Pennekamp the class act

Sue Montgomery analyses the form of the main contenders for Derby glory
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THE great regret about this year's Derby is that Celtic Swing, unless he wins today's Prix du Jockey-Club doing handsprings, is not to be given his chance for immortality. Events at Chantilly this afternoon may show that he would not have taken it, but the fact remains that the horse everyone wanted to cheer home next Saturday will be missing from the greatest day of the year.

That said, his absence - which says more about his connections' view of their horse's weaknesses than the race's stature - will not detract from the thrill of the occasion and time may show that the horse who beat Celtic Swing at Newmarket would have done so again.

Pennekamp is one of several who comes to Epsom unbeaten. He has been regarded by Andre Fabre, arguably the best trainer in Europe, as a Derby prospect from day one and in the 2,000 Guineas he produced the scintillating burst of speed that is the hallmark of a high-class act. Although his stamina has to be taken on trust, he has the pedigree and relaxed racing style of a middle-distance horse.

Sheikh Mohammed has won all the British classics bar the Derby and, after a near-miss with King's Theatre last year, Pennekamp, named, like Mill Reef and Shirley Heights, after a Caribbean landmark, can complete his set and become the first French-trained winner since Empery 19 years ago.

The other two Guineas winners in the field will be Spectrum, who maintained his unbeaten record in the Irish version and Vettori, the winner in France. Spectrum is on the upgrade and though another one unproven over the Epsom trip, his Arc-winning sire Rainbow Quest already has one Derby winner to his credit and his dam, River Dancer, is out of Irish River - a half- sister to top-class stayer Sun Princess.

There is more of a question over the stamina of Vettori, who wintered in Dubai and won the Poule d'Essai des Poulains on only his second appearance. His sire, Machiavellian, barely got a mile and although his dam, Air Distingue, was placed in the French Oaks, her best form was over eight furlongs.

Statistics are against the other Godolphin representative, Lammtarra, for no mating of a Derby and Oaks winner - in this case Nijinsky and Snow Bride - has yet produced a Derby winner, and it is rare for a horse to win at Epsom second time out, the last two being Morston (1973) and Bois Roussel (1938).

Most of those who are proven over the Derby trip seem to lack the ability to produce an instant turn of foot. The best of them may be Munwar, a long-striding colt who coped well with the downhill gradient when he won the Lingfield trial more easily than a narrow margin suggested. He is open to further improvement and his pacemaker Daffaq will ensure a good gallop.

Neither Tamure nor Sebastian raced at two, but Commander In Chief showed two years ago that is not necessarily a handicap. Tamure has followed the same route to Epsom as the 1993 hero, winning at York after beating Sebastian over 12 furlongs at Newmarket in May.

Both colts are improving, both are bred in the purple - Tamure out of an Oaks third and Sebastian, who worked well left-handed at Newmarket yesterday morning, out of a half-sister to Slip Anchor - and it is only a matter of time before their sire adds a Derby winner to his outstanding record.

Presenting is a progressive fast-ground specialist who disappointed - but was not disgraced - behind Classic Cliche in the soft at York.

The first Saturday Derby for 42 years is preceded on Friday by the Oaks, which should be a contest between the market leaders, the beautifully- bred fillies Aqaarid, Moonshell and Pure Grain.

The three are closely matched on their best form, but Moonshell, third in the 1,000 Guineas on her second appearance after a winter in Dubai, has the greatest potential for improvement and can follow in Balanchine's hoofprints.