Once, those 150 seconds of gruelling activity at Epsom would have been enough for the most demanding of audiences. These days, the Derby is simply the final scene of Act Three, just before everyone goes off to locate their interval drinks. When they return to their seats for Acts Four and Five, they expect to see the new hero pick up where he left off, by beating both his peers and his elders.
But in each of the last three performances, he has managed instead to lose the plot entirely. Shaamit, Benny The Dip and High-Rise - who is still in training and is now with Godolphin - have not managed a single subsequent victory between them. If Oath wins anything at all between now and the check-in at the stud farm, it will seem almost like an exception to the rule.
It is thoughts like that which gnaw away at the Derby's status, and will place an extra burden on Oath's shoulders when next he pokes his head through a starting stall. That could be as soon as the end of this month, in the Irish Derby, particularly since Prince Ahmed Salman, his fortunate owner, has Royal Anthem to represent him in the King George at Ascot, a race which proved too tough an assignment for both Shaamit and High- Rise.
"He has come back fine and he is in the Irish Derby but they are not machines and we will have to see how he is," Cecil said yesterday. "I want to keep him to his own age group as he's only a medium-sized horse. We will leave our options open but it is more probable that after discussions with the Prince, we will go the three-year-old route."
Drenching sleet chased the racegoers away from Epsom on Saturday evening, and as we sat, damp, cold and gently steaming, in trains and cars which refused to move, it was hardly a fair moment to reflect on Oath's performance. Even after a change of clothes and a night's sleep, though, it is a difficult race to get excited about, because it told us so little that we did not already know, beyond the obvious fact that Oath gets 12 furlongs well. He is a talented colt who travels sweetly in his races and quickens when asked, but that much was clear after the Dee Stakes in May.
Attempts to make sense of it all were not aided by the performance of Lucido, who had beaten both Oath and Daliapour, the runner-up on Saturday, earlier in the season. He finished second-last, which makes the pounds 75,000 fee paid to get him into the race last weekend look like one of the most misguided punts since the days when Terry Ramsden stalked the ring.
John Dunlop, Lucido's trainer, was mystified by his performance, and no closer to finding a solution yesterday morning. "To all intents and purposes, he is absolutely 100 per cent," he said. "We scoped him at the course, he trotted up sound and he has eaten up, so that makes it all the more mysterious. We will run another blood test on him, but the first indications are that there is nothing to explain his poor running."
It seems that the merit of the Epsom form will, as usual, be tested first in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot next week, when both Housemaster (4th) and Salford Express (14th) are expected to feature among the runners.
Oath's real worth remains to be seen, though it should be remembered that at the same stage, Lammtarra's victory looked no more praiseworthy, and he went on to win the King George and the Arc. One reputation, though, is already secure. Kieren Fallon went into Saturday's race as a dual champion, but without the Derby success over Epsom's treacherous undulations without which no top jockey can ever feel complete. His mount was a willing companion, it's true, with the speed to take a good position even from the worst stall position, but Fallon's execution of the text-book Epsom ride was ice-cool and flawless.
Cecil, meanwhile, has proved that there is life after Sheikh Mohammed. He has not merely survived the foundation of Godolphin and the messy split with the Sheikh which followed a couple of seasons later, he has flourished. He may have been fortunate to happen upon Fahd Salman's younger brother just when stable space had unexpectedly become available. Like his jockey, though, he has the priceless knack of being able to make the best of every situation.
Had Enrique been able to find running room at a crucial moment in the 2,000 Guineas, Cecil would now be one St Leger away from an extraordinary clean sweep of the British Classics. With Ramruma, the Oaks winner, and perhaps even Oath to represent him at Doncaster, he will certainly fancy his chances of making it four out of five.
As for the dear old Derby itself, there are still thousands of people who love it enough to risk pneumonia out on the Hill, even though a drink or three in front of the England game in the pub was a serious alternative. And as it turned out, the sports fans at Epsom had a much better time than the ones at Wembley. Kevin Keegan, an owner himself, might not agree, but racing at least can see that as a cause for celebration.
Saturday's results, page 9Reuse content