Racing: Elsworth in the fast set with Express

The uncommon talent that trained Desert Orchid has crossed the tracks to join the Derby Day elite.
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The Independent Online
WITH JUST over 48 hours to go to the Derby, the images of the Blue Riband are beginning to sharpen. The anthill mound of the infield, the shining top hats and braces, the Queen's Stand stuffed full of more titles and hyphens than the New York Public Library.

It is in this environment that many will expect the 220th Derby to be won by a smart, shiny, well-connected chap of a trainer with proper connections. It should be him locked in victory with a majestic horse bearing a majestic appellation, moving across the Surrey skyline and dancing through the lightning. Nijinsky, Shergar and Golden Fleece are the sort of names.

As it is though, the world's premier Classic may be won by a former market stallholder and an unspectacular horse which sounds like the bus which stops outside Old Trafford. David Elsworth and Salford Express may not be the perfect representation of the sport of kings, but that does not diminish them. Indeed, as the racing power base contracts, there will be many wishing the diminutive chestnut and his cranky old trainer fair passage.

"It would be nice to have a bit of rough winning the Derby wouldn't it?" Elsworth said this week.

"It seems it's the same old faces at the Derby again, trainers with the best ones, Derby-potential horses, but if somebody like Mick Channon or Michael Jarvis or myself think we have a Derby horse then we'll have enough vision to have a go. Too many trainers don't think they can train a Derby winner and they dismiss it, which is silly as this is only a question of one horse going faster than another.

"We're not sure we can win the Derby mind, but we're quite definite that if we do so we'll be able to rejoice in it as well as anyone else. The celebrating wouldn't be a problem."

And with that, David Raymond Cecil Elsworth swung open the creaking door of his Laurent-Perrier champagne grotto, a room alternatively known until recently as the kitchen pantry.

When it comes to what may politely be termed as bons vivants, Elsworth has had few who could go with him over the years. Even earlier this week he was talking of a party attended the previous night and the alcohol consumption of others. He counted all the guests in and he counted most of them as they passed out.

If Elzy can stand a celebratory booze-up it is because he has had so much practice. As a National Hunt trainer in an earlier life, the trainer was peerless. Desert Orchid, Barnbrook Again, Floyd and Oh So Risky were tutored quite brilliantly at his academy. But, just at a time when the wins became commonplace, Elsworth lost his affection for the winter game.

"I think it's me," he says. "I've lost my balls. Jumping is very stressful and tough and when you train jumpers you're always getting the odd fatality. I think I got too old for it. It's a state of mind I arrived at.

"I had a horse break his leg one day called Fionans Flutter. He was a mad little bastard who used to try too hard and would die for you. He had no brains but he was a brilliant, athletic jumping horse.

"He went round the corner at Lingfield and hit one hard. He broke his shoulder. I got down there and I could see the horse. If he could have talked he would have asked me for help. I just lost my nerve."

Elsworth also lost his desire when he moved from his Whitsbury castle to Whitcombe Manor in Dorset, a location he now looks back on as "a prison". Back at his Hampshire base though, the old Elzy, as he approaches 60, has returned. The undisguised self-confidence, the barneys and swift reconciliations with his staff and training colleagues, and, once again, the ability to sniff out a bargain horse.

Island Sands was bought for 18,000gns and then sold to Godolphin last year on his way to winning the 2,000 Guineas. In the same batch, Elsworth had a plain chestnut which defied even his powers of prophecy. "He wasn't really a sales horse," Elsworth says. "He's not a great specimen and, as a yearling, he was very backward and weak-looking. He was actually a disappointing individual."

He was also cheap and related to Whitsbury winners however and so Elsworth speculated. "There was only one genuine bid," he says. "Ours. But when you buy yearlings you're not getting the complete article. You don't know how the animal is going to be and hopefully you can use a bit of foresight."

Elsworth never imagined this though. As first lot emerged through the mist and birdsong this week he indicated Salford Express, a little thing with a little white star on his face. There was no clashing of cymbals, no instant recognition of greatness, no look of eagles. Just another beast.

"You don't get great signals from the horse," Elsworth says. "There is no charisma or excitement about him. In fact, he seems quite ordinary, which may, of course, not be the case after Saturday.

"He's not an overdemonstrative horse at home and he just does enough. You wouldn't know he was a Derby horse any more than any of them. We didn't really know we had him."

Then Salford Express won at Newbury and followed up in the Derby's leading trial, York's Dante Stakes. Suddenly he was a contender. "This horse has crept up on me and when he won I saw a side of his character you wouldn't identify at home. It's not that he suddenly comes alive as soon as he goes to the racecourse. It's when they try to pass him that it looks difficult for everything else. The competitive side of his temperament arouses when he is in a fight.

"If he can win the Derby it would be great for the yard and I can assure you now that I'd never, ever stop talking about it. This horse is our product. Our creation." And even if he had nothing else at all to commend him then that alone would give Salford Express a chance when the stalls flap open at Epsom on Saturday afternoon.