The Derby: Fabre's Lad ready to fill the last glaring vacancy
Epsom is the one foreign field to have resisted France's master strategist - until Saturday
The first French winner of the Derby, Gladiateur, became known in his homeland as "the avenger of Waterloo" after his victory at Epsom in 1865, a full half-century after the affair in Belgium. It is probably entirely appropriate that the Chantilly-based trainer charged with ending 30 years of Gallic hurt on the Surrey Downs has the sobriquet "le petit Napoleon". Step forward André Fabre.
Fabre, 60, a former champion jump jockey, shares his stature with the great commander. He can emit a rather imperial aura, too; like many who are exceptional in their job and have worked hard and long to be so, he does not suffer fools and slights particularly well.
But it is as a tactician and strategist that Fabre probably has most in common with the Corsican military legend. He has been champion trainer in France for the past 19 years and has campaigned his élite troops at home and abroad with devastating effect. For instance, he is easily the leading European trainer at the Breeders' Cup meets in America.
But the Derby remains the one major global contest not yet on his CV. Fabre has tried and failed to win the world's premier Classic seven times; this year, in the 227th running, he has two weapons with which to try to put les rosbifs to the sword, the warm favourite Visindar, who is owned by the Aga Khan, and Linda's Lad, a 14-1 shot who carries the colours of the Irish property developer Sean Mulryan.
Only nine French-trained horses have won a Derby. Though Gladiateur was French-bred and French-owned he was housed in Newmarket and handled by an Englishman. The first to travel to victory from France was Durbar in 1914, the most recent Empery in 1976. Since then, 31 raiders have met defeat.
Visindar and Linda's Lad present marked contrasts. Visindar is the one with potential, the could-be-anything colt. The chestnut is unbeaten, and barely extended, in three runs, most lately a four-length success in a Group Two trial at Saint-Cloud. But in terms of experience he is still tender; he has never been involved in the hurly-burly of a big field, nor had to eyeball another horse at the sharp end.
Linda's Lad is the one who has been there, done that. The bay has raced eight times, lost and won in equal measure and, with three of his victories being achieved by a head or less, knows how to fight. A winner at the top level as a two-year-old, he proved his efficacy round a left-handed, undulating track by giving weight and a beating to his rivals in the trial at Lingfield two weeks ago.
"Visindar has done nothing wrong," said Fabre yesterday, "and has done everything easily. He is a well-balanced colt with a long stride, and his relaxed temperament should help him at Epsom. I was delighted by his first race this season but slightly disappointed at Saint-Cloud, where he did not win as well as I had hoped.
"Linda's Lad is very well suited by going left-handed and can travel easily in a fast-run race. He is a tough horse who never wins by far, but he wins, and is willing to battle.
"I have two runners, but perhaps the ideal horse would be a combination of the two. But we do not know the value of their form. Historically, it is usually the 2,000 Guineas that provides the best guide."
Fabre spent much of his youth in Germany, where his father was a diplomat, and graduated with a law degree but always planned horses as a career. While studying in Paris he would ride out at Maisons-Laffitte in the mornings and work as a plumber in the evenings.
Saturday will be the third time a colt from the empire he has built at 14 Avenue de Bourbon has started market leader at Epsom; the others have been Toulon, ninth in 1991, and Pennekamp, 11th 11 years ago. And although Fabre's pride would like a Derby, he is perfectly aware of the difficulties and disadvantages the race presents.
"It sets the standard," he said, "but because it is a beginning, it is run early in the year. And for a lot of horses it comes too soon. They have not yet reached the athletic potential that will enable them to stay the distance and handle the course, demands that they could cope with as more mature horses."
The record of some of Fabre's previous runners gives his view credence. Al Nasr, Toulon (in the St Leger), Sunshack (in the Coronation Cup) and Val Royal all went on to later Group One victories, but the careers of both Pennekamp and Cloudings were ended by injuries sustained at Epsom. "An owner can regret running in the Derby," he said, "and nowadays horses are so expensive that they cannot always be sacrificed on its altar. And although it may be a pity, in the modern era a 12-furlong race is not seen as necessarily ideal for a stallion prospect."
The Aga Khan, less bound than most by commercial constraints, has won four Derbys already, with Visindar's sire, Sinndar, Kahyasi, Shahrastani and Shergar. Linda's Lad will be a first Derby runner for the Dublin-based millionaire Mulryan, who helped fund London's 2012 Olympic bid. He and Fabre are both essentially private men, but their Franco-Hibernian alliance and the Sadler's Wells colt, proven in battle over the distance and on easy ground, can put them in the spotlight on Saturday.
1 Linda's Lad
3 Championship Point
EPSOM DREAMERS: FOUR WITH A SPECIAL DERBY MISSION
The nearest Britain's best-known jockey has come in 13 rides was on runner-up Tamure in 1995. He has partnered three favourites: Cape Verdi (9th in 1998), Dubai Millennium (9th in 1999) and Snow Ridge (7th in 2004). Now he rides seasonal debutant Winged Cupid.
Though he has a way to go to match Lester Piggott's nine victories, he has the outstanding current record with three wins, Oath (1999), Kris Kin (2003) and North Light (2004), from eight rides. He will try to make it three in four years, and his first for Ballydoyle, on Septimus.
If anyone is due a Derby win, Hills is. He has saddled four seconds - Rheingold (1972), Hawaiian Sound (1978), Glacial Storm (1988) and Blue Stag (1990) - and since 1971 has failed to muster a runner only nine times. Relies on 2,000 Guineas third Olympian Odyssey.
Before You Go will try to get Terry Mills into an exclusive club. Only two Epsom-based horses have won the Derby at their local track: Ralph Sherwood's Amato in 1838 and April The Fifth in 1932, owned and trained by the comic actor Tom Walls.
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