Racing: Opera Score fails to hit a high note: Yesterday's final trial for the Derby leaves the cast list for the Blue Riband complete but lacking in either substance or charisma

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE DERBY trials concluded with the Predominate Stakes yesterday amid a growing feeling that major players will be absent from the table when the wheel is spun at Epsom on 1 June.

The victory of Opera Score from King Of Naples did little to stir the Blue Riband market, but bookmakers are united in the view that Alriffa, Cicerao and Hawker's News would all be occupying significant positions in the lists had they been entered.

Alriffa himself should have run yesterday, but was found to have a slight injury when his box door was opened and will now wait for the Prix du Jockey-Club and a meeting with Cicerao. Both would be single-figure prices for Epsom were they considerations.

However, neither that pair, nor the Lingfield Derby Trial winner, Hawker's News, were entered for pounds 200 as yearlings or at the pounds 10,000 forfeit stage on 2 March, a date by which most trainers have still to uncover the full potential in their strings.

'They're asking you to put two-year-olds in when you've got no idea what they're like,' Richard Hannon, Alriffa's trainer, said. 'You need a crystal ball with this arrangement and I think the system degrades the Derby.'

Paul Cole, who won the Derby three years ago with Generous, added: 'When you start training these horses early in the year half of them get sore shins and they have done nothing more than a routine canter.

'The Derby is failing a bit because we've got to have the best race possible. We're missing out on a lot of the best horses because they're just not in the race.'

The remedy offered yesterday was to introduce the late supplementary stage favoured elsewhere in Europe, despite the fact that this would wreak havoc in the ante-post market.

'It's a peoples race so the original pounds 200 entry system is right,' John Gosden, the Newmarket trainer, said. 'But from two to three and with no racing for five months, you've no idea where you are with these horses and there should also be a huge supplement before the race to get runners like Alriffa and Cicerao in.'

There were few yesterday who did not believe that Alriffa could have disposed comfortably of both Opera Score and King Of Naples, who will be sent to Epsom by his trainer, Roger Charlton, only if his owners insist. Henry Cecil, who prepares Opera Score, still has three in the Derby (King's Theatre and Bal Harbour are the others), none of which has a special place in the hierarchy. 'Opera Score is improving the whole time and I don't think we've seen the best of him yet,' he said. 'He will be good. One day.'

Grant Pritchard-Gordon, racing manager to the colt's owner, Khalid Abdullah, confirmed a Derby was on the agenda, but could not specify whether that was the Epsom or Chantilly versions.

With the rehearsals over, York's Dante Stakes is now considered pivotal in Derby calculations, yet there are Emmental-size holes in the result.

Before the race, neither John Dunlop nor Ian Balding, who trained the first two home, Erhaab and Weigh Anchor, were screaming that they had the Blue Riband winner in their care. (The colts' pre- race odds of 20-1 and above for Epsom suggest those close to them had not taken the toffee hammer to the piggy-bank).

Yet now Erhaab is Derby favourite and Weigh Anchor among the market leaders and we are asked to believe that the York race featured not one but two horses who had been shielding greatness until the same day and the same race.

This was also the event in which Mister Baileys was considered by all judges to have run like a non-stayer. But having punctured badly two furlongs out, Mark Johnston's colt (who was conceding 3lb) kept running on flats sufficiently well to be less than five lengths adrift at the line.

Erhaab's supporters will quickly point out that their horse broke the course record. But Mister Baileys went into the race with a similar achievement tucked into his belt (having taken Zafonic's best time for the Rowley Mile in the 2,000 Guineas) and that did not do him much good on the Knavesmire.

Dunlop was as near anger as he gets publicly when it was put to him that this year's Derby may be sub-standard, though his colleagues suggested yesterday that it would not have the strongest cast.

This may then be a year like 1989, when Steve Cauthen said at the end of May that Old Vic would finish 'fourth or fifth' if he ran in the Derby. The colt's subsequent successes in the Derbys of France and Ireland cast doubt on both the American's words and whether the best colt in Europe had even taken part at Epsom.

As it is, Erhaab will be favourite on the day, following his Dante win and a seasonal debut second at Newmarket. That day he was beaten by a horse called Cicerao.

THE DERBY (Epsom, 1 June): Coral: 3-1 Erhaab, 5-1 Broadway Flyer, 8-1 Colonel Collins, 10-1 Linney Head & Weigh Anchor, 16-1 Opera Score, 20-1 King Of Naples; Ladbrokes: 5-2 Erhaab, 6-1 Broadway Flyer & Weigh Anchor, 8-1 Colonel Collins, 12-1 Linney Head, 16-1 State Performer, 20-1 King Of Naples & Opera Score; William Hill: 9-4 Erhaab, 6-1 Broadway Flyer, 7-1 Weigh Anchor, 8-1 Colonel Collins, 12-1 Mister Baileys, 14-1 Linney Head, 16-1 King's Theatre, 20-1 Bal Harbour, King Of Naples & Opera Score.

(Photograph omitted)