Racing: Islington and Fallon poised to put Eclipse rivals in the shade

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The Independent Online

Those who are using the all-weather phenomenon as the catalyst to create new sporting

venues may do worse than to reflect on the strategy of a couple of 19th century entrepreneurs. When General Owen Williams and his brother Hwfa founded Sandown Park

in 1875, one purpose was to raise the image of racing from the gutter. The track at Esher

was the first in Britain to be enclosed, a so-called drawing-room course which excluded the riff-raff and made racing safe for women.

Here, apparently, a young man could take his mother or maiden aunt "without the slightest fear that they would run the risk of social shipwreck or be exposed to a rough and tumble." It remains to be seen today if the addition of a ladies-only lounge has the same effect.

The Williams brothers, though, knew that the patronage of the Prince of Wales would not be enough to secure their venture's future; what was needed was a valuable prize. In 1886 the Prince's chum Leopold de Rothschild was persuaded to put up the money -£10,000 in a year when the Derby purse was £4,600 - for an all-aged affair and although naming the new contest after one of the giants of the Turf might have rebounded, it did not.

The Eclipse Stakes quickly became established as the first meaningful middle-distance clash of the generations and, despite some erosion of status by the development of the Irish Derby, has remained so.

The race has produced some notable milestones, none more than the running a hundred years ago. Three of the five protagonists, Sceptre, Ard Patrick and Rock Sand, had or were to win eight Classics between them; after a titanic battle four-year-old Derby winner Ard Patrick bettered his contemporary Sceptre, heroine of both Guineas, the Oaks and St Leger, by a neck, with the three-year-old favourite, the subsequent Triple Crown winner Rock Sand, three lengths away in third. It justifiably jostles for position as race of its century.

The first of just eight Derby winners to best their elders in the race was Flying Fox, in 1899; the last Nashwan in 1989. The first of five dual winners was Orme in 1892-93, the most recent Halling in 1995 and 1996.

And in 1998 the Eclipse provided the first clean sweep in a Group One race for the same owner and trainer, courtesy of Godolphin's Daylami, Faithful Son and Central Park.

The 15-strong, fiercely competitive field this afternoon is the second most populous on record, beaten only in 1975, when 20-1 shot Star Appeal accounted for 15 rivals.

Today's race is even stevens across the age divide: five five-year-olds, five four-year-olds and five three-year-olds. On balance over the years, older horses have the call, with 61 victories.

The Eclipse Stakes forms the second leg of the inaugural Summer Triple Crown, a contrivance created by racing's governing body and convolutedly involving in addition any one of the three Group One contests at Epsom or the Prince of Wales Stakes, plus the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

The £1 million bonus on offer is not to be sneezed at, but the dogmatic assertion by the promotors that the series will identify a true champion is. The last horse to succeed in three applicable races, Nashwan, was not rated the best of his year.

And as far as the STC's pulling power goes, the winners of the Derby, Oaks and Coronation Cup are all absent, leaving Nashwan's half-brother Nayef, who took the Ascot contest, the only one with a chance of earning the extra cash. The five-year-old beat eight Group One winners that day, including four of today's rivals, Islington, Olden Times, Falbrav and Grandera, and is a worthy favourite.

But it seems that these days the winning trainer's surname must be either Stoute, bin Suroor or O'Brien, for other than Michael, Saeed and Aidan, only Gerard Butler has succeeded in the past ten years.

O'Brien fields two three-year-olds, Hold That Tiger and Balestrini, though Norse Dancer has the scalps of both, in the Guineas and Derby respectively. Godolphin, going for a 100th top-level win worldwide, rely on Grandera.

The record of fillies in the Eclipse is remarkably poor, the first to succeed being Pebbles in 1985 and the only other since Kooyonga seven years later, but that can change this afternoon.

A fast pace and a stiff 10 furlongs will suit Stoute's No 1 contender, the four-year-old Islington (3.35), the mount of Kieren Fallon. She has been sparkling on the gallops since her seasonal debut. Nayef and Hold That Tiger are likely to chase her home.