Racing: Mohammed aims to get a grip on Roses

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The Independent Online
THEY ARE big on tradition at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, when tens of thousands of race fans gather for the Kentucky Derby, the oldest continually-held sporting event in America. The crowd will sing "My Old Kentucky Home" as the horses go to post, and the winner will be garlanded with 500 roses, a practice which started in the 1890s. All the while, mint juleps - ice, mint syrup and two shots of bourbon - will slide down as fast as the bars can serve them.

But amid all the annual excitement tomorrow evening, there will be a new arrival too, a man who has not been a great respecter of racing traditions in recent years. When people told Sheikh Mohammed that horses were not good travellers, or that taking them to Dubai for the winter and then sending them to the Guineas without a prep race could never work, he simply proved them wrong. Now, though, the five-year-old Godolphin operation faces its most demanding assignment, as it sends two lightly raced runners in against the American tough-nuts in the 125th Run for the Roses.

Aljabr is the one that most British punters will have heard of, since he was one of the best juveniles in the country last season. The Americans, though, are much more interested in the chance of Worldly Manner, who was the finest two-year-old in the States last year until his owners received one of those phone calls which have become familiar to many British owners, and duly accepted the offer they could not refuse.

For all their obvious talent last season, though, the trackside pundits in the Bluegrass remain sceptical about the Godolphin challengers, principally because neither has yet run - in public at least - as a three-year-old. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby on his seasonal debut was Regret, in 1915. Sheikh Mohammed makes a habit of defying the odds, but this is a big trend to buck, even by his standards.

When the draw was made for tomorrow night's post positions, Worldly Manner was placed in box 12, while Aljabr will leave number five, towards the outside. Locals believe that the draw is of little significance in the Derby, however, and a more important difference between Godolphin's runners could be the relative experience of their riders.

Worldly Manner will be ridden by Jerry Bailey, one of the world's most successful jockeys and a man who could pick the perfect path around Churchill Downs in a blindfold. Aljabr, though, will be partnered by Daragh O'Donoghue, after two American pilots turned down the ride. O'Donoghue is a talented young jockey, but one with no experience even of British Classics, let alone the most important race in the American calendar.

In the latest betting, Aljabr and Worldly Manner are coupled at 12-1, while trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the last two runnings, appears to hold all the best cards again. His filly Excellent Meeting - who could yet run in today's Kentucky Oaks instead - is joint-favourite with her stablemate, General Challenge, at 3-1, while the next horse in the list, Prime Timber at 7-2, is also trained by Baffert. General Challenge and Prime Timber were first and second respectively in one of the major trials for Kentucky, the Santa Anita Derby.

Other leading American contenders in the 20-runner field are Menifee (Elliott Walden), Vicar (Carl Nafzger) and Cat Thief (D Wayne Lukas), while the most controversial winner would surely be Valhol, the recent winner of the Arkansas Derby.

After that race, there were allegations that Billy Patin, Valhol's jockey, had used an "electrical device" to persuade his mount to run faster, and Patin will have to answer the charge at a hearing on 5 May. In the meantime, Valhol will be allowed to take his chance in the Derby, though with a new rider, Willie Martinez, in the plate.

There was little movement in the 2,000 Guineas market yesterday after 17 horses were left in at the final declaration stage. Godolphin will have two runners, Islands Sands (Frankie Dettori) and Easaar (Michael Roberts), while Aidan O'Brien will, as expected, rely on Orpen, who is 4-1 joint-favourite for the Classic with Enrique.

The final declarations will be made this morning for the 1,000 Guineas on Sunday, with only 23 places available to the 27 fillies still entered. Bountiful Lady, trained by Sir Michael Stoute, will be the first to be balloted out if the safety limit is exceeded, although she will be held on a reserve list in case of a last-minute mishap to another runner.

The feature race of the first day of the Guineas meeting is the Jockey Club Stakes, in which the doughty mare Borgia, now trained by Andre Fabre, takes on the 1997 St Leger winner, Silver Patriarch. Rabah (3.10) could have the beating of them both, though, while Zippergate (3.40) needed his debut at Kempton and should find today's track and trip more to his liking.