Mikhail is floored by Puncher

Bolger's battler ensures that Ballydoyle Derby hope falls short of expectations
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Although the Ballysax Stakes, the 10-furlong contest at Leopardstown, is sometimes the season's first step on the road to Epsom for a Derby prospect, that will almost certainly not be the case for yesterday's running. The winner, Puncher Clynch, is not entered for the premier Classic, and if there are not stronger challengers from Ballydoyle than runner-up At First Sight and third home Mikhail Glinka, it will be disappointing. Not for the first time during the weekend, a big-race trial provided more that was negative than positive.

Mikhail Glinka, runner-up at the top level in the Saint-Cloud mud in November, was 11-10 favourite to give Aidan O'Brien his fifth victory in the Group Three race in 10 years. Whether it was yesterday's faster underfoot conditions or that he had forgotten much of what he learnt of his job in his five runs last year, but every time Johnny Murtagh asked him to go forward in the straight and win his race, he became unbalanced, veering and ducking towards rivals.

Once straightened each time, he showed he has an engine, but his final thrust of power was not enough. Puncher Clynch, who pressed the trailblazing At First Sight for most of the way, prevailed by a short head, with Mikhail Glinka a neck behind his stablemate.

The winner, who holds the Irish Derby engagement, has plied most of his trade to date in handicaps, opening his season by winning one under top weight on the all-weather track at Dundalk 10 days ago. "He's not ready yet to cope with real Group One horses yet," said his trainer, Jim Bolger, "and we'll probably keep him to lower levels for the time being."

The son of Azamour, the 12-1 outsider of the field of eight yesterday, is a typically tough-looking Bolger inmate, an attribute confirmed by rider Kevin Manning. "It's never say die with him," he said, "he just keeps pulling out more when you ask him to."

O'Brien's previous Ballysax winners include the Derby winners Galileo and High Chaparral, and last year's Epsom runner-up Fame And Glory. Whether either of his two runners yesterday, both sons of Galileo, are genuine top-flight contenders only time will tell.

Mikhail Glinka remained at 33-1 for the Derby; his Co Tipperary stable not only houses the Epsom favourite St Nicholas Abbey, but the market second choice Jan Vermeer and other credible contenders like Cape Blanco, Midas Touch and Joshua Tree. And one of the Ballydoyle line-up's putative rivals Passion For Gold – winner of the Saint-Cloud Group One in which Mikhail Glinka finished second – submitted a sick note yesterday; the Godolphin colourbearer has pulled some back muscles and will miss one of Britain's key Epsom trials, next month's Dante Stakes at York.

St Nicholas Abbey's position as market leader for the season's first Classic, the 2,000 Guineas, hardened to 11-8 yesterday after an inconclusive Greenham Stakes at Newbury on Saturday. The odds-on favourite Canford Cliffs, on his eagerly awaited seasonal debut, lost his second spot in the Guineas market after drifting across the course through the final furlong under pressure and being mugged by his Richard Hannon stablemate Dick Turpin in the final strides.

The focus in Ireland switches back to top-level jumping tomorrow evening, with the first card of the Punchestown festival. And the explosive nature of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland is not going to deny the locals some of Britain's chasing stars. Paul Nicholls, whose team include Denman and Twist Magic, will be joining his charges on the ferry across the Irish Sea, and Yorkshire-based Ferdy Murphy, whose Kalahari King is travelling via Holyhead on to Dun Laoghaire, is planning his own route via Scotland and Northern Ireland. "We're sailing out of Stranraer to Larne," he said, "after racing at Hexham. Where there's a will, there's a way."

One of the treats awaiting the Punchestown faithful will be the exciting novice hurdler Dunguib taking on senior company for the first time. The gelding was announced yesterday by his trainer, Philip Fenton, as a starter in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle on Friday, when he will face such as Solwhit, Punjabi and Hurricane Fly.

Turf account: Sue Montgomery


Il Portico (2.40 Pontefract)

Got off the mark when stepped up to today's distance on his handicap debut last month after three efforts over much shorter last year. No reason to think he cannot transfer that progress to turf.

*Next Best

Xpres Maite (4.40 Pontefract)

Has not won for nearly a year, but may still justify small support at a long price in ordinary company under his preferred conditions.

*One To Watch

Jedi (Sir M Stoute), gelded over the winter, opened his campaign with a respectable fourth and is in the right hands to progress markedly.

*Where The Money's Going

Lacdoudal was supported yesterday from 25-1 to 16-1 for Saturday's Bet365 Gold Cup with Paddy Power.

*Chris McGrath's nap

Born To Perform (3.40 Pontefract)