Racing: Gulland has to make Derby case

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IT WAS not difficult immediately after the Craven Stakes at Newmarket last month to spot those who had backed Gulland for the Derby before the race. The air of smugness surrounding them, not to mention the heat from the 25-1 tickets burning holes in their pockets, could be felt 20 yards away, such was the promise of Gulland's narrow defeat by the horse everyone reckoned was a certainty for the 2,000 Guineas, Xaar.

Three weeks later, the confident grins are less apparent and the holiday plans are on hold. True, Gulland is still among the favourites for Epsom, and at odds far removed from those available before the Craven, but the form of that race has taken two heavy blows to the body. First there was the dismal performance of Circus, who finished third at Newmarket, in the Classic Trial at Sandown, and then the failure of Xaar to win the Guineas.

If the form of Gulland's seasonal debut was that of a Derby winner, it seems that the horse cannot rely on others to prove the point. Instead, he must do so himself in today's Chester Vase, in which nothing but a clear-cut win will do.

Just four opponents line up against Gulland, and it is of little help to punters that one of his more significant rivals is a fellow resident of Geoff Wragg's stable, Ridgeway. With Peter Chapple-Hyam also saddling two runners, the race is something of the private sweepstake.

Tactics may play their part too with such a small field, and the first point to make is that it is hardly a race to treat as a serious betting medium. Gulland has every right to start as favourite, not least since all the signs are that the eight furlongs of the Craven Stakes was very much a minimum trip, and significant improvement can be anticipated over today's Derby trip of a mile and a half. A muddling pace or an adverse reaction to Chester's unique topography could easily be enough to beat him, though, and careful post-race study of the result is the only investment worth making.

The same is true, in fact, of much of today's televised card, since coverage does not extend to the competitive handicaps - one of them a Showcase race - which close proceedings. Instead, the programme opens with a juvenile event, which Golden Silca (2.10) should win from his prime draw, and a maiden which holds Derby clues of its own.

These are of the oblique variety, since Hawadeth and Way Out Yonder both attempt to open their account following good runs behind Greek Dance at Newmarket last month. Greek Dance is a 14-1 chance for Epsom after his success at Headquarters, and will be a little shorter this evening if either of those two wins today, but it may be that he, like Gulland, will have to prove himself personally, since Quintus (2.40) returns to maiden company after some good runs in handicaps.

The only handicap for Channel 4 viewers is a slightly sub-standard event given the usual quality of this meeting. Most of those to have run this season have not shown any form worth relying on, so it may be that FLINT KNAPPER (nap 3.40), a lightly raced handicapper who finished his 1997 campaign with an impressive victory, can continue where he left off. Demolition Jo (next best 4.10) is also worth a modest interest.

CHESTER VASE: Stanley: 1-2 Gulland, 4-1 The Glow-Worm, 13-2 Distant Mirage, 11-1 Ridgeway, 14-1 Seignorial; Tote: 8-15 Gulland, 9-2 The Glow-Worm, 13-2 Ridgeway, 7-1 Distant Mirage, 16-1 Seignorial.


NAP: Almond Rock

(Chester 3.40)

NB: Golden Silca

(Chester 2.10)