The Whitbread, like the present season, has attracted a curse. Last year it was Hywel Davies's suspension for excessive use of the whip on Topsham Bay (again), and in 1991 it produced one of the most controversial stewarding decisions of recent times when Cahervillahow was demoted for causing interference to Docklands Express. Equine fatigue - and the ardours of the Sandown hill - have been the dominant themes throughout.
The decision to throw out Givus A Buck barely raised a murmur of dissent because the bump he gave Topsham Bay with less than a furlong to travel was more than enough to have affected the result. But still it was a cruel reward for a horse who had galloped three miles and five furlongs only to be relegated for a breathless swerve when maximum effort was being applied up Sandown's finishing slope. Ironically, Cahervillahow (third) and Docklands Express (fourth) were the next two horses down the line as Givus A Buck and Topsham Bay staggered in unison towards the post.
Most steeplechasers have had about as much as they can stand of jump racing by this time of year and again here yesterday you could see past endeavours tugging at the lungs of many of the runners.
By the time the field approached the fourth last fence, Garrison Savannah and The Fellow (who broke a blood vessel) were capitulating fast and only the front two finishers were in with a chance at the Pond Fence. Captain Dibble, who completed a circuit at Aintree, had needed rousting with just one lap gone while Sibton Abbey, the Hennessy winner, was a ghost of the horse who had thrived in the autumn.
Though bookmakers in the ring offered 4-1 about Topsham Bay being given the race, few were willing to defend Givus A Buck after the head-on film had been shown. David Elsworth, the latter's trainer, said: 'It was a scramble, they were both tired, and while I can acknowledge there was an infringement, I still think the best horse won.'
The stewards thought otherwise, and reversed the placings to provide Topsham Bay with his second consecutive win in the race.
This meeting is the Clapham Junction of racing stories, with the Whitbread competing for attention with a Derby prep-race and late speculation about the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas, which are run at Newmarket this week.
The Classic trial here was to have tested Tenby's credentials as Derby favourite, but overnight rain softened the Sandown turf and prompted his trainer, Henry Cecil, to withdraw the colt for fear that he would have an excessively taxing race on his reappearance. Given, though, that Tenby won the Grand Criterium on soft ground at Longchamp last season - and that the quality of opposition here was not top-class - Cecil's decision was widely queried by a betting public eager for hard evidence about this year's Classics.
As it is, Tenby will reappear in the Newmarket Stakes on Friday, and may then contest the Dante Stakes at York, leaving his stablemate Armiger to tackle the Chester Vase - the race in which Cecil has run such gifted runners as Belmez and Old Vic. Cecil's post-race demeanour at Sandown was not brightened by the fact that Placerville, Tenby's replacement in the Classic Trial, was beaten by True Hero, but here there were extenuating circumstances because Placerville's horsebox caught fire coming through the Dartford Tunnel yesterday morning. 'I think the whole thing upset him a bit,' Cecil said, unsurprisingly. 'He wasn't very relaxed.'
Even so, this hardly resembled Derby form, as Ladbrokes demonstrated by quoting True Hero at 40-1 for Epsom. In fact it would be no surprise if True Hero was diverted to a lesser race, like the Italian Derby, leaving stronger candidates in the Sheikh Mohammed team to contest the real thing. Taos, who, like True Hero, is trained by John Gosden, is being prepared for the Lingfield Derby Trial and looks to be the Sheikh's main hope.
Interest in the 2,000 Guineas continues to be flat on account of Zafonic's short price and the inability of his rivals to assert themselves this spring.
The fact that French-trained horses head the markets for both the Guineas races (Elizabeth Bay, from the Andre Fabre stable, is 9-4 favourite for the 1,000) proves the inconclusiveness of British form.
The home side for the fillies' race will be further examined today - in private at least - when the Richard Hannon-trained Lyric Fantasy works at Salisbury racecourse under Pat Eddery.
That gallop will determine whether Eddery rides Lyric Fantasy or Secrage in the 1,000 Guineas on Thursday.
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