Racing: Oath heads Montjeu on bookies' card

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The Independent Online
THE RELATIVE merits of the weekend's Derbys in England and France will remain a matter of opinion until their winners meet, probably in the Irish Derby at the Curragh in less than three weeks' time. Two significant opinions became clear yesterday, however, when the form was crystallised into the sort of numbers that punters can do business with, namely ratings and odds.

Nigel Gray, the BHB handicapper with responsibility for middle distances, said yesterday that Oath, the Epsom winner, had been rated 123, 2lb below High-Rise, last year's winner, at the same stage of his career, but the equal of both Lammtarra and Shaamit, the winners in 1995 and 1996. Benny The Dip, who won the Classic two years ago, earned a mark of 124.

"All the recent Derby winners have been rated in the low to mid-120s immediately after Epsom and Oath is well up to that standard," Gray said. "Oath has shown improvement with every race. He went into the Derby on 117 after his five-length Dee Stakes win and with the rise in trip he looks to have progressed again. The form looks solid as Daliapour [runner- up on Saturday] had a similar rating to High-Rise after the Lingfield Trial and has clearly run his best race."

Sceptics, of course, will point out that Benny The Dip, who did not win another race after Epsom, was rated superior to Lammtarra in the week after his Derby. The latter turned out to be rather better than his initial rating indicated, winning the King George at Ascot and then the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe to become the first horse since Mill Reef in 1971 to complete the Derby/Arc double.

Gray would not be drawn, though, on his opinion of Montjeu, the easy winner of Sunday's Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) at Chantilly. A figure will be framed for him once Gray has discussed the form with his French counterpart.

Bookmakers are under no such obligations to la politesse, and while you may have to wait for a full list on the Irish Derby, Coral have issued odds on a straight match between Oath and Montjeu at the Curragh. If either does not make the final line-up on 27 June, all bets are void, but assuming they both go to post, bets will be settled on the two horses' finishing positions, even if they trail in second-last and last.

Coral quote Oath at 8-11, with Montjeu an even-money chance. "The Epsom Derby looked a stronger race than the French equivalent," Simon Clare, the firm's spokesman, said, "and our view is that the ground is more likely to be good than soft in Ireland at that time of year. But it still looks close and we weren't far off making them joint favourites, although people are more likely to back the Cecil/Fallon combination."

John Hammond, Montjeu's trainer, said yesterday that "the horse is fine and ideally he will now go for the Irish Derby, providing the ground isn't too firm."

The English and French Derby winners have met three times at the Curragh in the last 20 years, with the British form 2-1 up. Commander In Chief beat Hernando in 1993 and Generous defeated Suave Dancer, the subsequent Arc winner, in 1991. In 1983, though, Caerleon finished ahead of Teenoso, although neither proved a match for Shareef Dancer.

The Curragh must currently seem a very distant target for Henry Cecil, Oath's trainer, who must first negotiate next week's Royal meeting at Ascot. Cecil has sent out 65 winners at the meeting in the last 29 years, and could saddle anything up to 28 runners in the 24 races next week.

Wince, the 1,000 Guineas winner, is the subject of good reports after recent gallops and runs in the Coronation Stakes on Wednesday, while Royal Anthem, one of the favourites for the King George, will contest the Hardwicke Stakes two days later. Shiva, a Group One winner in Ireland last time out, will run in the Prince of Wales's Stakes on the opening day.