Racing: Sheikh seeks to get in Epsom shake-up: Sue Montgomery weighs up the prospects for an elusive Derby triumph

THE BIG question of the week is what will win the Derby on Wednesday. The supplementary question is whether or not Sheikh Mohammed will win it in his tenth year of trying. The Sheikh has spent millions in his quest for Classic glory at Epsom and, as far as the fillies are concerned, it's a case of been there, done that, with Oaks victories from Oh So Sharp, Unite and Diminuendo.

But the story has been different with the colts. Since Jalmood finished 14th in 1982, 10 have carried the maroon and white colours. The nearest one to the frame was Barathea, a short-head away from fourth place last year.

This time Sheikh Mohammed mounts his most serious challenge yet, with three runners, Linney Head, King's Theatre and Foyer. Each is in the care of a different trainer, and if the desire of Messrs Gosden, Cecil and Stoute to win a Derby is strong, the desire to be the man to train Sheikh Mohammed's first Derby winner will be many times greater.

If all 26 horses declared at the five-day stage turn up on Wednesday, it will be the biggest field since Blakeney beat 25 rivals some 25 years ago. It is also a fairly open race, with no obvious champion having yet emerged.

But open does not necessarily mean mediocre. The carpers say that the 1994 running of the great race is little more than a donkey Derby, even though the winners of 36 races, including last year's two top-rated staying-bred juveniles in Europe and the 2,000 Guineas winner, are scheduled to take part. The 1994 Classic crop may be below-par, but it is hardly fair to judge it as such before the pecking order has been established.

Shocks are rare in the Derby; although there are often long-priced placed horses, the last outsider to win was Snow Knight at 50-1 20 years ago. Since then, the favourite or second favourite has been successful every year bar four, so it is sensible to look for the winner in the top half of the market.

Broadway Flyer has been sharing favouritism on the strength of his all-the-way win in the Chester Vase. This son of Theatrical is proven over the trip and victory for him would be one of life's little ironies; he is a first Derby runner for his trainer John Hills, whose father Barry saddled four runners-up.

Erhaab, winner of the Dante Stakes, has demonstrated the turn of foot necessary to win at the highest level. By Chief's Crown, placed in a US Triple Crown race, he should stay, but has shown his best on fast going and has become edgy in the preliminaries.

Linney Head will carry Sheikh Mohammed's first colours. The only unbeaten runner in the field and another on the upgrade, he won the Sandown Trial in workmanlike fashion and has the sort of action that suits soft ground but may not suit the descent down Tattenham Hill.

Colonel Collins is an imposing son of El Gran Senor, just beaten in the Derby 10 years ago. The Guineas is often the best trial, and this one was doing his best work at the end of the mile. But a mile and a half may be further than he cares to go.

Weigh Anchor is bidding to set up a unique family progresssion. His sire, grand- sire and great-grand-sire (Slip Anchor, Shirley Heights and Mill Reef) have all won the Derby, but there has not yet been a four-timer. He has not yet gone the distance, but will relish it, and may reverse Dante form with Erhaab.

King's Theatre, a Group 1 winner at two, is looking better than he has done all year. The choice of Michael Kinane (no bad judge) over another son of Sadler's Wells, Foyer, whose day may come later in the year.

Mister Baileys, the 2,000 Guineas winner, challenges for the north but 12 furlongs in this company is likely to be a trip too far for the Robellino colt. The only overseas challenger is Sunshack, my long-term fancy for the race, will stay and loves soft ground, but may not be fast enough.

If the ground is soft, stamina will be at a premium. Weigh Anchor can beat Linney Head, Sunshack and Broadway Flyer, with Lester Piggott's mount Khamaseen a respectable each-way price.

(Photograph omitted)