Racing: Sir Percy ready for Irish rematch to confirm superiority

First four in tightest of Derby finishes will meet again at the Curragh
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The Independent Online

For the many to whom the Derby is one of just two or three annual excursions into an esoteric world, the 227th running proved a remarkably thorough sample of the different ways men find glory and despair among horses.

On the 25th anniversary of Shergar's record 10-length success, Sir Percy entered the annals of the great race via its most congested finish, a four-way photo that surpassed even the epic of 1949, when Nimbus put his nose in front of two others. And if those involved could measure the difference between joy and misery in bare inches, then they were also shown the unfathomable gulf that divided their disappointment from the fate of Horatio Nelson, who had to be put down after breaking a leg.

The screens went round the stricken colt right in front of the Vodafone pavilion, but the sponsors should be consoled that the day had not shed all its grandeur, all its romance. On Saturday, after a wretched May, it was even favoured by the first unblemished afternoon of the summer and over 120,000 exulted on the Downs. They witnessed a rare melodrama, and perhaps some among them will have been so intrigued that they might even tune into the sequel.

For the bewitching possibility loomed yesterday that all four colts who joined issue may meet again in the Budweiser Irish Derby at the Curragh on 2 July. If they do, you can be sure that they will sort out their differences rather more emphatically.

Tangling so intimately with three others does not necessarily devalue the horse sticking his nose in front on the line. Last year Motivator bolted five lengths clear but it would be hasty to infer that he was a better colt than Sir Percy.

Two of those who shared the photo, Dragon Dancer and Dylan Thomas, undoubtedly enjoyed a significant tactical advantage. The pace was so steady breasting the hill that even the unraced interloper, Noddies Way, managed to make some ground on the outside. This pair stole a march on their pursuers swinging into the straight, and a more purposeful gallop at the Curragh may well expose their limitations.

Still, much respect is due to Geoff Wragg, who saddled Dragon Dancer with every confidence even though the colt had never won a race. The two that had beaten him this spring - Hala Bek, in a maiden at Newbury, and Papal Bull in the Chester Vase - both confirmed Wragg's judgement by running extraordinary races on Saturday.

In Michael Jarvis, Hala Bek represented another Newmarket veteran who never runs a horse out of its depth. It took all his experience, however, for Jarvis to absorb the cruel manner in which Hala Bek betrayed his own lack of seasoning.

Having missed the Dante Stakes at York because of a dirty scope, Hala Bek entered the Epsom maelstrom with just that one run at Newbury under his belt. Even so, he was threatening a decisive challenge when he fell victim to his own naïvety, abruptly pitching to his right with only 100 yards to run.

Philip Robinson briefly feared that he would be unseated, and the way Hala Bek regrouped left him adamant that he would otherwise have won. Maybe his artless mount was shying from the whip, or simply lost his balance on the camber. What remains certain is that the prize that slipped through his fingers here will not be the last within his reach. Jarvis confirmed yesterday that he hopes to supplement Hala Bek to the Irish Derby.

As for Papal Bull, he finished only 10th but left little doubt that he is one of the most talented in the field. As at Chester, he made a deplorable start and refused to grab hold of the bridle even behind the cautious early pace. Still tailed off coming down the hill, he suddenly engaged himself and was charging headlong up the rail when so badly blocked that he was lucky not to be brought down: a rough Derby baptism for Robert Winston.

In a brawl of a race, luck and experience were key factors in the success of Sir Percy. Martin Dwyer had to weave right and left before Dylan Thomas, his stamina ebbing, obligingly rolled off the rail. There was only half a gap but Sir Percy scuttled through, hardened by a CV so much longer than that of Hala Bek. Even then his trainer, Marcus Tregoning, was convinced that he had just failed to get up - and likewise Darryll Holland, the rider of Dragon Dancer, who was speechless after the judge gave his verdict.

Yet nobody should be surprised if Sir Percy should give these same colts a hiding at the Curragh. He was the only one to challenge from behind the quickening pace, and the energy consumed can be measured by the way Visindar flattened out after giving the leaders a similar start. Having addressed doubts about his stamina so firmly, Sir Percy can be ridden with freedom at the Curragh.

His success means that all four Classics run this year have gladdened the sport. The two Ballydoyle winners, George Washington and Alexandrova, look outstanding, while Speciosa showed that there is still hope for stables with far humbler resources. Sir Percy has done both.

It has been well chronicled how Tregoning found the Mark Of Esteem colt for just 16,000 guineas and his patrons, Anthony and Victoria Pakenham, rejected a huge profit after he won the Dewhurst last autumn. That should edify those peering curiously into the sport, and likewise the grace and modesty of Tregoning - one of few trainers whose arrival at a post-Derby press conference could prompt spontaneous applause. He has handled this colt with skill and nerve, enduring days before both the Guineas and the Derby when he feared that the colt would not make the race.

"It was a rough race, but I'm amazed by him," Tregoning said yesterday. "He's a street-fighter, a warrior. We thought he wasn't quite sound behind this morning but through our bleary eyes, we found he'd only spread a hind shoe. He's lost very little weight and had eaten up by nine last night.

"Now that he has shown he stays so well, the likelihood is that we'll stick to a mile and a half for the time being, and Ireland is obviously something we'd be thinking about."

Meanwhile the Derby continues only to vex two of the great achievers of the European Turf, André Fabre and Frankie Dettori. They teamed up on Saturday with Linda's Lad, who proved reluctant to go to post and resented the changed conditions after several hours of sunshine.

However, it was in Visindar that Fabre had invested his greatest hopes. Though he was recklessly backed into 2-1 favouritism, the harsh fact is that fifth place almost certainly represented the best performance of his life.

Chris McGrath

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