In requesting £75,000 from his most cherished patron merely so that his colt is eligible to run at Epsom on Saturday, Dermot Weld must suspect Casual Conquest to be one of the best three-year-olds in Europe. Judging on events in France yesterday, however, the Vodafone Derby favourite could conceivably qualify for that status without even being the best in his own yard.
Famous Name produced a stellar effort in defeat when failing by only a head to catch Vision d'Etat in the Prix du Jockey-Club at Chantilly. Marooned by a wide draw, and snatched up when trying to save some ground into the home turn, Famous Name was obliged to circle most of the field in the straight. In the meantime Vision d'Etat, the only unbeaten horse in a field of 20, was already in full cry.
Though several lengths adrift turning in, Famous Name challenged so ravenously under Pat Smullen that he seemed likely to get up until the generosity of his effort told in the final strides. In a stirring finish, it was instead Natagora who kept on best in third, something that looked quite out of the question as she seemed to run dry halfway down the straight.
His misfortune with Famous Name will doubtless haunt Weld should he elicit the funds he needs this morning from Walter Haefner, the nonagenarian owner of Casual Conquest – who needs to be supplemented to the Derby field by noon today. In another big field, over a course that makes still greater tactical demands of jockeys, the stakes could scarcely be higher. All things being equal, however, Ladbrokes took the view that Weld did not play the only ace in his hand yesterday and cut Casual Conquest to 5-2 from 7-2.
When Weld appeared at Epsom last Thursday to announce that he would be urging Haefner to take the big gamble, he caused smirks among the press with the elaborately casual way he mentioned that he has already won 21 European Classics. But if that was characteristic, so too was the expertise of Famous Name's preparation for what should, by rights, have been a 22nd.
"He has come from stall 17 and second is a lonely place," Weld remarked. "Pat has ridden a cracker but he got pushed wide, while the winner got a nice ride up the middle of the track. If you put them together you'd have a different result."
Instead the famous Chantilly prize was won by a reticent young man who trains in a racing backwater of western France. Eric Libaud had confined Vision d'Etat to shallow waters in four previous starts, but never doubted the authentic calibre of his colt, who cost just €39,000 (£30,600) as a yearling. In bloodstock terms, that amounts to going not so much for a song as for clearing your throat. But then the dam had little more to recommend her than the fact that she had managed to win over hurdles.
Libaud describes Vision d'Etat as "anxious", and his habit of losing appetite after races persuaded him to miss all the established trials and to keep him fresh for this. "The horse is progressing with each run," Libaud said. "He has still not matured and will improve again for the race."
Vision d'Etat was ridden with enterprise by Ioritz Mendizabal, whose gradual emergence from the Basque country was for many years a process that depended solely on quantity, but has now been sealed with unmistakable quality.
Frankie Dettori, a man long been content with the reverse ratio, confirmed his mastery of this course on Natagora. Though respecting her penchant for dominating the field early, he restrained the 1,000 Guineas winner into the home turn when two reckless outsiders menaced a premature challenge to her stamina. Such a bold performance against colts did not remotely diminish her standing, and she will be rested until returning to her own sex, and a mile, in the Prix d'Astarte at Deauville.
Famous Name himself certainly has the speed to drop back to a mile, and he would be an interesting opponent for Henrythenavigator at Royal Ascot. Unfortunately they have very different going requirements, Weld having scratched Khaled Abdulla's colt on the morning of the Irish 2,000 Guineas because of the firm ground. Regardless, he has not taken long to justify his recent recruitment to Abdulla's team of trainers.
Royal Ascot is certainly on the agenda for Marchand d'Or, who confirmed himself the best sprinter in France by winning the Prix du Gros-Chene earlier on the card. He did very well to pull this prize out of the fire, over the bare five furlongs, having needed six and a half to win a Group One at Deauville last summer and found himself last early on. Fourth in the July Cup last year, he now heads for the Golden Jubilee Stakes – in common with Sir Gerry, who did best of the British raiders by staying on late for third.
Richard Gibson, the expatriate Englishman who has advertised his talents all around the world with Doctor Dino, will at last be bringing his pride and joy to his homeland when he, too, goes to Ascot later in the summer. Gibson had hoped to send him over for the Juddmonte Coronation Cup at Epsom on Friday, but the possibility of unsuitably soft ground prompted him to supplement Doctor Dino for the Grand Prix de Chantilly instead.
After watching him cut down the rejuvenated Zambezi Sun, Gibson declared: "I'm looking forward to taking on the best in Europe this summer. He'll hopefully go for the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in three weeks' time, but I would like to target the King George – that race will be a priority."
Nap: Ephorus (Thirsk 8.15)
NB: Hessian (Leicester 5.30)