Racing: Epsom hope for which Bell toiled

The Derby
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ONE OF the admirable features of the equine species is what great levellers its members can be. There is no side to horses; they don't care who their parents were or what they cost, who owns them or, assuming a reasonable degree of competence, who trains them. It's they who make a truism of the saying that on or under the turf, all men are equal.

And the slightly unexpected talents of the bay colt called Housemaster - unfashionably-bred, owned by a syndicate, handled by one of Newmarket's younger generation of trainers - have given his connections an entree to the sport's most exciting party. In the Derby on Saturday he will line up to try to be the pooper overshadowing the rivalry between the great Arab and Anglo-Irish power blocs.

Fitzroy House, domain of the 38-year-old Michael Bell, is in the normal way of things one of Newmarket's cheeriest stable yards. But the fact of having a genuine Derby horse has put an extra spring in the steps of all, from Housemaster's lad Paul Turner outwards. The colt is in fact Bell's second runner in the Blue Riband, a pretty good record for someone only 10 years with a licence and with no Middle Eastern or millionaire owners. But whereas sixth or seventh place would have been regarded as a triumph for Maralinga, who started as a 200-1 no-hoper four years ago, Housemaster has been among the front rank in the betting since he passed the post first in the Chester Vase, a recognised Epsom trial, earlier this month.

Bell is not a total stranger to to success at the top level, having previously won the Group One Prix Morny at Deauville with the filly Hoh Magic. But he acknowledges that an occasion such as Saturday's is likely to be more of a rarity for him than for the better-known names on the other side of town, and as such must be savoured.

"This is the first realistic Derby horse we've ever had, and may be the last for a while," he said. "The big boys are always preparing this sort of horse as a matter of course. Their horses are bred to perform at this level and although there's no guarantee they will, it's no surprise when they do. But the majority of mine are competing in Class D handicaps. If you've got only a limited budget then the vast majority of horses in that bracket are going to be average and no more. But just occasionally, one, like this one, will bob up, and suddenly you've got a horse good enough to be running on the centre stage."

Bell learned his training skills in two different schools, first with Mercy Rimell and then as assistant to Paul Cole. The son of a master of foxhounds, he was brought up with horses in Gloucestershire and decided to make them his living while serving in the Life Guards. "I used to ride in soldiers' races, and it struck me when I was riding out and getting ready for them that I was much happier surrounded by horses than being on the tank park."

In his final season with Cole, his father Brian's filly Pass The Peace won the Cheveley Park Stakes. As planned, Bell took over her care when he moved to Newmarket and she ran second in the French 1,000 Guineas, proving a splendid standard-bearer for the new venture. "When you start the first idea is to keep in business, and the next stage is to be successful" he said. "Pass The Peace, who was a cheap yearling, was the luck I needed. If I'd made a nonsense of her that would have been the finish, but I didn't and everyone wanted to know who I was. She not only raised my profile, but my father sold her to Sheikh Mohammed as a broodmare, and part of that profit enabled me to buy the yard."

To a certain extent, Bell was handed a silver spoon. But he had to do his own digging with it, and the result is that Fitzroy House, just off the High Street, is chock-full of 85 horses.

As a 72,000 guineas yearling, Housemaster was not exactly cheap by many standards, but he by no means cost a Sheikh's ransom either. He has 30 owners, including a building society director, a farmer, a sugar trader and a restaurateur. They are shareholders in Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, a fairly up-market and thus-far extremely successful group of syndicates. Other good horses to have run in the blue colours include the crack sprinters Lake Coniston and Tamarisk.

Housemaster is the most expensive horse by his sire, Rudimentary, ever sold, and owes his price-tag to his outstanding looks. But he has proved to have an engine to go with the bodywork, and even if everthing did not go exactly to plan at Chester, where he lost the Vase in the stewards' room after an error by his jockey, Richard Quinn, hopes are high that recompense awaits.

Quinn has opted to ride another trial winner, Lucido, in the Derby so Willie Ryan, successful on Benny The Dip two years ago, takes over the reins on Housemaster. "I think - I hope - Richard's decision was political as he gets a lot of rides from John Dunlop and perhaps had more to lose by not riding Lucido than by not riding Housemaster. But talking to him I think he was pretty close to riding mine, which bearing in mind the Dunlop factor shows how highly he must rate him.

"For a big horse he's athletic and well-balanced. You need a huge amount of luck around Epsom but he'll have the speed to hold a good early position. And he's already won over the trip. The dream - every trainer's, every owner's, every stable lad's - is up and running."