Racing: Stamina doubts rife in Derby

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BACK IN the late 18th century, as punters travelled - mainly on foot - to Epsom for the Derby, the question of which of the runners would see out the 12-furlong trip was probably the most difficult one to solve. Two hundred years later, the lucky ones arrive by helicopter, and scientists have unravelled most of what there is to know about genetics and inheritance. And yet, the big question is often the same. A horse may have good form, a top jockey and a trainer with a Classic track record - but will it stay?

There are few things worse than seeing your horse coming to challenge on the bit at the two-furlong pole, only to fall in a heap at the one. Surely, you might think, in an age of cloning and genetically-modified soya, it should be possible to say with some certainty that a horse will, or will not, stay a well-run mile-and-a-half.

The trouble is that there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of genes in a horse's makeup which may affect its stamina to a greater or lesser degree. Until someone sits down and works out what they are and how they are connected, the best anyone can do is to study a horse's pedigree, analyse the stamina qualities of its ancestors and other close relatives, and then make an educated guess.

In some ways, the process is actually getting harder. Andrew Caulfield, a bloodstock consultant and former breeding correspondent of the Sporting Life, said yesterday that ``we're completely inter-related with the American breeding industry these days, and over there a 10-furlong race is described as an endurance test. Proper mile-and-a-half stallions are fading away, and many of today's runners are by mile or 10-furlong horses.''

Lucido, who will be among the Derby favourites if, as expected, he is supplemented to the race next week, illustrates the problem. As it happens, his stamina seems assured, since he won the Lingfield Derby Trial over an extended 11 furlongs, but consider how his chances of staying the trip might have been assessed if he had won over, say, nine furlongs.

``He's by a Group One winner [Royal Academy] at six furlongs and a mile,'' Caulfield says. ``His dam was a good class winner in Ireland at six furlongs to a mile, and she was by a very fast American horse called General Assembly. In theory you wouldn't have predicted that Lucido would be a mile-and- a-half horse, but he appears to be. You can find an explanation another generation back, where you've got Nijinsky for a start, but most pedigrees have conflicting information. As people try to put speed into staying blood, you can never be too sure which is going to dominate.''

Like most pedigree experts, Caulfield says that ``there has to be a doubt about Saffron Waldon [the Irish 2,000 Guineas winner trained by Aidan O'Brien] because there's so much speed in his female line. But these days you have to take a horse's temperament into account as much as the bloodlines, and that is in his favour because he does seem to relax and give himself a chance.''

Then there are horses like Salford Express, with causes for optimism and pessimism. ``He's got a sprinter as his broodmare sire,'' Caulfield says, ``but he's got a half-brother by a sprinter, Definite Article, who was beaten a short-head in the Irish Derby.'' In short, as Caulfield admits, ``it's a fence-sitting job these days. You only find out on the day, and it's just one of the gambles.''

It may be that one day, a scientist with a very clever machine will be able to analyse a blood sample and predict to within 10 yards just how far a horse's stamina will carry him. This might save owners a small fortune in wasted entry fees - but of course, it would also rather spoil the fun.