The Derby: Sly and Tregoning spike the big guns
Two small operations have a real tilt at the sport's major players in a week to savour
Pam Sly, current first lady of the Turf, was having her first glimpse, ever, of the idiosyncrasies of Epsom Downs. She could not quite believe the contours that her filly, Speciosa, will have to negotiate in the Oaks on Friday. "Quite awesome," declared the trainer, who had arrived by helicopter from her small yard in the Fens near Peterborough.
Yet in the year in which she became the first English woman officially to train the winner of a British Classic, the 1,000 Guineas, who would deny her the completion of a remarkable double in the Oaks with a filly which cost 30,000 guineas, a Sheikh's loose change?
"I don't ride her out myself [Sly, 62, punctured a lung and broke five ribs in a gallops fall last December] but they tell me my filly's quite well balanced. I'm just hoping she'll handle this OK. The pedigree on her mother's side suggests she should stay a mile and a quarter. The last two furlongs are a stab in the dark."
This was the horse for whichSly was advising her co-owners, her son Michael and Dr Tom Davies, to accept "obscene" offers of up to $1.1 million (£600,000) last autumn. They decided instead to "live the dream". They are still living it.
"At that time, I put my business hat on, and said, 'You ought to take the money for your £10,000 investment. You'll make a serious amount of money'. But hopefully now we'll go through until the end of the season, anyway."
The bookmakers are taking no chances with a filly, which, as she was not originally entered for the Oaks, cost her owners £20,000 to supplement for the race. Speciosa, Latin for "Special One" - now where have we heard that expression before? - is around 5-1 co-second favourite for the race. "If she was trained by Sir Michael Stoute, she'd probably be odds-on," was the wry response of a woman who almost takes pride in her unfashionable status.
Though she has had interest from prospective owners in the wake of her Guineas success, she has no intention of expanding her stables. "I've had one or two people on to me, but I won't be taking on many more horses. I don't have the room. I only take 25," she says, adding: "It's certainly been an amazing few months for somebody like me."
There is no doubt it has been the year of the cheap purchase. Take Marcus Tregoning's 2,000 Guineas runner-up Sir Percy, currently a best-priced 10-1 for Saturday's Derby. The original deadline for entries was 18 months ago, before any of the participants had even set hoof on a racecourse. There were 639 of them, bloodstock costing many millions. How ironic it would be if the Blue Riband of the Turf was won by a colt which cost 16,000 guineas.
"I don't buy that many horses," says Tregoning, formerly the assistant to the late Major Dick Hern. "I'm lucky. I get a lot of home-breds as I train a big string of horses for the Maktoum family. I was just buying on spec for new owners who might come to the yard when I saw this fellow.
"I thought I might be brave and go to 50,000, which is too much money for me really, out of my own pocket, but I thought I may have to for this horse.
"I was absolutely staggered when I got him for 16,000 guineas, I thought there must be something very wrong."
He adds: "That's no price for a horse sired by a Classic winner [the 1996 2,000 Guineas victor, Mark Of Esteem] out of a Group-winning mare [Percy's Lass]. He was a super buy. I've been training eight years and I haven't had a Classic winner yet. Some people never get one, and I was lucky enough to get a second [place]. But we were beaten by a superstar [Aidan O'Brien's George Washington], probably, and that was no disgrace. He's a lovely horse; one of the best I've had."
And a reminder that acquiring high-class bloodstock need not necessarily cost mega-money? "It proves that everyone's in there with a fighting chance," he says.
It's that time when all trainers, all owners, persuade themselves that their Derby or Oaks-bound contender will relish the going, will see out the stamina examination, and will appreciate the gradients and bends. Though Sir Percy pulled a back muscle in the Newmarket race, his trainer expects him to be fit for Saturday.
Tregoning, who has had only two previous Derby runners - Tholjanah (10th in 2002) and Elshadi (13th two years ago) - is convinced that his charge possesses the temperament, and the combination of speed and stamina, to do himself justice. "There's a good chance he'll stay. The mare's by Blakeney, and she got a mile and a half."
We are standing by the winner's enclosure at Epsom. Just about the same place where Tregoning watched Hern's mighty Nashwan return after his 1989 Derby triumph. Tregoning claims there are similarities between Nashwan and Sir Percy. "Nashwan was a supreme athlete," he said. "I've never seen a horse move as well as him. Wonderful, rather like a panther. In fact, the closest I've seen to his movement is this horse [Sir Percy]. It may sound as though I'm looking at the horse through rose-tinted spectacles, but he does have a wonderful action."
For the moment, at least, he, like Pam Sly, can look forward to a day which starts with myriad hopes - and forget about the fact that, inevitably, it will end with a hundred excuses.
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