Epsom week got off to a pretty sensational start yesterday when Kieren Fallon discarded one of the leading fancies for the Investec Derby in order to rebuild bridges with his former employers at Ballydoyle. Nor were his incentives for breaking a commitment to Native Khan confined to Recital, one of four runners for the Co Tipperary stable on Saturday. Fallon has also been booked for Wonder Of Wonders, who has outstanding prospects in the Investec Oaks the previous afternoon.
With pleasing symmetry, Native Khan will now be ridden by Johnny Murtagh, who succeeded Fallon at Ballydoyle but resigned the post last autumn.
Just like old times, then – and not simply because Aidan O'Brien will once again be using the most successful Epsom jockey of his day. The whole situation is reminiscent of an era when Lester Piggott's ruthless choice of Derby mount guaranteed a groundswell of support from the betting public.
At 46, Fallon is approaching the veteran stage, but experience is priceless round Epsom and the bottom line is that he has won the Derby and Oaks three and four times respectively. It might well have been more, but for the various prohibitions that notoriously intruded on his prime, between 2006 and 2009. To win either Classic would represent far and away his most precious achievement since his comeback.
Of course, his decision could yet backfire. Among the home colts, only Carlton House is ahead of Native Khan in the betting. Fallon was suspended when the grey, partnered by Olivier Peslier, finished third to Frankel in the 2,000 Guineas. He subsequently won the Derrinstown Trial at Leopardstown on Recital, albeit the colt's demeanour that day did not convince everyone.
Recital was only Fallon's second mount for Ballydoyle since he had so tested the patience of the stable's owners during his tenure as their retained jockey. But Murtagh's defection has left John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore to rely on the best available – above all in big races outside Ireland.
The news was received with due bemusement by Ed Dunlop, trainer of Native Khan, whose owners were understood to have secured a commitment from the six-times champion jockey. Fallon even rode Native Khan in his public excursion round Tattenham Corner last Thursday. In the event, however, he appears to have decided that past obligations to Coolmore supersede even any formal undertakings he may have made, though Wonder Of Wonders presumably helped to quieten his conscience.
Dunlop was no doubt consoled by the fact that Murtagh himself has a superb Epsom record. "Obviously I'm disappointed for the clients, who specifically wanted Kieren," the trainer said. "But I'm very happy with our replacement. We must not forget the horse has run five times, and Fallon has actually only ridden him twice."
Ballydoyle's other main Derby hope, Seville, will be ridden by Christophe Soumillon, who had been booked for the colt's trial with Epsom specifically in view. Certainly Soumillon needs to have learned from the Dante Stakes, as he made culpably little use of Seville's stamina and allowed Carlton House the better of a sprint finish. The extra distance, and likely stronger gallop, could make things closer on Saturday.
Treasure Beach, who looks a good price, will be ridden by Colm O'Donoghue; and O'Brien's flourishing son, Joseph, partners Memphis Tennessee, runner-up in the Derrinstown. Roderic O'Connor heads to Chantilly on Sunday instead. Seamus Heffernan gets his chance on Misty For Me, who joins Wonder Of Wonders in the Oaks.
* Chris McGrath's Nap
Negotiation (7.25 Yarmouth)
Form of his win here last summer proved strong and signs of renewal after a break last time.
* Next best
Dialogue (3.30 Redcar) Well handicapped and looked menacing when ran out of room on his reappearance.
* One to watch
Last Sovereign (Ollie Pears) made a promising return for a new stable at Newcastle last week.
* Where the money's going
Dancing Rain is 14-1 from 16-1 for the Investec Oaks with Totesport.