One of the British Turf's most gratifying rituals is to observe the runners strolling around the parade ring before its greatest race. This time round, however, it may prove so revealing that the actual running of the Investec Derby could itself obtain a somewhat ceremonial quality. For if the herd leader is usually identified at the Epsom winning post, some subtle obeisance might be discernible even before the colts are saddled a fortnight tomorrow.
For the success of Bonfire in the final Derby trial here at York yesterday means that the first two in the betting will renew a forgotten rivalry of their youngest days. As a foal, Bonfire shared a paddock with the colt subsequently named Camelot, who is odds-on with many bookmakers after winning the 2,000 Guineas. At Epsom, then, they will see each other for the first time since being parted at the yearling sales – and it may not be too fanciful to seek mute evidence not only of recognition, but also of some acknowledged superiority.
According to John Warren, who along with his sister manages Highclere Stud, for now the betting reflects the two colts' respective status in maturity. "Physically, Camelot was always ahead by two or three months," he said. "Bonfire came later – but he became a very imposing horse as well."
As a result, he tried to organise syndicates to buy both at the sales. And while the home-bred Camelot was ultimately exported to Ballydoyle, after the bidding soared to 525,000 guineas, Warren was able to secure Bonfire, consigned on behalf of his breeders, for one of the Highclere Thoroughbreds syndicates run by his brother-in-law, Harry Herbert. The 90,000-guinea colt was sent into training with Andrew Balding at Kingsclere, and made such a good impression in two juvenile starts that he arrived for the Betfred Dante Stakes with an unnerving billing. "We're rather cocooned away from everywhere else at Kingsclere," his relieved trainer said afterwards. "But we still get the papers."
Camelot's stable was represented by Ernest Hemingway, and Joseph O'Brien made immediate use of his long stride, setting a strong pace. Though Bonfire unmistakably has his quirks, he consented to settle at the head of the chasing pack and closed smoothly at the top of the straight. Taking over two furlongs out, he was followed through by Fencing as Ernest Hemingway dropped out, reportedly losing his action. With Mandaean making an awful start for his new stable, it was instead Ektihaam who emerged as the big challenger. Jimmy Fortune only had to administer a couple of slaps, however, to keep Bonfire on top by three-quarters of a length, dragging Ektihaam four clear of Fencing. Coral promptly halved his Derby odds to 5-1, but Ladbrokes offer 8-1 and instead trimmed Camelot to 8-11 from 4-5.
Bonfire evinced his wilful nature in pulling up, as well, in conformity with his home reputation. "But that's just greenness, as much as anything," Balding said. "We've read about him being some sort of ogre, but he's not. It's just that he's a pretty fresh horse, when he's well, and can be a bit of a handful. But we've got a great team at home and they make it look easy."
The riders of both protagonists felt that the fuel gauge had approached the red, respectively in terms of fitness and stamina. Ektihaam had already had a race this season, and Roger Varian is duly inclined to keep to 10 furlongs; but it is worth noting that Warren did not sound wholly convinced that Bonfire, from the first crop of Manduro, will see out the extra distance at Epsom. "There is a lot of speed in the female family," he said. "In fact there's hardly a horse on the page that has won a race of any consequence over a mile-and-a-half. We had been wondering about the Prix du Jockey Club, but after this you can't not go to the Derby, can you? The sire-line is very stamina oriented, and the beauty of Epsom is that you do need to travel, you need that energy and kick."
Remarkably, the same Highclere syndicate – comprising 20 members, investing £14,000 apiece – also owns Vow, one of the leading fancies for the Investec Oaks.
One way or another, it seems that destiny summons them to Epsom. To crown it all, the paddock Bonfire shared with Camelot at Highclere was named after Blenheim, a colt bred there by Herbert's grandfather. He won the Derby in 1930. They may be innocent of that legacy, but a more tangible memory could yet awaken them to its challenge.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Daneking (4.45 York) Stable in tremendous form and this one looks handicapped to build on a promising reappearance, when excusably weakening in awful ground.
Lyric Street (2.0 York) Failed to progress as expected for this kind of test last year but remains entitled to a fresh start, returning as a gelding for a new trainer.
One to watch
Eltheeb (David O'Meara) Looked to be another improver for his new trainer, travelling well before flattening out into third on his reappearance at Thirsk last weekend.
Where the money's going
The Fugue is 100-30 from 7-2 with William Hill for the Investec Oaks.