Even in this modern era, when the reputation of the Derby is allegedly in decline in the face of growing internationalism and changing fashions, the next appearance of the hero of Epsom is an occasion of some note. For even if the switchback on the Surrey Downs is no longer the sole proving ground of excellence, the winner there is the horse that has set the standard for a generation and it is he who has to come out fighting.
Some make it to the end of the season as undisputed champeens, some as honest sluggers, some flat on their backs on the canvas. For most, the next round is the Irish Derby, the last count against their contemporaries before the hotter crucible of all-age competition. North Light puts his reputation on the line at the Curragh tomorrow against 10 rivals in the 139th renewal of Ireland's richest race, worth £518,732 to the winner.
The 12-furlong contest has taken on a number of guises since its financial upgrading for Tambourine's victory 42 years ago put it, and Ireland itself, on the international racing map. It can be a consolation prize, a revenge match, a decider or simply a lap of honour. Orby, in 1907, was the first to make it the latter by completing the Epsom-Curragh double; Santa Claus, in 1964, the second. Since then 20 have essayed the feat and 14 succeeded, including the last four to try, Commander In Chief, Sinndar, Galileo and High Chaparral.
North Light will start at odds-on to become the 17th of a rare enough breed and, most unusually, the three who followed him home at Epsom think it worthwhile having another go. The only other occasion on which the first four in the Derby have re-opposed in Ireland was in 1978, when Shirley Heights confirmed his superiority over Hawaiian Sound, Remainder Man and Inkerman.
There have been reversals of form at the Curragh, though, which will give hope to the connections of Rule Of Law, Let The Lion Roar and Percussionist. St Jovite, second at Epsom in 1992, Prince Regent, third in 1969 and Sodium, fourth in 1966, all turned the tables on their sub-standard Epsom conquerors, Dr Devious, Blakeney and Charlottown respectively.
North Light's place on the pantheon has yet to be established and if it is going to be challenged by one of his Derby victims it may be by Rule Of Law (3.50), whose late thrust from miles off the pace was reminiscent of Prince Regent's. Then, the Godolphin colourbearer was ridden by Kerrin McEvoy, on his first ride round the idiosyncratic track. Tomorrow, Frankie Dettori takes over. "He got a bit detached at Epsom," said the blues' racing manager, Simon Crisford, "But that won't happen at the Curragh." Whoever wins the power struggle in Ireland, though, will find the French crack Bago, expected to extend his unbeaten run to six in the Grand Prix de Paris an hour earlier at Longchamp, waiting.
The last British-trained Irish Derby winner was the Dubai-based operation's filly Balanchine 10 years ago. The home side's defence is six-strong this time, with the Dermot Weld-trained Grey Swallow the interloper among five from the Ballydoyle empire, headed by Royal Ascot winner Five Dynasties. Aidan O'Brien has won the race three times, but has yet to saddle a Classic winner anywhere this term.
But if the three-year-olds from the Co Tipperary yard do not seem much cop, O'Brien can look to the future in the race before his local Derby, the Railway Stakes. He has won the last five runnings of the Group 2 juvenile contest and Russian Blue (3.10) is expected to extend his hegemony.
This afternoon's top-level feature is in Ireland, the newly upgraded Pretty Polly Stakes. Hanami, one of three British raiders, won last year when the 10-furlong race held Group Two status, but her compatriot Chorist (3.40) is preferred. The daughter of Pivotal is already a Group Three winner and it is surely significant that her owners, Cheveley Park Stud, have kept her in training at five.
In Britain over the weekend the accent is on quantity rather than quality, with nine meetings over the two days. For the punter, the most serious event today will be the longer of the weekend's duo of Derbys, the so-called pitmen's version at Newcastle. The Northumberland Plate, with a first prize of £104,400, is second in value only to the Melbourne Cup among two-mile handicaps. Despite its competitive nature it may pay to stick with the obvious today in the shape on the rapidly improving Anak Pekan (3.00), wide-margin winner already of the Queen's Prize and Chester Cup this term. The four-year-old is from a yard in blinding form and the rain has arrived to ensure he has his ground.
At Newmarket, Arakan (3.15), outclassed in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot, will appreciate the return to seven furlongs and a lower grade and First Charter (1.35) can enhance his value ahead of his date with the Tattersalls auctioneers next week.
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