Racing: Empire strikes and so do the stable staff

The favourite for next year's 2,000 Guineas and Derby, Aidan O'Brien's Second Empire, reinforced his reputation yesterday at Longchamp, where striking stable staff proved his most difficult obstacle. Greg Wood reports.

While British clerks of the course wrestle with the problems of rain and frost, an altogether more bizarre disruption faced their counterpart at Longchamp yesterday, as the card which included the Group One Grand Criterium, one of the most important two-year-old races of the season, was placed in jeopardy by a posse of angry stablehands.

Poor pay and conditions are as much a fact of life for staff in French yards as they are in Britain, but on the other side of the Channel, they are not afraid to take direct action to demonstrate their annoyance. A dispute over a rule which would have allowed trainers to sack stablehands who weighed more than 65 kilos was negotiated to a settlement, but a series of unresolved issues, involving wages, rest times and security, prompted a picket yesterday morning of one of the country's biggest horse transport companies

This prevented many horses from making their way to Longchamp, and while the five runners for the Grand Criterium, due to be the third race on the card, arrived without mishap, almost half of the field for the second race did not. This had serious betting implications, since the second race was the basis for the daily Tierce, the Tricast-style bet which is by far the most popular in France. Eventually, 16 of the 18 runners for the Tierce made it to the track, and the second, third and fourth races went ahead almost three hours late, with the remainder of the meeting either postponed or abandoned.

For punters in Britain, meanwhile, the Grand Criterium was far more interesting, with Second Empire, the ante-post favourite for next year's Derby, among the runners. Michael Tabor announced over the weekend that Entrepreneur, the 2,000 Guineas winner, has been retired to stud, but he has found another serious Classic prospect in Second Empire, who recorded an easy win in a Group Three event at Longchamp last month and made short work of the step up to Group One company at the same course yesterday.

Aidan O'Brien's colt, with Michael Kinane in the saddle, did not need any serious encouragement from his rider to beat Charge D'Affaires by three quarters of a length, and was immediately cut to 4-1 favourite for next year's 2,000 Guineas by William Hill. The same firm cut his Derby odds to 8-1 from 12-1, but it is also worth noting that the runner-up yesterday provides a useful line to one of the season's other leading two-year-olds, Xaar. The latter, who is trained by Andre Fabre and prominent in ante-post betting on next year's 2,000 Guineas, beat Charge D'Affaires by three lengths in the Group One Prix de la Salamandre three weeks ago, and will clearly take some beating when he lines up against Daggers Drawn in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket on Saturday.

Second Empire will doubtless find some supporters for next year's Classics even at his new, truncated odds, but there was a reminder yesterday that when it comes to racehorses and long-range targets, you can never take anything for granted. Clerkenwell, last year's Ebor winner, has been campaigned all season with just one race in mind, the Melbourne Cup at Flemington next month, and did not even make his seasonal debut until the first week of September. After months of careful preparation, however, a virus has intervened and he will not be making the trip to the Antipodes.

"Clerkenwell scoped badly yesterday," Anthony Stroud, Sheikh Mohammed's racing manager, said yesterday. "It is very disappointing he looked the right sort of horse. He had a good preparation for the race and had what looked to us a good weight, and it would have been a challenge on a new frontier."

The potential British challenge for the Cup is now down to just two runners, Arabian Story and Harbour Dues. Lord Huntingdon, Arabian Story's trainer, reported yesterday that his horse is well and will travel to Australia next week, with Frankie Dettori expected to ride in the big race on 4 November.