Racing: Stalls staff raise spectre of Derby strike

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The Independent Online

The prospect of the Derby being started by a large rubber band grew yesterday when stalls handlers voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action.

The union of pushers, shovers and cajolers voted 29 to 4 in favour of a walkout in a dispute with their employers RaceTech over pay and conditions.

Peter Medhurst, the Transport and General Workers' Union regional organiser, and spokesman for the stalls handlers, said: "This is an overwhelming vote which sends a crystal-clear message to RaceTech and the industry that our members will fight back."

The handlers must give seven days' notice of industrial action, which effectively means they could walk out from 4 June, the day of the Oaks, 24 hours before the Blue Riband itself.

Now the premier Classic, the race that forges reputations and launches multi-million pound stud careers, faces the prospect of being launched via a flip start, a piece of elastic stretched across the course.

In conjunction with the strangles outbreak which has affected a livery yard adjacent to Epsom, it has made the run-up to the great race chaotic for the course executive.

John Gosden has already attempted to make the day itself less riotous for his runner, Percussionist, by sending the colt on a wander round the environs at the Surrey course.

Victory for the son of Sadler's Wells would provide further repetition of the macabre coincidence which seems to follow horses representing recently deceased owners. The latest instance was the victory of the Duke Of Devonshire's Bachelor Duke in last Saturday's Irish 2,000 Guineas.

Now Percussionist runs in the blue-and-green colours of Robert Sangster, who died early last month from pancreatic cancer at the age of 67. The leading owner and breeder for 30 years was a Derby winner with The Minstrel in 1977 and Golden Fleece five years later.

Gosden was a collaborator in the former success while assistant to Vincent O'Brien. The great Irish trainer stuffed cotton wool in The Minstrel's ears in the parade ring to protect him from the pre-Classic din. Down at the start, Gosden took the plugs out.

Percussionist started making noises when he won a Newmarket maiden first time up this season and then took Lingfield's Derby Trial by 10 lengths from Hazyview, a subsequent Listed race winner. This recent record has revised views that he is little more than a trundler who should have the St Leger as his gleaming target.

"It's good to have a runner for Robert," Gosden said yesterday. "He's in good form and he's handled Lingfield very well, so there's no reason to assume that he wouldn't handle Epsom. He showed a good, high cruising speed round Lingfield and he's an improving colt."

Perhaps most influential for Percussionist would be a Teenoso year, like 1983, when the horses virtually went into the stalls two by two. "He gets the trip well," Gosden added, "and, obviously, he would appreciate it if there was a little bit of rain."

Gosden himself won the Derby 20 years after The Minstrel, when Benny The Dip got the better of dipping heads with Silver Patriarch. The trainer remains smitten by the scamper around Tattenham Corner. "It's one of the great events," he said. "It's a stunning scene. The whole day is a great test of horses, of their balance, mentality and athleticism. It's a tough race, three-year-olds going a mile and a half at that pace in early June. It's testing on a track like that. But it's everything and it always has been.

"If you're French or Irish you may have a different view, but, for an English trainer, it's definitely the top of the pile. It's the race you're always brought up to aspire towards."

The probability of the French actually turning up a week tomorrow will be determined on Monday, when a decision on the participation of American Post will be announced. The late disclosure is hardly a positive statement of intent, especially as connections are reportedly already looking forward to the Prix Jacques le Marois over a mile at Deauville in August.

"He only ran two weeks ago [when a fortunate winner of the French 2,000 Guineas] so he has not done much since and we will make a decision about the Derby on Monday," Criquette Head-Maarek, the Chantilly trainer, said. "The trip should be no problem. If you read the pedigree there is stamina on the dam side. The question mark would be the hard ground and the track."

RICHARD EDMONDSON

Nap: Laska

(Pontefract 9.05)

NB: Dario Gee Gee

(Pontefract 7.35)

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