Racing: Montjeu out to emulate Empery at Epsom

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ANDRe FABRE said some rather naughty things about the Derby recently. The Frenchman insisted the Blue Riband, the Holy Grail among Britain's trainers, the race we uphold above all others, was not actually what it was cracked up to be. And, he added for good measure, it rarely produced a decent stallion.

This line hardly stacks up with Fabre's record in the race. For a man who downgrades the contest he seems to have frequent stabs in the Derby. If he wins it, and he has not yet got close, it will be interesting to see if Fabre's opinion softens.

The little man does not appear to have an outstanding challenger for Epsom this season, but that does not mean a French-trained animal is without a chance. John Hammond, a former pupil of Fabre and now his Chantilly neighbour, could win the race for both England and France if Montjeu is successful on 5 June.

Some reports have it that Hammond was born within a horseshoe toss of Epsom racecourse. That is not quite true. "It was hardly birth in a cradle at Tattenham Corner," he says. "It was near Lewisham so me and 10 million others in the morass of south London could be considered Epsom locals.''

It is in the slightly more sylvan setting of Chantilly that Hammond has made his training name however. In 1991 he prepared Suave Dancer to take the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

Montjeu's establishment of a unblemished three-race record has drawn comparisons with the great horse, even if they have not come from the trainer himself. "It's too early to talk about comparisons really," Hammond says. "With horses like him [Montjeu] you have got to be a bit lucky. You've got to have a clear run at these big races. You have got to have untroubled preparation. That's crucial.''

It is not damaging though to have a colt with the sort of form Montjeu has already shown. Last season he beat Spadoun, who went on to land a Group One race. On his reappearance, Hammond's son of Sadler's Wells showed a pleasing turn of foot in the Prix Greffulhe at Longchamp. He appears to possess speed and stamina in equal abundance. "His dam won over a mile and threequarters so there is plenty of stamina on the dam's side," Hammond says. "There is every reason to believe he will stay.''

Montjeu is also an entry in the Prix du Jockey Club, but the fact that Michael Tabor bought a half-share in the horse last winter suggests that Epsom, for which he has been supplemented, will be his ultimate destination should he come through Sunday's Prix Lupin at Longchamp. "I wouldn't advise anyone to back him until after the weekend," Hammond says. "I think everyone is always gunshy about running at Epsom on firm ground because you can come home without a horse. So that would be a proviso. But he's a good- looking horse who has always gone nicely at home.''

Those who feel the need to get involved now can avail themselves of Ladbrokes' 12-1 in the hope that Montjeu can become the first horse for 23 years to win principally for France, and a little bit for England. Maurice Zilber's Empery was the victor in 1976, the man at the controls Lester Piggott.