Racing: Portents promising for Ouija Board

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The Independent Online

Although it undoubtedly brings stresses, being responsible for the training of a top-class horse has its lighter moments. Yesterday morning, while entertaining members of the Fourth Estate on the occasion of runaway Oaks heroine Ouija Board's final spin before her assault on the Classic's Irish equivalent, Ed Dunlop was distracted by his ringing Nokia. "Ooo, look," he said, holding its screen towards the visitors, "Lord Derby mobile." He appraised Teddy Stanley, the 19th of his noble line, of the question-and-answer session over Newmarket sausages round the kitchen table, with the big-race trophy as centrepiece. Cue clearly audible aristocratic guffaws. Owning a good horse seems to be fun too.

Although it undoubtedly brings stresses, being responsible for the training of a top-class horse has its lighter moments. Yesterday morning, while entertaining members of the Fourth Estate on the occasion of runaway Oaks heroine Ouija Board's final spin before her assault on the Classic's Irish equivalent, Ed Dunlop was distracted by his ringing Nokia. "Ooo, look," he said, holding its screen towards the visitors, "Lord Derby mobile." He appraised Teddy Stanley, the 19th of his noble line, of the question-and-answer session over Newmarket sausages round the kitchen table, with the big-race trophy as centrepiece. Cue clearly audible aristocratic guffaws. Owning a good horse seems to be fun too.

Ouija Board is odds-on favourite to become only the 10th filly to complete the Epsom-Curragh double on Sunday. The rangy, deep-girthed daughter of Cape Cross, her dark bay hide glowing in the bright early sun, looked on excellent terms with herself and the world as she quickened clear of her workmate at the end of a brisk six-furlong lung-opener and then pulled up with her ears pricked.

Kieren Fallon, in the saddle, expressed himself more than satisfied. "She's in great form and did that very nicely," he said." So, it's so far, so good, but his next words may have struck something of a knell with the superstitious Dunlop. "The hardest part, though, is keeping them right for the big day," the champion jockey added, "You're always afraid that in the week running up to the race, something's going to happen."

The coming of Ouija Board has been not only a delight but something of a business lifeline to Dunlop, as keenly aware as any of the rollercoaster that is getting horses to the races. Three years ago he won the Irish Oaks with his chief patron Sheikh Maktoum's Lailani, and the barometer at Gainsborough Stables seemed set fair. The following two years, though, were blighted by a virus that swept through the barns of the Newmarket establishment and last autumn the infinitely promising colt Post And Rail, who beat subsequent Derby winner North Light on his debut, succumbed to a leg injury.

"After Lailani, we were up to 185 horses," he said. "and the important thing for us was to do it again, but we jumped off a cliff. The horses were ill and we were in the wilderness and now the numbers are down. You need a profile horse, because frankly unless you have one no-one is interested. This year the three-year-olds are nothing special apart from her, but she's here and I'm so lucky to have her. One like her can change a career."

Dunlop clearly has his fingers metaphorically crossed when he outlines future plans for Ouija Board, who coincidentally lives in the same box as did Lailani. "All things being equal, she is likely to stay in training at four," he said. "She probably won't have too many races this year - maybe next the Yorkshire Oaks and then the Champion Stakes - but let's get Sunday over first. There's five days to go. She might come in season. Anything might happen."

Ouija Board's opponents in Ireland will include her immediate victims from last month's Epsom rout, the notable scalps of All Too Beautiful, from Ballydoyle, and subsequent Ribblesdale Stakes winner Punctilious, representing Godolphin. As he does any lurking imps of fate, Dunlop accords the pair the utmost respect. "They have a lot of lengths to make up on us," he said, "but I strongly believe that they will be very much better suited by a galloping track like the Curragh than by Epsom, and All Too Beautiful in particular was very inexperienced in the Oaks and is bound to have improved a lot. It's all a concern."

He concedes, though, that Ouija Board has not stood still in the interim. "I think she grew after Epsom," he said. "She's a big girl and still physically a bit immature, so probably not yet the most robust filly in the world, and today was only the third time she's worked seriously since Epsom. But the last few weeks we've been very happy, she's been very fresh and well. And one great asset is her temperament, she's so laid-back. Nothing worries her."

Like filly, unlike trainer. "Unlike the Oaks, this time there's an expectancy; if she doesn't win, it's why didn't she win," he said. "I hope for her sake, and the owner, and all the team here - they do the work, I get the credit - that she can do it again, but I'm naturally a terrible pessimist. But I suppose it's nicer to have this sort of pressure than not to have it."

* The Tote had its best year in the 12 months to 31 March, with turnover up 61 per cent to £1.47 billion, largely due to the roll-out of over 900 fixed odds betting terminals in its 457 betting shops. Saturday punters will shortly see the return of the Tote Jackpot. The bet was scrapped on a Saturday when the Scoop6 was launched in 1999. The Tote was at that time unable to handle the two wagers at the same time.

RICHARD EDMONDSON

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