Racing: Commander beats a retreat from Epsom: A Derby hope is likely to be rerouted to Royal Ascot. Richard Edmondson reports from York

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The Independent Online
A FIRST log on the track for the Khalid Abdullah express here yesterday, as Commander In Chief failed to exhibit the aplomb expected of prospective Derby winners.

The Arab owner, who has a stock of Classic aspirants, saw Commander In Chief preserve his unbeaten record in the Glasgow Stakes, but the manner of success suggested Epsom will be too difficult, and too soon, for this fledgling racehorse.

Morston's 1973 record as the last horse to win a Derby without a run as a two-year-old looks secure.

Commander In Chief has been removed from Ladbrokes' Classic market and was knocked out by others yesterday as his stablemate Tenby shrank further in the list. Wednesday's Dante Stakes winner was reduced to 4-6 as his potential challengers continue to melt away.

Tenby is such a frightening figure now that the 214th Derby threatens to be one of the most uncompetitive in living memory. The 1970 field when Nijinsky beat 10 opponents may look like a stampede when compared with the assembly on 2 June.

For much of yesterday's race, Commander In Chief looked as though he would mirror Tenby's pillar-to-post victory earlier in the meeting. But the colt's jockey, Pat Eddery, had to resort to frantic movements inside the final furlong to repel the challenge of Needle Gun.

As the runner-up's trainer, Clive Brittain, later reported his horse had been held up in his work and would come on 10lb for this venture, there was little cause for celebration among those behind Commander In Chief.

Henry Cecil, the colt's trainer, did manage to find a straw to hang on to, however. 'It's the first time he's had to race and I liked the way he did it,' he said. 'That will have done him a lot of good.'

Post-race discussions are routinely the most noncommittal of exercises, but there was enough here to suggest that if Commander In Chief is to appear before a dress-suited crowd it is more likely to be at Royal Ascot than Epsom.

Was Cecil convinced this horse was ready for the Derby? 'I'm not saying, but he definitely needed that experience today,' replied the Newmarket trainer.

'He's got great potential and he's going to be a lovely horse,' he added, with the insinuation that the full ripening of Commander In Chief would not come in the next three weeks. He was even persuaded to mention the St Leger as a long-term project.

Cecil's belief that there is more to come stemmed partially from his briefing with Eddery. 'Pat said he wasn't concentrating (the horse, presumably) and that he was a big baby,' he said.

The Irishman himself was less equivocal about Commander In Chief. 'He is not experienced and I don't think he is mature enough for the Derby,' he said. 'He was playing about with me there and that horse nearly came and beat me.

'His first race was too easy and I think the second probably was as well and that's the first time he's had to wake up.' The next time is likely to be in the King Edward VII Stakes on the first day of Royal Ascot, while Cecil's Armiger has a much earlier appointment - Sunday's Prix Lupin at Longchamp.

The programme for Assessor, Richard Hannon's winner of the Yorkshire Cup yesterday, is also likely to include races in France. The four-year-old is a unique animal in that he performs best when apparently travelling badly.

'He's no good on a tight rein,' Hannon said. 'When he's being scrubbed along like today I know the pace is right for him and that he's got a chance.'

Assessor's travels will now be determined by an outside force, and Hannon will be a happy man if he has to replace the windscreen wipers on Assessor's horsebox this season. 'He'll be an even better horse when we get some rain,' he said. 'We'll be following the weather.'

DERBY (Epsom, 2 June): Coral: 4-6 Tenby, 6-1 Barathea, 7 Armiger, 10 Commander In Chief, 20 Planetary Aspect; Ladbrokes: 4-6 Tenby, 8 Armiger & Barathea, 16 others; Hills: 4-6 Tenby, 7 Armiger & Barathea, 12 Commander In Chief, 20 Planetary Aspect.

(Photograph omitted)

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