It is just like the old days, really. What is he going to ride? Whatever it is, get on. For Lester Piggott, read Kieren Fallon. The modern king of Epsom will stay mum until this morning about the horse to be charged with giving him his fourth Derby win in six runnings but if money talks, it will be Horatio Nelson. Bookmakers' lines were hot after morning work at Ballydoyle and the son of Danehill halved in price, from 9-1 to 9-2 second favourite.
The reason was a report of a sparkling final spin by the little bay colt, once winter favourite but supplanted in the lists by those who have shone more brightly this spring, like unbeaten Visindar, Dante Stakes winner Septimus and 2,000 Guineas runner-up Sir Percy. Horatio Nelson, only eighth in the Guineas, is understood to have run all over his stablemate Septimus, hitherto widely touted as Fallon's choice.
"This was a huge gamble in terms of both size and significance," said Simon Clare, of Coral, yesterday. "All the right people were wanting to be on from the moment we opened." Septimus, who won his trial by eight lengths, is now a drifter to rival the Marie Celeste. Totesport spokesman Damian Walker said: "We laid a significant number of decent bets on Horatio Nelson at 8-1 just after we opened our telephone betting. We cut his price to 6-1, but punters were still lumping on and we are now 9-2, with Septimus going past him the other way."
Tony Kenny, Hills' man in Ireland, added juice to the tale of a full-blooded Derby plunge. "From 9am there was only one horse the punters wanted," he said. "They took all of the 9-1, the 7-1, then the 11-2, down to 9-2. Septimus, on the other hand, is out to 6-1 from 7-2."
In addition to the quartet of serious Epsom contenders trained by Aidan O'Brien - Horatio Nelson and Septimus, Dylan Thomas and Mountain (his fifth entry, Altius, is a long-stop pacemaker) - Sir Michael Stoute's charge Papal Bull, who runs under the Coolmore banner, is also in the mix.
"Aidan has said that a decision will not be made until tomorrow as to which horse Kieren Fallon will ride," said a spokesman for the Co Tipperary fastness yesterday, "which is all that has been decided upon at the moment." The Ballydoyle team already have one Classic in the bag, though 2,000 Guineas hero George Washington is temporarily sidelined with a tweaked quarter muscle after his defeat at the Curragh on Sunday.
The Fallon factor in the Derby is beginning to kick in and now that the 'faces' have taken their price the once-a-year punters - the housewives, in Piggott's day - may ensure that Horatio Nelson (if it is indeed he) rivals, or even overtakes, French star Visindar for favouritism on Saturday.
Fallon has had eight Derby rides, starting with unsighted 50-1 shot Party Season 12 years ago. By the time he rode Oath, the 13-2 second favourite, to victory in 1999 he had won the first of six championships. His second winner, Kris Kin three years ago, was subject of a huge gamble, backed from 14-1 to 6-1 on the day. The next year North Light won as 7-2 joint-favourite.
Piggott had 36 Derby mounts between 1951 and 1994. He too, started on an outsider, 28-1 shot Zucchero, and his first winner, Never Say Die in 1954, was a 33-1 shock. But the longest-priced of his subsequent eight victors was Empery 30 years ago at 10-1, and he was second market choice.
Five of the great man's winners - Crepello (6-4 in 1957), Sir Ivor (4-5, 1968), Nijinsky (11-8, 1970), Roberto (3-1, 1972) and Teenoso (9-2, 1993) started favourite, a testament not only to his fans' faith but his own judgement in getting on the right horse. But they, and he, were not always right; he rode three beaten favourites, Right Noble (9-2, 1966), Ribofilio (7-2, 1969) and Inkerman (4-1, 1978). For the record, Piggott's other two winners, St Paddy (1960) and The Minstrel (1977) started at 7-1 and 5-1 respectively.
Hopes rising for Barbaro
Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who suffered a life-threatening ankle fracture in this month's Preakness Stakes, has a better-than-even chance of survival, his surgeon said yesterday.
Dr Dean Richardson had previously rated the colt's chances of survival at no better than 50-50.
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