Though not quite in the Lazarus league, Clive Brittain's comeback this season has been a miracle of sorts. But nothing other-worldly; merely a triumph for modern-day surgery. A hip replacement in February has removed the debilitating effects of constant pain and he now has a spring back in his step, even if only metaphorically as his operation has left him walking slightly unlevel.
His team of horses has fallen from a one-time high of 140 to not much more than a third of that, and contains just six three-year-old colts. But he is currently in third place in the trainers' table and tomorrow the best of that Classic-aged sextet, Dutch Gold, will be put in the Derby field at the supplementary entry cost of £90,000.
Brittain, 70 later this year, is no stranger to gambles. As a former stable lad with Sir Noel Murless, he financed his own training operation with the proceeds of judicious punting. He is also renowned for kite-flying in major races - his charge Terimon, second in the 1989 Derby to Nashwan at 500-1, holds the record as the longest-priced placee in any Classic - but will not hear of Dutch Gold being on a fool's errand. "To get our money back we have to finish in the three," he said, "but I'm not worried about second or third places. We're going for the win." The master of Carlburg Stables is revelling in his return to the big-time.
"For the past two years I'd been dragging myself around, an absolute cripple," he said. "I'm sure when people saw me they thought I was going under. I hadn't had a top-class horse for a couple of seasons. But I did know I had some very nice two-year-olds last year. I could have pushed them to make them winners and get me on the scoresheet, but it would have been at the expense of their three-year-old careers. I've been in the game too many years not to know about peaks and troughs, and to take the longer view."
Dutch Gold, who runs in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed's cousin Sheikh Marwan, is a prime example of Brittain's patience and expertise with a developing athlete. The Lahib chestnut has been a slow learner, but then so was his half-sister Crimplene, and three years ago she ended her second season as a dual Classic and triple Group One winner.
The Derby contender ended his two-year-old campaign without a win, and got the thumbs-down from Frankie Dettori. "After the Royal Lodge Stakes, where he finished last, Frankie said that I was going too high with him, that he was no good," said Brittain. "But I knew he was better than he showed and my job through the winter was to get him to the level physically and mentally where he could express the ability that I knew he had."
The route chosen was, in terms of preparing a Classic candidate, unconventional. First stop was a maiden at Lingfield in March, which he won, and next came an all-aged race at Pontefract, in which, as the only three-year-old and carrying overweight to boot, he put up a sound performance in third.
"The all-weather facility we now have is such an important one," said Brittain. "And that early win gave him loads of confidence. But the job was only half-done, he needed more experience before going on to Group company. The Pontefract run gave him that racing education."
A second place over an inadequate mile at Kempton followed, and then came the true test, the Chester Vase over the Derby distance and left-handed direction. Previous lessons looked well-learned when Dutch Gold ran out a six-length winner in a fast time. "To lead all the way round Chester, past the marquee area with all that crowd, can be intimidating," said Brittain.
"But he took no notice and got on with his job all the way to the line. All our work came to fruition." The final shakedown came with a racecourse workout at Yarmouth four days ago under Saturday's pilot Philip Robinson.
"We took him there not just for the gallop, but to give him another outing in front of a crowd in a racecourse environment," said Brittain. "When you're about to spend £90,000 you go down every avenue. He was fine, and did a piece of work that was worth three gallops at home and put him spot-on his fighting weight."
The Derby is the only domestic Classic missing from Brittain's CV, and if people have been trying to retire Newmarket's senior trainer, they had better think again. "I never lose sleep worrying about what people say, because I'm not in bed long enough," he said. "I'm not in pain any more, I walk the dogs four miles a day. My aims are still to win the Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Melbourne Cup. And when I've done all that I'll look for something else."