Racing: Rain dampens Empire's day

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The Independent Online
IT WAS supposed to be the day when white smoke finally emerged from within the Ballydoyle stable as Aidan O'Brien decided which of his talented gang of three-year-olds would contest the Derby on Saturday. In the end, however, a dark cloud over Epsom ensured that the guessing must go on for another day or so at least.

Both King Of Kings, the 2,000 Guineas winner, and Second Empire, the ante-post Derby favourite, were put to work by Mick Kinane at Ballydoyle yesterday, with the results appearing to confirm the general assumption that Kinane will partner Second Empire on Saturday. O'Brien, however, could not hide his concern at the news that 5mm of rain had fallen at Epsom on Monday night.

''It was a very wet here this morning,'' O'Brien said, ''and I believe it's the same over there which would worry me a little because Second Empire and King Of Kings have both shown their best form on good ground.'' The rain also increases the likelihood that Saratoga Springs, who finished fourth in the French Derby on Sunday, will miss the Classic. ''It looks as if Saratoga Springs won't be going to Epsom now, particularly as he wouldn't be suited by soft ground,'' the trainer said.

Officially, the ground in Surrey is still good, and you can be fairly sure that so long as the Queen does not need a snorkel and flippers to reach the Royal box on Saturday, the word ''good'' will still be in the description somewhere. This is yet another example of an age-old problem, given that the clerk of the course is in the impossible position of trying to attract as attractive a field as possible while also keeping the public fully informed about the state of the ground.

Without the official penetrometer readings which the French seem to have so little trouble providing, punters will always treat the official assessments with a modicum of suspicion. The only way anyone can be absolutely sure of the situation is to travel to Epsom and walk the course in person, and this option may become steadily more attractive if the unsettled weather continues until race day.

O'Brien is not the only trainer who feels the elements may conspire to ruin many months of careful preparation. John Dunlop, who will saddle Haami on Saturday, knows only too well that the colt was a disappointment when running on soft ground last season. ''We would be concerned if it became too wet because Haami really wants fast ground,'' Angus Gold, Hamdan al Maktoum's racing manager, said yesterday. ''Richard Hills felt the horse couldn't pick up at a crucial stage on the dead ground at Newmarket [when fifth in the 2,000 Guineas] and would definitely prefer faster ground. It doesn't want to be too wet for Epsom, it takes it away from the race, but we're in the lap of the gods.''

Haami's owner also has Mutamam among the 16 remaining entries, and he might prefer a little cut in the ground. ''If it became too wet then there is the option that Richard [Hills] could switch to Mutamam but he is not a certain runner,'' Gold said. ''Although he hasn't run on extremes of going he wouldn't mind it soft.''

The participation of another outsider, 200-1 chance Pegnitz, has also yet to be decided. The colt is still a maiden after five outings but, as he is trained by the famously optimistic Clive Brittain, it is fair to assume he will take his place this weekend.