Racing Commentary: Derby form suffers a total Eclipse: With Erhaab's Blue Riband in tatters, the Classic colts face a daunting King George challenge

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The Independent Online
THE ECLIPSE STAKES, so regularly a celebration, was little more than a burial on Saturday. It was a race which Ezzoud won, but more notably the Derby winner, Erhaab, back in third, lost, at the same time shovelling the final clods of soil on to the reputation of this year's Epsom Classic.

The portents grumbled last Sunday when Balanchine disposed of the Derby second and third, King's Theatre and Colonel Collins, in the Irish equivalent at the Curragh, but it was Erhaab's defeat which finally brought down the pile of cards. Six of the first seven finishers from the first Wednesday in June have now run again, and all six have lost. This does not usually happen.

Derby winners generate a strange allegiance in racing's network. Rather like in the Eurovision Song Contest, their performance is followed as a barometer of British well-being. Erhaab's form, however, now looks no more melodic than 'nul points' Norway.

Even John Dunlop, the colt's trainer, was forced to concede that what appeared to be a Ferrari at Epsom may have been nothing more than a middle-aged pavement jogger overtaking grannies.

'Certainly last Sunday's race in Ireland opened one's eyes somewhat, the way the filly annihilated the colts, and it's a distinct possibility that the Derby form is not as good as it looked,' he said yesterday. 'It looks as though he quickened past non-stayers who can't be that good either.'

Saturday's was not a victory for paddock watchers. Ezzoud was on the least-likely list as milky sweat dribbled from him, like latex from a rubber tree; Erhaab, though, looked the model professional as he circled softly. However, Willie Carson, the favourite's jockey, later came out with the sentiment of the campfire cowboys as the Indians close in. It was, he said, too quiet out there.

Dunlop, though, refused to make any excuses yesterday, reporting that Erhaab was stiff, but labouring no more than he would expect after a Group One race. Indeed, the Arundel man would say his colt's eclipse was nothing more than 'disappointing'; Dunlop is not inclined to describe the performances of racehorses in terms of tragedy.

He believes that Erhaab may yet get back on the plinth. 'It could be that the older horses were that much stronger in the final furlong after they'd gone that fast,' he said. 'Mine's a very late foal and the others were seasoned, tough horses who have done a lot of racing. Let's wait for the next round.'

That will come in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot this month, when Ezzoud and Erhaab, plus Saturday's runner-up, Bob's Return, will meet again. For those who have lauded Erhaab, the worrying realisation is that even more daunting opposition will turn up that day.

Ezzoud is capable of useful form, but a career record of five wins from 18 starts is not the return of a supreme animal. Saturday's victory was his first in four starts this season. 'He's done nothing wrong this year,' Michael Stoute, the five-year- old's trainer, assured the multitude. 'He got murdered in the (Prix) Ganay, the ground was too soft at the Curragh and he got pushed out on the bend at Ascot.' It was a good job he won at Sandown as Stoute was left with Venus not being in conjuction with Mercury as his only remaining excuse.

In truth, Ezzoud and Bob's Return are not outstanding among the older horses. If, for example, White Muzzle came into their yards, they might not be able to resist the temptation to bow. Neither, even, may be as good as Muhtarram, who, like Erhaab, is owned by Hamdan Al Maktoum.

The John Gosden-trained colt was second to Apple Tree in the Grand Prix de Saint- Cloud yesterday and the post- race comments of Willie Carson suggested Sheikh Hamdan may have got his horses the wrong way round when he plotted the weekend assignments. 'The trip was slightly on the long side for Muhtarram,' the Scot said.

(Photograph omitted)