It was a close-run thing, but Johnny Murtagh put a bad week at the office behind him yesterday. After two high-profile reverses at Chester on Aidan O'Brien-trained favourites, the Irishman had come in for the sort of opprobrium hitherto reserved for bald Norwegian football referees. But another colt from the Ballydoyle stable, Age Of Aquarius, came to his rescue – just – at Lingfield, with a hard-earned victory in the Derby Trial.
Castigated and jeered for exaggerated waiting tactics and a misjudgment of pace on Thursday and Friday, Murtagh grasped the trailblazing nettle on Age Of Aquarius. The pace he set was only steady, allowing his mount, a rangy son of Galileo, to lope along, ears pricked, in the early stages before quickening down the hill that bears such a close resemblance to that at Epsom.
Age Of Aquarius coped smoothly with the descent, less so with the turn at speed into the straight, running slightly wide and having to tack diagonally back to the favoured pitch on the far rail. From there, it took him time to fully engage his huge stride and inside the penultimate furlong one of his four rivals, Montaff, was able to get his head in front. But the 8-11 shot showed a commendable attitude under maximum pressure, battling back to prevail by a neck.
The momentum produced by Age Of Aquarius in the finish was such that it took Murtagh nearly half a mile to pull him up.
"He was a bit too relaxed in front," said Murtagh, "but he's such a long strider that Aidan had said that if I had to be in front I should just nurse him along. I always felt I still had a chance when Daryll [Holland, on Montaaf] headed me. He stayed on very strongly to the line and there's plenty of improvement to come."
Bookmaker opinion over Age Of Aquarius's effort as a Derby rehearsal varied from 12-1 to 25-1. The next trial is this afternoon at Leopardstown, when Murtagh will further test his employers' firepower as Epsom third favourite Fame And Glory faces a rematch with Mourayan, whose John Oxx stablemate Sea The Stars heads the big-race lists.
In Lingfield's Oaks Trial, Midday powered home by six lengths under Tom Queally. Her trainer, Henry Cecil, has already won eight Oaks, including with yesterday's winner's close relative Reams Of Verse in the same Khaled Abdullah colours. "The further she went," said Cecil of the daughter of Oasis Dream, "the better she looked."
Oaks favourite Fantasia runs today at Longchamp in the French 1,000 Guineas where Elusive Wave and Proportional are perceived as her chief threats. In the equivalent colts' contest Jim Bolger's Vocalised is favourite to make it four from four for the season.
The first Derby of the European season, the Italian version in Rome yesterday, went to Godolphin and Frankie Dettori, courtesy of Mastery.