Irish talent looms over home hopes

Today's Dante Stakes offers last chance for British colts to make Derby case

With all due respect to Sariska, who staked a credible Epsom claim of her own here yesterday, still more momentous matters are likely to be resolved on the Knavesmire this afternoon. For the Totesport Dante Stakes is not only a final crossroads on the road to the Derby, but a last chance for those few British colts still upon it to rid themselves of an unhappily vagrant air.

This is a very strong field, much the best of the rehearsals staged since Sea The Stars laid down his marker in the 2,000 Guineas. Yet it will take a really authoritative performance for any colt to intrude upon what is already shaping as a vintage showdown between the Irish pair, Sea The Stars and Fame And Glory. In other words, half-hearted testimony in this trial will mean that you can forget any thoughts of the winner of the first Investec Derby being trained on home soil. The one British colt to have retained a place near the top of the market is Crowded House, who was one of the winter favourites for the Guineas before Brian Meehan decided that Epsom should be his priority. He was last seen winning the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster last autumn, the undeniable style of his performance seeming to gain substance from a very good time. But the strict form does not look particularly exciting, his principal rival, Masterofthehorse, having run no sort of race. And while Meehan is adamant that Crowded House, as a son of Rainbow Quest, will prove best over middle distances, there is plenty of American speed in the colt's maternal pedigree. He did show a lot of pace last year, and the odds make very little allowance for that.

The stakes are extremely high, too, for Kite Wood, after his expensive transfer to Godolphin. The stable seems to have found a bit of form in the past few days, even managing to win an Italian Derby, but Frankie Dettori yesterday emphasised that Kite Wood would improve for the run. Saeed bin Suroor, his new trainer, added that the colt has been working like a stayer, so it seems as though he might already be viewed as a long-term project.

Nehaam and Redwood represent the two most prolific British stables of the season to date, and both promised more to come when following up juvenile maiden wins at the Craven meeting. But there is an ominous possibility that the two Ballydoyle raiders will go sufficiently well to fortify confidence in their stablemate, Fame And Glory.

After that promising reappearance in France, Black Bear Island would himself seem a perfectly eligible candidate, so it seems significant that the stable jockey, Johnny Murtagh, has instead favoured Freemantle (2.40). For a colt with this kind of pedigree to win a maiden over seven furlongs by 10 lengths, as he did at Tipperary last autumn, is the sort of thing that first drew attention to his sire, Galileo. Aidan O'Brien won three Classic trials on these shores last week, prior to Fame And Glory's brilliant performance at Leopardstown, and his horses seem to be moving smoothly up the gears now.

At least Crowded House's jockey, Jamie Spencer, will be in high spirits after Sariska's success in the Tattersalls Musidora Stakes. Though possibly better suited by easier ground, this filly ran out a decisive winner from Star Ruby, gradually working her way past Star Ruby from two furlongs out and finishing the best part of four lengths clear, despite idling somewhat in front. It was a similar distance back to Enticement, who came off the bridle as soon as a leisurely pace picked up and was apparently unsuited by the conditions.

Having hinted at unusual talent when fourth in the Fred Darling Stakes on her reappearance, flying home over just seven furlongs, Sariska certainly appreciated the longer distance here and is bred to cope serenely with another 350 yards or so in the Investec Oaks. In contrast with the intimidating standard already set for the Dante field, there seem to be precious few top-class fillies heading to Epsom and odds of 4-1 against Sariska are by no means ungenerous.

Michael Bell, her trainer, had prudently resisted any temptation to run Sariska in the 1,000 Guineas. "It was a reasonably easy call," he said. "We all thought she might find things happening too quickly over a mile. The dam's family is all stamina, and she took a lot of pulling up out there today. She was fast asleep in the Fred Darling, but today was far more streetwise. She has grown up a lot for that experience and knows her job now."

So, too, does Bell, having won the Derby with Motivator after bringing him here for the Dante four years ago. "We have been to Epsom before with a good colt," he said. "And we are going there now with a good filly, for the first time one with a realistic chance of winning."

Will anyone in Britain be able to say the same about the Derby tonight?