Racing: Few odds quite as odd as these: Paul Hayward on the distortions of a Derby betting market which has Tenby favourite at 7-4 on

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SO HE must be a wonder horse - correct? Not so. Though Tenby will start a hotter odds-on fav ourite for the Derby than luminaries like El Gran Senor and Shergar, nobody accepts that 4-7 or 8-13 is an accurate representation of his chance. Least of all Michael Roberts, the champion jockey.

No surprise there, you might think, because on Wednesday at Epsom Roberts rides one of Tenby's chief rivals in Barathea. 'I know you mustn't knock horses who are unbeaten,' Roberts says, 'but what has Tenby beaten this season? I actually think Barathea has better form than him.'

If so, nobody told the bookmakers. While Tenby's price implies that he is the new Nijinsky or Mill Reef, Barathea is adrift at 10-1 despite finishing such a commendable second to Zafonic in the 2,000 Guineas and then winning the Irish equivalent at The Curragh. There are two reasons for the disparity. One is the widespread suspicion that Barathea's stamina will not stretch to a mile and a half, the other is that bookmakers prefer Barbados to Bournemouth for their holidays.

They have a mantra. Supply and demand, they insist, has made Tenby the sort of price that only millionaires might take. As Tenby has been on the scene a long time, the theory goes, British punters have been backing him for the Derby ever since he first appeared on a racecourse at Goodwood last summer. Liabilities. We have 'substantial liabilities', the bookies' handouts say, as if expecting sympathy. The unwritten subtext is: this gold mine is now closed.

Derby betting has seldom been so skewed. Barathea, a Classic winner, is a bigger price than Commander In Chief, who has run just three times and who scraped home at York last time in a pounds 9,000 race. The horse he beat by a neck there, Needle Gun, was not thought good enough for Epsom even by his perenially optimistic trainer, Clive Brittain. Similarly, Fatherland is shorter in most lists than Barathea despite losing to him at The Curragh and sharing the same genetic limitations in terms of staying power.

Not that anybody could resent a victory for Fatherland, who brings a tide of grandfatherly romance to an event in need of revival as a national festival. Vincent O'Brien and Lester Piggott have dispatched better horses to Epsom - try Sir Ivor, Nijinsky or The Minstrel - but never has their presence brought such relief to a racecourse pumping prize-money into the Derby to rescue it from decline. Piggott is pursuing his 10th Derby, O'Brien his seventh. On form, they won't make it.

Barathea, despite the shortcomings of his parents, is the only attractive each-way bet left. Those who recall Michael Dickinson training the first five home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup may convince themselves that his Wolf Prince has a chance, but their nostalgia will cost them.

Roberts says Barathea is 'by far' his best chance of winning the Derby at a time when many are questioning his decision to accept the job this season as first jockey to Sheikh Mohammed. Paradoxically, Roberts's alliance with the most powerful racehorse owner in the world looks like costing him his title as champion, because the Sheikh's horses have so far failed to supply the necessary flow of winners (numerically Roberts only just squeezes into the top 20).

Falling through the numbers table he may be, but Roberts remains the most accomplished strategist and thorough researcher in the weighing room, and it is those qualities he will apply to the conundrum of Barathea's suspect stamina. 'I'll have to nurse him. That's going to be the key', he says. 'The first half mile up that hill has been the crucial part of the race. A horse has got to be relaxed. After that they're coasting down towards the straight.

'You need a proper horse to win the Derby. He's got to be able to come down the hill (round Tattenham corner) but he's also got to be able to quicken up again when he hits the rising ground'. Here Roberts believes he may have found the formula to unravel Tenby and Commander In Chief, neither of whom possess spectacular acceleration. 'If we can produce him in the last furlong and a half then they'll have to be very good to beat us. I can say that because my horse has got speed whereas the others are gallopers.'

Nowhere is the Derby more beguiling than at that point early in the straight where the milers and mile-and-a-quarter horses reach the end of their rope. Again and again we see it. Barathea will almost certainly be there, probably just behind Tenby, who will not hang around in kindness to the non-stayers, but can he skip over that stamina chasm up the Epsom straight into which so many animals have collapsed? At 10-1 or better it has to be worth the risk.

So many currents are corroding the Derby's position as the world's pre-eminent Flat race. Every year the search for runners bred and reared to last the ultimate racing distance of one and a half miles yields fewer names. Such is the emphasis on speed and precocity now that a horse like Tenby is in danger of being regarded as a freak. Most punters' money on Wednesday will be lost on horses who fail to last the distance.

It emphasises again the dependence of British racing on the major Arab investors like Sheikh Mohammed and Khalid Abdullah, owner of both Tenby and Commander In Chief (as well as Armiger, who is unlikely to run on Wednesday). Abdullah more than anybody has patience to match his vast wealth, and so is prepared to uphold the tradition of middle- distance racing by creating later- maturing runners who can be guided towards the holy trinity of the Derby, King George and Arc.

Roberts is in the opposing camp, but believes the same rationale underpins his employer's breeding policy. 'It's disappointing that we haven't got three or four top Classic contenders like they've got, but I know that this is a nice job for the long term', he says. 'Good horses are coming on line year after year.'

Never mind the future. Roberts needs Barathea to be one now.

(Photograph omitted)