Racing: Rites of Passage from winter to May: A perpetual optimist hopes everything will come up roses for his Kentucky Derby challenge

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The Independent Online
PRE-SEASON work on the Newmarket gallops and two horses emerge from the dark of a cold January morning along an all-weather track. May in Louisville and America's best horses gather under clear skies before a crowd of 150,000 mint julep-sipping spectators for the Kentucky Derby. These tableaux might seem worlds apart, but they may be glued together this afternoon when Cedez Le Passage aims to book his place for America's most celebrated race after a winter's preparation at the headquarters of British racing.

For seven years, Clive Brittain, the trainer, and one of his owners, Tony Richards, sought to reproduce the excitement that Bold Arrangement brought them when second to Ferdinand in the 'Run For The Roses' of 1986. Now they feel they have found the right animal in the shape of the little brown son of Warning. He has the shape, the mental make-up and the promise of a potential Kentucky Derby horse. At 4.15 this afternoon, in the Easter Stakes at Kempton, they will discover if he has the class.

It is easy to understand why Richards became intoxicated by Churchill Downs' annual spectacle on the first Saturday in May. The historic twin spires look down on a huge crowd swelling to the sound of My Ol' Kentucky Home and further infield is a dirt track around which some of the greatest performers of American horseracing have forged their names. Pumping down the straight have come the likes of Secretariat, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid.

'After Bold Arrangement, it's always been a wish of the owner's to go back,' Brittain says. 'And I've always thought Cedez Le Passage was a horse we could do it with. His temperament is right. On Derby day you've got to have a horse with a bit of cool. I just think he's a horse who will handle it.'

The trainer believed this before his horse had even set foot competitively on a racetrack. 'We actually had Kentucky in mind before he made his debut at Ascot last season,' he says. 'He was still a weak, backward baby then, and I finished with him early to give him time to develop.'

The Ascot race went to the subsequent Dewhurst Stakes winner and 2,000 Guineas ante-post favourite, Grand Lodge. Cedez Le Passage was fourth and all four of the six around him that ran again in 1993 won a race.

Brittain's horse himself now has a victory to his name after knocking over relative Lilliputians at Southwell five weeks ago. By then, in company with a lead horse, he was already well into a schedule which began while the decorations were still up.

'We've given him an American-style preparation, starting a month earlier than the other horses here and training him through January and February,' Brittain says. 'Working horses in the winter is very much different from the summer-time. You never strip them off to gallop as you would in the summer and you're working them with kid gloves, but certainly everything I've asked him to do he has taken in his stride.'

How fast this stride is will be tested this afternoon against six rivals, including the 2,000 Guineas considerations Concordial and Indhar. On official statistics, Cedez Le Passage (whom Brittain hopes will not live up to his name, the French roadsign for the British give way) is the worst beast in the Listed event. 'I know he's the lowest-rated horse in the race, but I don't take too much notice of that,' the trainer says. 'If I had in the past I wouldn't have won half the races I have. I think the horse is going to run a big race.'

Brittain runs on optimism as much as oxygen, and, if Cedez Le Passage fails, he will simply fill the wardrobe hangers again and wait for another inmate with potential for foreign travel to come along. 'This one is probably a lot better than his rating and he's a fit horse,' the trainer says. 'If he's got the class to beat these on soft ground when we know he goes on the sand, we'll virtually be there.

'If he doesn't do it, we might be unpacking our bags.'

(Photograph omitted)

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