Curragh murk may hobble Royal hopes

The Queen's colt out to avenge Epsom defeat but soft ground puts Irish Derby challenge in doubt

The greatest concern expressed yesterday by those closest to Carlton House ahead of this afternoon's Irish Derby concerned not the opposition, but the weather. With the ground at the Curragh already soft after persistent precipitation, trainer Sir Michael Stoute warned that any further deterioration in underfoot conditions could rule the hot favourite out of the Classic.

The colt won on easy going as a juvenile, but a mile-and-a-half slog in the mud round a track that already puts a premium on stamina would not be Stoute's first-choice scenario. "We're stuck with what's there and we'd go with that," he said in Newmarket yesterday, "but any more rain, and we'd have to have a look."

Ireland's richest contest has taken on a variety of guises over the years: a lap of honour, a decider, a consolation prize. In the absence of the winner of the original at Epsom, Pour Moi, and the presence of the four who followed him home – in order Treasure Beach, Carlton House, Memphis Tennessee and Native Khan – today's 146th running could be considered as fulfilling the last-named purpose.

But there is more than the hope of compensation, fine reward though the €¤725,000 (£633,000) first prize would be; the margins earlier this month were close enough and the door is still open for a dominant display that could shake up the pecking order in the middle-distance division.

Carlton House, who will carry the Queen's colours for the first time in an Irish Derby and for only the fourth time in Ireland, has an upwardly-mobile profile; his hard-fought and arguably unlucky third in the Derby was only his fourth run and since then he has looked in his homework as if the experience has tempered him favourably. "No reason why not," said his rider Ryan Moore, "he's a tough-minded progressive sort of horse."

The Irish – and in particular Aidan O'Brien and the Coolmore partners – guard their premier prize with zeal; the last British-trained winner was Balanchine, in the Godolphin colours, in 1994. Eight victors, including the last five, have emerged from Ballydoyle; among them, the race providedDerby doubles for Galileo and High Chaparral and instant redemption for Dylan Thomas, third at Epsom, Soldier Of Fortune (fifth), Frozen Fire (11th) and Fame And Glory (second).

The Co Tipperary stable, which has also notched three clean sweeps in the race, supplies half of today's field of eight, with the Derby 10th Seville and the Irish Guineas winner Roderic O'Connor backing up Treasure Beach and Memphis Tennessee.

The weekend's first Curragh Group One blood went to O'Brien, when Misty For Me bounced back from her fifth place in the Oaks to take yesterday's Pretty Polly Stakes, and in the process the considerable scalp of the five-times top-level winner Midday.

Misty For Me, heroine of the Irish 1,000 Guineas on the track in May, made every yard of the ten furlongs under Seamie Heffernan and Midday, the 1-3 favourite, had no answer at all as the daughter of Galileo ran clear away from her in the straight to score by six lengths. "She wasn't comfortable going down the hill at Epsom," said Heffernan, "and today may prove her best trip."

There was one strike for the raiders in Co Kildare, though. Red Cadeaux, Ed Dunlop stablemate of Native Khan, loved the ground to rout the locals by nine lengths in the Curragh Cup.

The most valuable domestic race yesterday, the Northumberland Plate, was a triumph for youth and experience as Tominator, ridden by the apprentice Paul Pickard and trained by the 87-year-old Reg Hollinshead, took the £92,475 first prize at 25-1.

Pickard, riding the grey gelding for the first time, held his mount, trying two miles for the first time, away from the pace before picking off rivals down the straight. He burst clear a furlong out and had power in reserve to repel Montaff (18-1) by a length and three-quarters, with Deauville Flyer (8-1) pipping Petara Bay (40-1) for third.

But if the 23-year-old's cool judgement of pace was impeccable, one turn of post-match phrase was less so. "I was told to drop him out like a non-trier," he said, "and then come through and pass as many as I could."

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