Racing: O'Brien chase ends in vain

Incredible journey from Tipperary to Epsom, via Luton, finishes in tears for the Irish. Tim Glover reports
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The Independent Online
MOST of the horses in the 219th Derby took the weekend rate, choosing to spend a leisurely evening in the Nag's Head in Epsom before waking to an early morning call, a copy of Timeform and a full English breakfast.

Aidan O'Brien preferred a cheap day-return. Given the standards of modern- day travel it is a high-risk policy. King Of Kings, Second Empire and Saratoga Springs may have enjoyed the more familiar surroundings of the O'Brien five-star Ballydoyle stables, but it is a long way from Tipperary to the Epsom Downs, especially when you kick off the duvet and discover it has been replaced by a blanket of fog.

The Derby trip is only one and a half miles, but the three Irish visitors clocked up a few air miles before arriving for the premier classic via, of all places, Luton Airport. No time for duty-free shopping, no time to buy a sprig of lucky Irish heather.

After the hectic morning schedule, Andrew Cooper, clerk of the course, said: "The horses travelled well. It's clearly not ideal for them, but it was the best that could be managed under the circumstances."

The question that might have been asked by Irish punters, as well as countless others, is: "Were those circumstances necessary?" On the face of it, making a re-arranged journey by air and road would hardly seem the perfect preparation. This madcap dash was nothing new to Saratoga Springs. Last month he had a nightmare journey to York from Ireland, being diverted - by fog - from the Leeds-Bradford Airport to East Midlands. He arrived at the track an hour before the Dante Stakes, one of the Derby trials. Saratoga Springs won the Dante from City Honours.

Yesterday the Irish journeymen may have been at the races, but they were never in the picture. Whether this was down to their late arrival, who can say, although it is odds-on that O'Brien and his connections may in future choose to avoid a race to get to the race.

The Queen and the Queen Mother wore shades of green, but the green team from Tipperary were nowhere. There was a classic finish, but it did not involve the thoroughbreds who were supposed to make this a real Derby match. It wasn't just the Irish who were re-routed and subsequently routed.

Cape Verdi, the 11-4 favourite, lost the battle of the sexes and did not do Emily Pankhurst proud. The 1,000 Guineas winner, bidding to become the first filly to win the Blue Riband since Fifinella in 1916 (when they were hanging out the washing on the Siegfried Line) and only the seventh since the first Derby in 1780, was a disappointing ninth.

King Of Kings, the winner of the 2,000 Guineas - this was the first time the winners of the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas had met in the Derby since 1917 - was stone cold last, 15th of 15, and reported to be lame. Second Empire was eighth, Saratoga Springs 10th.

The tip from the gypsies, who tend to know a thing or two about horse trading, was City Honours, a 12-1 shot. Twelve months ago they had successfully nominated Benny The Dip. However, despite running a cracking race, City Honours was denied by High-Rise. After 2,400 metres High-Rise, 20-1 outsider, won by a head. This was a truly cosmopolitan triumph.

High-Rise, the only unbeaten horse in the race, is trained by Luca Cumani, owned by Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al- Maktoum, and ridden by Olivier Peslier: an Italian, Arab, French axis were doing the high fives. And High-Rise, bred in Ireland, did not arrive at Epsom via Luton Airport.

The judgement of Peslier, the French champion jockey, and the son of a stonemason, was faultless, although his aggression was not. He was suspended for two days for excessive use of the whip. "He was banned for not allowing the horse to respond between hits," Patrick Hibbert-Foy, the senior steward's secretary, said. Last year, incidentally, Peslier won the Dante Stakes on Benny The Dip.

This was only the third Derby to be held on a Saturday and the bookmakers, not surprisingly, were enthusiastic. "This has been the busiest Saturday Derby to date with turnover well above expectations," Mike Dillon of Ladbrokes said. "This was a good result for us both on the day and ante-post. A big off-course gamble on Cape Verdi and several horses backed on course all bit the dust."

Nevertheless, there is a serious problem with the Derby moving from a Wednesday to the weekend. What happens to all those office sweeps?

At the Black Bull, a gigantic temporary pub on the Epsom Hill, they were drowning their sorrows. Over at Ballydoyle the black stuff was not going down at all well.

Race before the race: How the O'Brien three found their way to Epsom

THE problems began when the plane due to fly to Shannon to pick up King Of Kings, Second Empire and Saratoga Springs was grounded because of fog at Liverpool.

9.07 am: A replacement 727 freighter, chartered from the Hunting airline and flown from Dublin, touches down at Shannon. Normally it would take an hour to turn a horse flight around, but the Servisair personnel, working swiftly but without fluster - which can affect horses - did it in half an hour this time. The original flight had been scheduled to fly to Farnborough, where Aidan O'Brien's horsebox was waiting and another, from the Epsom- based trainer and haulier Philip Mitchell, was due to rendezvous. But the replacement plane was too large to land at the military field and there was no horse ramp at Southampton, the nearest. Luton, which a regular receiver of horse flights and has all the facilities, therefore becomes the third choice.

9.15 am: Mitchell gets the call to divert from Farnborough and heads for Luton airport.

9.59 am: The plane takes off from Shannon.

10.50 am: The 727 lands at Luton.

11.15 am: Mitchell and the O'Brien box leave Luton with the three horses on board. "They hadn't turned a hair," he said. "But no fan would have been big enough to cope with the situation at Ballydoyle this morning."

12.30 pm: The two horseboxes, on the M25, crosses the A3, heading for a link-up with a police escort from the M25 Junction 9 to the course.

1.00 pm: The horsebox arrives at the racecourse stables.

3.48: Second Empire does the best of the O'Brien trio, and he manages only eighth place. Saratoga Springs is tenth and King Of Kings trails in last of the 15 runners. No police escort required for the journey home.

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