Racing Commentary: Arms fends off British raiders: The French Derby proves a double-edged weapon for those who argue for major changes to the Epsom original

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The Independent Online
SEVEN DAYS ago, the omens were not encouraging, but once again the Derby seems to have confounded its critics. The victory of Celtic Arms in a blanket finish to yesterday's Prix de Jockey Club (French Derby) implies that, at the very least, the original version at Epsom on Wednesday was the best three-year-old contest which the European season has seen.

For both supporters and detractors of Britain's premier Classic, attention at Chantilly yesterday was focused on three British-trained colts, Cicerao, Hawker's News and Alriffa. All three won recognised Derby trials but were not entered for the race itself, and were therefore forced to take advantage of the French contest's supplementary entry stage.

Two furlongs from home, it seemed that Cicerao, trained by Henry Cecil and ridden by Walter Swinburn, was making a winning run. He could not sustain the effort, though, and it was left to Gerard Mosse, on Pascal Bary's Celtic Arms, to seize the prize for France in the dying strides. He beat Solid Illusion, with Alriffa, in third, the best of the British challengers. Paul Cole's Strategic Choice finished fifth and Cicerao faded into sixth.

Michael Stoute's Hawker's News was an inglorious 12th (though he did at least beat the Andre Fabre-trained filly Moonlight Dance, who started favourite but came home 13th of 15).

Alriffa's connections felt that their runner's low draw contributed to his defeat. 'I had to race wide the whole way,' John Reid, his jockey, said. By finishing third, Alriffa recouped his pounds 30,000 supplementary entry fee, but this (and more) may now be reinvested to get the colt into the Irish Derby on 26 June. Celtic Arms would also need to be supplemented to run at The Curragh, but his trainer seemed far from convinced after yesterday's race that, at IR pounds 60,000, it is a price worth paying.

That fact alone might indicate that had Celtic Arms, Alriffa and the rest appeared at Epsom rather than Chantilly, their only possible influence on the result would have been to increase Willie Carson's traffic problems.

In the aftermath of Carson's hard-won victory, and Willie Ryan's fortunate escape from injury after being unseated from Foyer, there were calls - particularly from the riders - to reduce the size of the field (18 was a figure mentioned by Carson) or introduce a quality threshold on the runners.

While jockeys' views on safety issues must always be respected, such a reaction to Wednesday's rough race would be misguided. A quality criterion is surely a non- starter - how long would it be before a beautifully-bred, 20-length maiden winner from a major yard was excluded because it did not have a rating? Even with a smaller field there will always be no- hopers setting off at a miler's pace as they try to lead around Tattenham Corner. Carson was forced to earn his fee on Wednesday, but in the end, the best horse still won.

It would be better to concentrate on the positive aspects of last week's race. On the Goebbels principal - say something often enough and people will accept it - it now seems likely that the Derby will move from its traditional midweek position to a Saturday or Sunday, possibly as soon as next year. This, apparently, will 'revitalise' the Classic.

On Wednesday, though, there was no shortage of vitality as first one colt and then another appeared to have grasped victory during a frantic run up the straight. It is true that many of the supporting races at the Derby meeting are uninspiring, but the Derby's main problem may be the old-fashioned expectations placed upon it, which a move to the weekend cannot address.

A combination of modern, kid-glove training regimes and the continuing increase in international competition means the Derby can no longer be the definitive contest between the Classic generation's obvious leaders, or the sole peak of the year. (As if to emphasise the turf's ever- expanding horizons, Saturday's Oaks was won by Balanchine, a graduate of the Maktoum brothers' scheme to send good juveniles to winter in the sunshine of Dubai).

Yet for all the changes around it, the Derby will always be a marvellous starting point for the middle-distance season, and an essential prize for a genuine champion. We must simply learn to love it for what it is, not for what it was.

(Photograph omitted)