Gosden dazzled looking up at Stars

Home guard parades at Epsom in preparation to repel Irish raiders in Derby
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The Independent Online

Tomorrow week at Epsom, at 3.45pm, the talking will stop as the stalls for the 230th edition of the world's most famous race crash open. But yesterday there were plenty of words a-galloping on Epsom Downs, as well as a few horses. Four trainers with Derby runners, three of them accompanied by their charges, turned up at the Surrey track's annual early-morning eggs, bacon and baked bean feast dubbed Breakfast With The Stars.

The verbals included a rallying cry in the face of apparently overwhelming legions from Ireland. The home-trained challenge is, numerically, likely to be the smallest since 1794, when only four horses ran. This time, a quartet based in British stables are definite runners: Debussy, Montaff and South Easter, who had a practice round Tattenham Corner yesterday, and Kite Wood. They may yet become a quintet, if joined in the premier Classic by Crowded House.

"On the book we've got it all to do against the Irish," said Debussy's trainer, John Gosden, "but we can't be wimps and roll over. Two years ago I ran Lucarno and he finished fourth, with seven of Aidan O'Brien's eight behind him. They can't all be champions and beating them can happen."

Debussy, ridden by his big-race partner Jimmy Fortune, glided smoothly down and round Epsom's signature switchback. So did the Mick Channon-trained Montaff, under Richard Hills, and South Easter from the William Haggas yard, with Neil Callan in the saddle. All are 50-1 shots.

The twice-raced South Easter, part-owned by Bernard Kantor, managing director of new Derby sponsor Investec, will be Haggas's second competitor in the race. His first was the 1996 winner Shaamit. "I didn't fully appreciate then just how difficult it is even to have a Derby runner," he said. "I wasn't truly expecting to this year but when the horse went and won at Chester he rather forced my hand. At the moment he's 21lb below the standard required but he's a neat, tough horse who's learning fast and now we've bitten the bullet it's full steam ahead and I don't think he'll be last."

Channon was typically ebullient about Montaff, a close runner-up in the Lingfield trial on his only run this term after a minor setback. "It was a bit of a rush to get him to the track this year," he said of the son of Montjeu, whom he rates as potentially the equal of his dual Arc runner-up Youmzain, "but he's progressed since then. Most of the horses we have wouldn't get a mile-and-a half in a bus, but this one does stay and we'll give it a crack."

All brave words, even if redolent of the Forlorn Hope squad in a battle – especially when its leader went and nailed his colours to the mast of the Irish. "I always feel that the 2,000 Guineas is the best trial," Gosden said, "and this year's winner Sea The Stars is a beautiful horse. And if the going is right for him he's got every chance of staying the distance."

The question of whether Sea The Stars can translate his brilliance for an extra four furlongs, was one that must remain unanswered pro tem, but his trainer John Oxx knows the Cape Cross colt's suspect stamina will be given a thorough examination by the massed ranks from Ballydoyle.

Oxx travelled from Co Kildare to Epsom yesterday to run his eye over the opposition and the ground which, with dry weather forecast, is likely to suit. "There will be nowhere to hide," he said. "Aidan has plenty in the race and two of his trials winners [Golden Sword and Age Of Aquarius] run very well from the front so he'll make sure there is a fast pace, just as we'd all do if the positions were reversed. You can read Sea The Stars' pedigree either way and I'm sure he will get most of the trip, but there does seem to be that invisible brick wall here about two furlongs out, when they hit the rising ground. He's come out of the Guineas very well and if anything behind him there can beat him, it will be only because they stay better."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Critical Path (4.45 Goodwood)

NB: Xpres Maite (4.20 Yarmouth)