Twelve furlongs around Epsom is a twisting, undulating journey that would test an orienteer, and there are few animals these days who find the challenge within their compass.
With the creeping modern influence of fast American stallions, the pool of horses that last out a mile and a half is drying up. When many of the Classic jockeys return from their mission at about four o'clock this afternoon there will be another phrase to accompany shaking heads: 'He didn't stay.'
Recent Derbys have been replete with speedy horses which conked out in the straight; there are two obvious, well-backed ones each season. Last year it was Fatherland and Barathea; before them came Rodrigo De Triano and Alnasr Alwasheek, Mystiko and Hector Protector, Zoman and Linamix. Today's favourites to be added to this unfortunate scroll are Mister Baileys and Colonel Collins.
There will be plenty more who peter out. Those that worked on the course yesterday morning were throwing back clods, which suggests the ground will be more testing than usual this afternoon on the Surrey Downs. In addition, a fast pace is guaranteed with an unusually large field. Only Strategic Choice was taken out yesterday, leaving a turnout of 25, the biggest since Shirley Heights led home two dozen rivals in 1978.
Many jockeys, including the dual Derby winner Walter Swinburn, believe an advantageous stall position and the first manoeuvres are critical in the Classic. 'Even when it's 16 or 18 runners, the draw is quite important and a low number is a big advantage,' he says. 'The position early on is vital because staying out of trouble is going to be more difficult this year.'
In this respect, the ballot was unkind to one of the few horses guaranteed to stay the trip, Broadway Flyer, who is drawn 19. John Hills's colt won over the distance in the Chester Vase, one of two impressive victories he has recorded this year. There remains a nagging doubt, though, that he may have been a schoolyard bully, emphatically beating relative imps, and today he climbs between the ropes to face much doughtier opponents. He will probably finish just outside the frame.
Extremes in the draw have a poor record. The last beast to be drawn at either end to succeed was Roberto, who emerged from the No. 1 box in 1972. (This is bad news for Peter Chapple-Hyam, whose two runners, Colonel Collins and Pencader, are drawn one and 25 respectively). The lucky 10 berth, which has provided five of the last 10 winners, will be occupied by Clive Brittain's Ionio.
Four fancied horses - Erhaab, Weigh Anchor, King's Theatre and Linney Head - are drawn next to each other between the 13 and 16 stalls and the winner is likely to emerge from this quartet.
Erhaab has been a popular choice ever since he took the Dante Stakes at York in course record time. But until that moment he had not been on many shortlists for Epsom. There is no doubting that he won with panache on the Knavesmire, but it is worth noting that directly behind him were Weigh Anchor, another animal previously unheralded, and Mister Baileys, who palpably failed to stay even the 10 furlongs of that assignment. Further back was Party Season, who has subsequently won over 14 furlongs to prove that he is one of the few who will last home and that, at 100-1, he is the best-value outsider. Since York, Erhaab himself has been overtaken, by hype, and at the odds he represents poor investment.
King's Theatre and Linney Head, like another runner, Foyer, are the property of the Derby's most celebrated loser, Sheikh Mohammed. The man from Dubai, who has been the leading owner in Britain eight times, first had a runner in the race in 1982 when Jalmood was 14th. Since then another 10 have tried, and the best performance has been Barathea's fifth, 12 months ago.
His desire to win the race is evident from the entry list for next year's Derby. Of the 578 horses that were pencilled in at the first stage, 113 of them belonged to the Sheikh.
This is not to say that failure has reduced the man with the maroon and white colours to a gibbering wreck in one of his palaces in the Gulf. His trainers insist the Sheikh is waiting patiently for his year to come.
'He understands horses and he's perfectly aware that if you haven't got a horse for the job you can't win the Derby,' John Gosden, the Newmarket trainer, says. 'I'm a great believer that all things come in good time. Charlie Whittingham (the legendary American trainer) tried to win the Kentucky Derby for many years, and he won it when he was 73. Then he came back and won it when he was 75. I just hope Sheikh Mohammed doesn't have to wait that long.'
While King's Theatre and Foyer have question marks against them, it is Gosden's LINNEY HEAD (nap 3.45) who represents the Sheikh's best chance of squeezing the Derby trophy into his cabinet. The colt is unbeaten, the winner of a Derby trial, at Sandown, and has the breeding and aptitude to cover the 12 furlongs without exploding. He seeks to banish two hoodoos, his owner's and that of his sire Lyphard, who unnerved the racecourse gypsies in 1972 when taking an erratic route off Tattenham Corner in the hands of Freddie Head. 'He's a nice horse and should get the trip,' Gosden says. 'I just hope he gets round the bend better than his father. That Freddie in the fairground stuff wasn't a great effort.'
Sheikh Mohammed himself has been throwing balls at the coconut shy for some time now. Today he looks destined for his first strike.
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