Racing: Wildcatters behind Wolf 's challenge: Three oil prospectors from Texas have big dreams of an unlikely strike in next week's Derby

Click to follow
NO ONE is better equipped to handle the precarious fortunes of racehorse ownership than Jack Preston, part owner of Wolf Prince, whom the Maryland-based Michael Dickinson has sent over to challenge for Wednesday's Derby.

After a lifetime in the high-risk oil business, Texas-born Preston and his brothers Art and 'JR' - no kidding - regard even reaching the zenith of Derby day as a 'sporting challenge'. No sign of nerves from these guys; they'll be here 'to enjoy a great English occasion'.

Oh to have a job like theirs, to have a business card which says: Jack Preston, Wildcatter.

Wildcatting is the process of drilling for oil in fields where there is no evidence that the substance even exists.

'We're used to big gambles,' Preston said this week. 'We can handle racing.' He chuckles at the similarities between his business and their hobby of prospecting for equine gold at the US yearling sales. 'Thankfully, we are better at the oil business.'

While that may be so, the Prestons have not exactly failed with thoroughbreds. Their horses have included the top US sprinter Groovy, who was second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and Good Command, sixth to Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand in the Breeders' Cup Classic the same year, 1987.

They have also owned shares, with Robert Sangster, in the former Irish- trained horses Kostroma, now a multiple Grade One winner, and Classic Fame, who had a career with the West Coast trainer Gary Jones after finishing sixth to Nashwan in the 1989 Derby. There have also been a few two-year-olds with John Gosden in Newmarket.

As for the merit of Wolf Prince, well, it seems inconceivable that he can win the Derby. 'We know it's going to be difficult but we thought it would be great sport,' Preston, a huge admirer of Tenby, admits. 'The Derby is probably the most difficult race to win in the world, but the prize-money even for the placed horses is not to be sneezed at.'

At first glance Wolf Prince's form credentials are impressive, five wins from six starts and unbeaten four times as a three-year-old. But four of those wins have come over six or seven furlongs on dirt at Laurel, and the most recent win, a comfortable length victory over 8.3 furlongs, was at the 'gaff' track Garden State Park, not renowned as a stepping stone for Classic winners.

That win was also his first run on turf, although connections are convinced he is a better horse on grass. 'On pedigree (he is by the South African champion Wolf Power, whose stock in America are not stayers, out of a mare by Hawaii, sire of Derby winner Henbit) he has to appreciate the surface,' says Preston, 'and he has got the kind of stride that makes you think he'll stay. The thing is we don't have that many races over a mile and a half in America.'

Wolf Prince will be a first Classic runner for Dickinson, who is legendary for saddling the first five horses home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

He moved to Maryland in 1987 after the ambitious, extravagant link-up with Robert Sangster and Manton had failed. He has stuck to the Flat, but is described these days by one American observer as 'not a high volume kind of guy'.

Dickinson, who flies to London today, certainly has no outrageous hopes for Wolf Prince, whose owners he describes as 'true sportsmen'. 'They are used to drilling dry wells,' he says.

Can the Prestons strike rich at Epsom? They probably have more chance of selling oil to one of the numerous sheikhs they'll encounter in the parade ring.

A half-share in Fatherland, Lester Piggott's Derby ride, has been bought from Vincent O'Brien's wife, Jacqueline, by California-based Robert Lewis.

Yawl completed a crucial gallop at Lambourn yesterday which confirmed her participation in the Oaks tomorrow week. She is 4-1 favourite with one firm. Her trainer, Barry Hills, described speculation that Lester Piggott will be in the saddle instead of Darryll Holland as 'dream talk'.