Watching a sleek steel horse streak across Newmarket Heath under the morning sun, it is easy to understand why Bellerophon wanted to tame Pegasus. White horses seem to have a magic in their metal coats denied to their more basely-coloured brothers and sisters. White horses belong to good guys. "Hi-ho Silver!" and all that.
Perhaps it is the association with myth and legend, or more prosaically because they are easy to spot, that gives greys a head start in the hero-worship stakes on the track. For all their stand-out visual qualities, though, grey racehorses comprise only a tiny proportion of the thoroughbred population. The explanation for their lack of representation lies in the science of genetics and the evolution of the breed. For although the gene that produces a grey coat is dominant, there is only one initial source. Every single grey thoroughbred traces back to the Alcock Arabian, imported to Britain during the early 18th century.
In 228 runnings of the Derby, only four greys have won. Since Airborne became the latest of them in 1946, only four bearers of the smoky jacket have been placed, most recently Silver Patriarch, denied by inches 11 years ago. On Saturday at Epsom Kandahar Run can revive the charge of the white brigade.
A horse's coat colour actuallyhas no bearing on his athletic ability, but there are practical reasons for siding with the colt. He is progressive, talented and laid-back. And he is being prepared by one of the true geniuses of the training business.
Fifteen years ago, Henry Cecil had an apparently outstanding Derby candidate in Tenby and a back-up in an unexposed type named Commander In Chief. The week before the big race, a gallop revealed that the understudy was the more likely winner, and so it proved. This time round, the team at Warren Place are once again relying on a supersub after the Dante Stakes exposed the shortcomings in the yard's one-time favourite Twice Over.
Kandahar Run looks more than fitted for the responsibility. Though untested yet in Group com-pany, the son of Rock Of Gibraltar has won three of his five races, most recently easily over 10 furlongs at Newmarket last month. Since then his homework has been of eyecatching order; yesterday morning he went 20 lengths clear of his galloping companion in a nine-furlong spin, showing a smart change of gear and no inclination to pull up once his assignment was completed.
Cecil, going for his fifth Derby after Slip Anchor, Reference Point, Commander In Chief and Oath, is typified by quizzical understatement about his charges, rather than hyperbole. "He did that nicely," he said after watching Ted Durcan ease his partner to a trot, then a springy, confident walk. "He quickened as he should, and he was relaxed about the whole thing. I was very pleased with that and he will not just be making up the numbers."
Kandahar Run, named after a downhill ski race, runs for alawyer, Dietrich von Boetticher, whose colours have already been carried to victory in Derbys by Borgia and Boreal (the German version) and Hurricane Run, in Ireland. The colt, whose young sire supplied last year's Derby runner-up, Eagle Mountain, can still be backed at double-figure odds (16-1 was the best available yesterday) and looks excellent value. Cecil, whose personal prob- lems have been well documented(he is currently battling stomachcancer), is held in the deepest affection and respect by the racing public and professionals alike, and was accorded a most moving reception after Light Shift ended his seven-year Classic drought in the Oaks last year. Given the ammunition, his aim remains sharp.
Kandahar Run was added to the Derby field at a cost of £8,000 in April. Tomorrow, the connections of the favourite, Casual Conquest, a wide-margin winner of Ireland's premier trial at Leopardstown last month, are expected to fork out £75,000 to entitle the son of Hernando to a tilt at the £1.25 million prize fund.
Like most of the runners, the Dermot Weld-trained colt's talent is at the exciting, emerging stage. Aidan O'Brien, with two Derbys on his CV (Galileo and High Chaparral) intends to field four colts to try to net a third. In the absence of the dual Guineas winner Henrythenavigator, the pick may be Allesandro Volta, a son of Montjeu who has reportedly thrived since winning the Lingfield trial.
Sir Michael Stoute has won four editions with horses of widely differing ability (Shergar, Sharastani, Kris Kin and North Light) and this time relieson a trio, with the Chester winner Tajaaweed and the Dante Stakes victor Tartan Bearer jostling for third favouritism.
The second market choice, Curtain Call, could be aptly named, given the recent retirement of his peerless sire, Sadler's Wells, and with an eight in the year it could be time for Luca Cumani to win again. The Godolphin operation, and last year's victorious jockey, Frankie Dettori, look bit-players this time with the classy but stamina-challenged Rio De La Plata.
And though it has become fashionable in some quarters to denigrate the Derby as a fading glory, even an irrelevant anachronism, most of the top professionals say otherwise. And though there is no proven Group One three-year-old performer in the field, the worth of any Derby can only be judged in retrospect.
The trials eliminate the no-hopers, but the standard-bearerfor a generation will not be identified until his pace, balance, stamina, acceleration and resolve pass muster over Epsom's switchback mile-and-a-half. And of those who go on to the historic roll of honour, some can hack it at the top afterwards, and some can't. But that is the point of the Derby; the race is a beginning, not an end.
Shades of grey
Described by a writer as "a shabby little grey", he started favourite and won by half a length from the 2,000 Guineas winner Reginald. Gustauvus earnt his owner, John Hunter, more in bets than the £1,758 prize after the jockey, Sam Day, negotiated the largely drunken crowd spilling on to Tattenham Corner.
The 1,000 Guineas heroine gave her owner, Walter Raphael, compensation three years after the judge's dubious decision in favour of the Royal colourbearer Minoru had robbed his colt Louviers of victory. Led all the way under the American Johnny Reiff to win by four lengths.
Despite losing the 2,000 Guineas by inches, Mahmoud was the less fancied of the Aga Khan pair but dispelled doubts about his stamina by staying on to beat his stablemate Taj Akbar. Failed to win again but became an important sire in the States.
At 50-1, Airborne caused a shock but won decisively, swooping with a long, sustained run to mug the well-fancied Gulf Stream by a length. Owned by businessman John Ferguson, he was the best stayer in the field and went on to win the St Leger as favourite.