Racing: Piano Star has potential to pass Derby audition

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The Independent Online

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the winner of the Predominate Stakes went on to occupy the same position in the Derby. That was Troy, who romped home by seven lengths at Goodwood in 1979 before repeating the feat at Epsom. Although he was not the last high-class horse to win the 11-furlong contest on the Sussex Downs - Pentire did so in 1995 and Dubai Millennium four years ago - the race stands low in the pecking order of the so-called Classic trials.

The reasons are not difficult to fathom. As a race in its own right, it carries only Listed rank, as opposed to, say, the Group Two status of the Dante Stakes, and so will generally attract lesser competitors. It is also the last of the recognised domestic dress rehearsals, only 18 days before the real thing, which minimises the window of recovery in the event of minor injury. In its favour, the undulating track can give a horse a valuable lesson in how to handle Tattenham Hill.

Although Dubai Millennium made a certain impact at Epsom by starting favourite before boiling over into seventh place for the only defeat of his career, the only Predominate Stakes runners to feature in the Derby finish since Troy have been Rankin (2nd at Goodwood, 3rd at Epsom), Touching Wood (2nd in both) and, 12 years ago, Elmaamul (2nd and 3rd). Credit must be given too to the winner of 12 months ago, poor Coshocton, who was in the process of running into a Derby place when he broke a leg close home.

Only three of the seven runners in today's 33rd renewal of the race (named after the Ted Leader-trained gelding who became the oldest winner of the Goodwood Cup at the age of nine in 1961) hold the Epsom engagement and it will take a performance of some authority to rattle the Derby betting. It has to be said that neither Hilbre Island, nor Piano Star or Unigold have indicated that they are likely to produce one.

But remember, trials are just that. The sexiest current prep is the one at Leopardstown, which has supplied the past three Epsom winners, but fashions change. Two successive Chester Vase winners popped up at Epsom in the early 1980s. Both Lingfield and York have had their moments of hegemony, and the race with the most enduring impact on the Derby is actually - as it should be - the 2,000 Guineas. But there are other routes: a seasonal debut at Epsom, the Kentucky Derby, the Dee Stakes. Nothing can be taken for granted until the afternoon of 7 June.

Changing views is, after all, what Classic trials - and indeed Classics, which are standard-setters for a generation rather than championships - are all about. That 1979 three-year-old crop was not regarded as being much cop until Troy put himself among the greats. Of the three Derby entrants, Hilbre Island is the most exposed. He failed to sparkle when sixth in the Dante Stakes a week ago and the dark horses Unigold, winner of a slowly run Nottingham maiden in March, and once-raced Piano Star are more interesting. Piano Star, who celebrates his third birthday today, can only improve for his babyish debut at Chester, when he ran a well-regarded filly (Ocean Silk, who runs in the Lupe Stakes tomorrow) to half a length. As a son of Darshaan out of a Nijinsky mare, he will appreciate today's step up in trip.

Westmoreland Road, a giant of a horse, has proved himself a talented young stayer in the making (the King Edward VII Stakes is his avowed target, though connections have not ruled out a supplement to Epsom if it seems warranted) and High Accolade showed a good turn of foot to win a minor contest at Bath. But Piano Star (3.45) can show himself worthy of remaining in the Epsom lists beyond tomorrow's second forfeit stage.

The next Classics on the circuit are the weekend's Guineas in Ireland. Six Perfections, judged unlucky - or, to put it bluntly, badly ridden - when runner-up to Russian Rhythm in the 1,000 at Newmarket, is hot favourite for the Curragh version. Her pilot on the Rowley Mile, Thierry Thulliez, has paid for his poor navigational skills and is to be replaced on Sunday by Johnny Murtagh.

Pascal Bary-trained Six Perfections is owned by the Niarchos family, whose spokesman, Alan Cooper, was fairly deadpan about the situation. "We will have an Irishman in Ireland," he said, "and I've no comment to make about anything being expressed about Monsieur Thulliez."

RACING IN BRIEF: TRIAL FOR ISLINGTON

* Islington, the winner of last season's Nassau Stakes and Yorkshire Oaks, will be put through her paces in a gallop over the full Rowley Mile at Newmarket racecourse at 8am today. The filly holds an entry in the Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh on Sunday.

* Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum's team are considering supplementing Ikhtyar for the Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh on Saturday. If they decide not to spend €40,000 (£23,000) by noon today to put the John Gosden-trained colt in the Classic, he will run at Kempton the same day instead.

* The Cheshire Oaks winner Hammiya is to be added to the field for the Oaks at Epsom at a cost of £20,000.

* Amanda Perrett, who won nine races at Goodwood last year, will today receive the inaugural Dick Hern Trophy for the leading trainer at the track. Hern died on 22 May last year, aged 81.

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