Johnny Murtagh, who had to choose between six of the 13 colts still in the Investec Derby, yesterday rejected the favourite, Fame And Glory, and instead allowed his "soft spot" for Rip Van Winkle to harden into a daring toss of the dice.
Fame And Glory's pedigree seems to guarantee improvement for the extra test of stamina at Epsom on Saturday; the genes of Rip Van Winkle, in contrast, permit plenty of doubt as to whether he will stay the trip. But Murtagh, the Ballydoyle stable jockey, has none the less resolved to surrender Fame And Glory to his understudy, Seamus Heffernan.
Aidan O'Brien, the Ballydoyle trainer, stressed that riding arrangements were "not written in stone" but confirmed that Murtagh's present intention is to ride Fame And Glory, who finished fourth to Sea The Stars in the 2,000 Guineas last month.
Provisional bookings have also been made for the stable's four other Derby colts. Masterofthehorse, who has thrived since his encouraging rehearsal at Chester, is set to be ridden by Richard Hughes; Golden Sword, who stole first run that day, once again by Colm O'Donoghue; Age Of Aquarius, the Lingfield trial winner, by Pat Smullen; and Black Bear Island, impressive in the Dante Stakes, by Ryan Moore.
Murtagh's decision had been somewhat anticipated in the betting, and Totesport last night responded to its confirmation by again trimming the odds against Rip Van Winkle, to 4-1 from 13-2, and easing Fame And Glory to the same price. But his backers should not necessarily be disheartened. Murtagh did not partner the colt when he was so impressive in the Derrinstown Derby Trial at Leopardstown – the race favoured by O'Brien for both his previous Derby winners, Galileo and High Chaparral – because he was riding at Longchamp that day. Murtagh, moreover, only rode High Chaparral to win at Epsom in 2002 because the stable jockey at the time, Michael Kinane, had persevered with Hawk Wing – who was himself stepping up half a mile after running in the Guineas.
Heffernan, meanwhile, has graduated over recent years from a cherished work rider into an accomplished jockey for the big occasion, notably in winning consecutive Irish Derbys. He had already professed the hope that Murtagh might turn his back on Fame And Glory, and compares his Derrinstown performance favourably to those of Galileo and High Chaparral. He rode both those colts at Leopardstown, and believes Fame And Glory will be very hard to beat.
To that extent, Murtagh's decision can be counted a rather quixotic one. True, Rip Van Winkle's form is strictly the stronger, and his ring-rusty display in the Guineas implied that he could well prove the best colt in the field by the end of the season. But while he is by Galileo, his dam is by the sprinter, Stravinsky. Fame And Glory is by Montjeu out of a Shirley Heights mare and was able to win a Group One over 10 furlongs in searching ground at Saint-Cloud last autumn.
One way or another, destiny seems to summon O'Brien in a race where all the jockeys will wear black armbands in honour of his predecessor and namesake, Vincent O'Brien, who saddled six Derby winners from Ballydoyle and died on Monday at the age of 92.
The prize certainly seems fated to go to Ireland, with only five outsiders trained on British soil. But there were some optimistic words yesterday from Saeed bin Suroor, who believes that Kite Wood will improve considerably for his fifth place in the Dante.
"I think a mile and a half will really suit him," the Godolphin trainer said. "We just need the ground to be good. All our horses are improving for a run. When this horse ran at York, he needed the race and wasn't beaten far. He was happy and fresh [in his work] today, and that is always a good sign before a big race."
In contrast Harry Dunlop suffered the misery of seeing Three Moons, his candidate for the Investec Oaks on Friday, finish her final gallop with a minor injury.
Investec Derby (Totesport odds): 11-4 Sea The Stars, 4-1 Fame And Glory, Rip Van Winkle, 6-1 Gan Amhras, 9-1 Black Bear Island, 16-1 Masterofthehorse, 25-1 others.
Nap: Implication (8.50 Kempton)
NB: The Magic Blanket (6.50 Kempton)