Racing: Desert deserves his dues

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MOST PUNTERS could tell you which horse did not win the Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh back in May. Even now, the memory of Christy Roche sitting as still as the grave on the hot favourite, Second Empire, well inside the final furlong can cause those who backed him to awake in the small hours with a banshee scream. It might take a few more seconds, though, for the same punters to recall the name of the colt who beat him into third.

That horse was Desert Prince, who must be one of the most loyal and dependable animals in training, with nine races to his name, many of them at the highest level, and not a bad run among them. Yet reliability alone does not guarantee a place in the public's affection. David Loder's colt has won two Group One contests this season - the Prix du Moulin at Longchamp earlier this month was the other - but he remains a relative stranger to British backers and racegoers.

But not, perhaps, for much longer. The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot this Saturday, the feature event on the first day of the Festival of Racing, will pull together most of the best milers in Europe, and Desert Prince will not only be among them, he will probably start favourite, too. Those behind him in the betting could include Among Men, the Sussex Stakes winner, Dr Fong, who beat Desert Prince by a neck in the St James's Palace Stakes at Ascot, and, the most tantalising prospect of all, Second Empire, the colt who stole his limelight all those months ago.

Aidan O'Brien, Second Empire's trainer, will decide after a gallop this morning whether to send him to Ascot (although whether he will bother to share his decision with anyone else is another matter). Desert Prince will still be the horse to beat, though, as he tries to send David Loder off to his new job in France with another Group One winner to his name.

From next season, Loder will be resident at what used to be Evry racecourse, south of Paris, where he will prepare the best of the Godolphin organisation's two-year-olds. A valedictory success for Desert Prince would be particularly satisfying, since it would go a long way towards fulfilling a brave prediction of 18 months ago.

"He's a lovely horse and he's been one of my favourites since the first day he walked into the yard," Loder said yesterday. "I made the very bold statement to his owner in the March of his two-year-old career that he was the best horse I've ever trained, and he and I have been trying to live up to that billing ever since. I feel a bit sorry for the horse because he hasn't really had the credit he deserves, but he's run in all the best races that were available for him to run in since his debut, so he's done very well."

Few horses win two Group One races in a season, and only the very finest collect three. For all that there are several other previous Group One winners among Saturday's entries, though, the race could almost have been tailor-made for Desert Prince.

After his narrow defeat by Dr Fong at the Royal meeting in June, there was talk of a pacemaker for the colt in future races, but the horse which Loder had in mind for the task was sold soon afterwards. This weekend, though, there is no need to worry, since John Gosden's Muhtathir, a front- runner, is likely to set a healthy pace. With Oliver Peslier, who won last year's QEII on Air Express, booked to ride, it could be that Desert Prince will start considerably shorter than his current price of 3-1.

If all goes well on Saturday, Desert Prince will check in soon afterwards for a flight to America and the Breeders' Cup Mile at Churchill Downs in early November, shortly before his trainer boards a plane for a shorter trip in the opposite direction. The betting must be that both will do so with Ascot's winners' enclosure still fresh in their memories.