has been no rain of ground-changing significance and we have started watering.

"We have been told there will be rain about towards the end of the week, and we will take a view nearer the time about further watering. But the intention is that the ground for the big meeting will be no firmer than good and have no jar in it."

Dragon Dancer returned from Epsom slightly sore, missed an engagement at Royal Ascot because of too-firm going, and has been doing all his post-Derby fast work on the watered gallop in Newmarket. He looked in fine fettle in his most recent outing on the limb-friendly strip alongside the Rowley Mile, clearing away from an older stablemate on Saturday morning. His rider then and at Epsom, Darryll Holland, has his fingers crossed for a wet weekend.

"He gave me a really nice feel when I sat on him on Saturday," he said yesterday, "he stretched right away from his galloping companion. But the decision to supplement him is not going to be taken lightly. And if conditions are not right he won't run."

Assuming he is given his chance, Dragon Dancer has a mighty page of history to overturn. A 66-1 shot at Epsom, he was within a short-head of becoming the first maiden since Merry Hampton in 1887 to win the Derby, but no horse has ever got off the mark in the Irish version.

The record of Derby runners-up at the Curragh is slightly more encouraging, but only slightly. Eleven have gained compensation in the lesser contest: Zionist (1925), Dastur (1932), Turkhan (1940), Pan Slipper (1955), Ballymoss (1957), Fidalgo (1959), Meadow Court (1965), Ribocco (1967), El Gran Senor (1984), Law Society (1985) and St Jovite (1992).

Since the last-named turned the tables on Dr Devious, nine Derby seconds have failed to do better in Ireland. Three occupied the same place: King's Theatre, who found Balanchine too good; City Honours, who could not cope with Dream Well; and Daliapour, who was humbled by Montjeu. But Golan slumped to third, Dushyantor and Rule Of Law to fourth, and Silver Patriarch, The Great Gatsby and, last year, Walk In The Park were all out of the frame.

Holland is looking forward to renewing rivalry with Dylan Thomas, just a head behind him in that memorable four-way Derby photo-finish. "He had very much the run of the race," he said. "Johnny [Murtagh] set a nice sedate pace and was able to quicken up the straight on his terms. But my horse was very brave and I'd like to think I could beat him again."

Dragon Dancer has finished second in his last three runs and the form of his two pre-Derby outings looks strong. Hala Bek, who beat him at Newbury, finished a close, unlucky, fourth at Epsom and Papal Bull, who beat him at Chester, won the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot.

"He hasn't surprised me this season," added Holland, "We always knew he had the potential there and he's got better with every run. He was trapped wide at Chester, otherwise he might have won. He improved for his run in the Derby and, when I sat on him the other day, I felt he'd improved again."

Dragon Dancer's credentials do not particularly impress bookmakers; he is as long as 7-1 in the ante-post lists. In the absence of the Epsom winner, Sir Percy, and Hala Bek, the favourite, at 3-1, is the Prix du Jockey-Club victor Darsi, attempting to follow Montjeu, Dream Well, Old Vic and Assert as a Classic winner at both Chantilly and the Curragh.