Racing: Derby relies on Dante for a saviour: A convincing performance is needed on the Knavesmire to breathe life into the Blue Riband

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IN TIMES of old, the Knavesmire was used as a place of execution. The three-day Dante meeting at York's racecourse this week may have the opposite effect, by breathing life into a moribund Derby.

These days it is common to hear the Derby referred to as sub-standard, but seldom has the critics' ammunition dump been piled so high. At close of play yesterday, Ladbrokes had bracketed three horses at the top of their market at 8-1 - Mister Baileys, Broadway Flyer and Bal Harbour.

A double take might be needed for the last entry (a horse cut from 12-1 yesterday, who runs on Thursday in the Michael Seely Memorial Glasgow Stakes). Yes, it is the same Bal Harbour who won a five-runner race on Newmarket's July course last season before finishing last of four in Doncaster's Champagne Stakes, the same animal Henry Cecil says is at least two gallops behind schedule.

Broadway Flyer at least has two wins to his name this year (even though there is not the flimsiest evidence to say he has beaten anything of calibre). Amusingly, one of the arguments for him is that Pat Eddery thinks he is good, an opinion voiced after the colt's win in last week's Chester Vase.

While the history of Britain's oldest racecourse stretches back some way, the same cannot be said of old Pat's memory, and he has a reputation for deeming the last decent performance he has seen as the greatest ever. Racegoers are by now able to mouth along with his slogan, the one that is a dream to sofa salesman, 'that's the best one I've ever sat on'.

Mister Baileys, though, has a little thing called form behind him, having won the fastest 2,000 Guineas seen by man. He was cut yesterday by Coral from 5-2 to 9-4 for tomorrow's Dante Stakes, the only race that can now come to the rescue of the Derby. The 'trial' at Lingfield on Saturday was won by Hawker's News, the only horse in the race not entered at Epsom, while only those who can remember Showaddywaddy recall the time that next week's Predominate Stakes at Goodwood last gave us a Derby winner (Troy in 1979).).

Mister Baileys, then, and a competitive field including King's Theatre, Linney Head and Erhaab, have a lot on their withers. While the horses do not feel the pressure, it is inevitable that iron filings of doubt are attracted by their trainers. Since Mister Baileys' success over the Rowley Mile, Mark Johnston, the arriviste in Classic-winning circles, has had to remind himself of a Sinatra number. 'I keep having to tell myself I must not change my style of training, to do things my way,' the Middleham trainer says. 'That's got me here, so it would be a disaster to try to copy everyone else.'

The theme that runs through Johnston's training is his willingness to race his string, and he sends out Mister Baileys this week in the face of many who consider the colt should go straight for the Derby. 'We're not scared of running regularly and we're not scared of getting beaten,' the trainer says. 'If we get beaten we just have to bounce back again, and that's always going to be the attitude.

'I can see a situation where Mister Baileys is beaten in the Dante and still runs in, and wins, the Derby.' These are big days for Mister Baileys, who will be worth a ludicrously large amount for an animal if he can prove he has stamina as well as speed. Yet Johnston knows he must not transmit any anxiety to his charge. 'We must treat the horse like we've always treated him,' he says. 'Feed him plenty, just keep him fit at home, and let him do his racing on the racecourse.'

True to his word, Johnston has kept the colt busy, and on Saturday he did a five-furlong canter and a steady canter over 12 furlongs. In the course of this he lost three kilos, as much as some horses lose in a race.

After a quiet couple of days Mister Baileys is expected to be at a peak for the Dante, when either he or another in the field needs to win with authority to give Epsom some bite. At the moment, the Derby, a race for which crowds and interest have fallen, has a noose around its neck for the 1994 running.

The dependants of Steve Wood, who was killed at Lingfield on Friday, are to receive pounds 150,000 under the Professional Riders Insurance Scheme, which is funded by owners paying a surcharge on riding fees.