Racing: Soldier fails to catch Vase acclaim

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The Independent Online

If Soldier Of Fortune happens to win the Vodafone Derby, then he will only do so by means of attrition. Certainly there was nothing glamorous about his rehearsal here yesterday, where he struggled to escape anonymity at both ends of the race.

Few in the infield, certainly, spared much attention to the start of the MBNA Chester Vase, their rapture instead being commanded by the sudden arrival of Christiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and the rest of the Manchester United squad. And those that eventually transferred their gawps to the track could not have found a less glossy contrast, the odds-on favourite being divided from Arabian Gulf only by a photo.

But perhaps they should remember that Epsom demands the grit and obstinacy of a central defender, as much as the slickness and swagger of a goalscorer.

No doubt glib assumptions will also be directed against the race itself, reduced to four runners from five last year. As always, however, it identified two of the three assets most relevant to Epsom, in stamina and agility. The other, of course, is class - and that is where Soldier Of Fortune still has some persuading to do.

The outsider, Celestial Hero, set a purposeful gallop but it still seemed as though Kerrin McEvoy might have stolen a decisive advantage when Arabian Gulf swept ahead two furlongs out. Momentarily flat-footed, Soldier Of Fortune gradually wore down his quarry in the short straight, but it was pretty grim stuff and there was only a nose in it at the post.

Coral and William Hill both left him at 16-1 for Epsom, for which Aidan O' Brien is still to shuffle some of his aces. Macarthur, for instance, goes to Leopardstown on Sunday - though he must now share top billing on the day with Finsceal Beo, whose trainer, Jim Bolger, wants to run her in the French 1,000 Guineas just a week after her success at Newmarket.

The most neglected Derby candidate at Ballydoyle meanwhile remains Mahler, an emphatic winner at Gowran Park last Sunday. But Michael Kinane, in O'Brien's absence, also urged deference for Soldier Of Fortune.

"He would run well in the Derby," the jockey insisted. "The 4lb penalty was an ask, but it was a true-run trial and this horse is improving all the time. Every day he takes a step forward, and when you've a three-year-old like that, you have to respect him."

After all, the runner-up may yet prove a worthy colt himself. Remember that Dragon Dancer was only thwarted in a photo at Epsom after his defeat here last year, while the last Derby winner to emerge from the Vase, Quest For Fame, was also beaten in 1990.

Teddy Grimthorpe, racing manager to Khaled Abdulla, reserved judgement on Epsom until seeing his patron represented in trials at Lingfield tomorrow, by Many Volumes, and York next week, by Raincoat. "But he's stayed the trip well, and he has come on," he noted. "It was only his third run and he will have learned a lot again today." For now, Blue Square offer 25-1 against Arabian Gulf for Epsom. His trainer, Sir Michael Stoute, had already saddled Maraahel to win a similarly tense duel for the Akkroball Huxley Stakes.

This was the old horse's third consecutive success in this race, making most and rallying under Richard Hills. "He has his own characteristics and doesn't like to be hit," the rider said. "When horses come at him, he lets them - and then goes away again. And each year he keeps earning another quarter of a million. I wouldn't mind doing the same myself."

Of course, there were a few young men on the Roodeye who would scorn that kind of income. Those left to make gains the hard way have one more afternoon at this most charming of meetings, where the bet of the day is Scorpion (2.50) in the Blue Square Ormonde Stakes.

One of the best colts of 2005, when he won two Group One prizes and ran Hurricane Run to half a length in the Irish Derby, he has no penalty here after a pastern injury wrecked his campaign last year. But it seems significant that O'Brien has persevered with him and he can make a fresh start.

The Tipperary stable is represented in the final classic trial of the meeting by Admiralofthefleet, but he was disappointing on his reappearance and faces one or two unexposed rivals here, including Yazamaan (2.20).

The opener looks ideal for the progressive Steelcut (1.50) while the other televised handicap may fall to Dhaular Dhar (3.20), who always responds to the idiosyncratic demands of this track and is 5lb better off with Giganticus compared with their recent meeting at Newcastle - where the winner looked ready to go down in distance, rather than up.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Scorpion

(Chester 2.50)

NB: Steelcut

(Chester 1.50)