Popmurphy ready to crackle

Burke aiming to revive Middleham's Derby tradition with Blue Riband trial
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The Independent Online

The threads of history that bind will be there for all to see and savour at Epsom today. Though one of the grandstands, part of a £38m redevelopment, is brand new, the horse business out on the unique track has been conducted for centuries. In 45 days' time the challengers for the prize that not only made the Surrey venue but shaped the sport itself will hurtle to the finish for the 230th time.

Despite the globalisation of racing and the changes in balance of the programme at home and abroad, the Derby is still the linchpin, the moment that lays down a marker for a generation. This afternoon, in the Blue Riband Trial, a batch of three-year-olds will test their credentials down Tattenham Hill and round the famous corner.

But despite taking in 10 furlongs of the Derby course, the Epsom trial has proved the least reliable guide of the series of preps – others follow at Newmarket, Lingfield, Chester, Leopardstown and York – due to be run over the next month. The last winner to perform with credit in the real thing was Daliapour, who chased Oath home 10 years ago.

Four of today's runners hold the Derby entry: the likely favourite Debussy, Mustaqer, Ouster and Popmurphy. Debussy, from the red-hot John Gosden stable, was supplemented to the big one at a cost of £8,000 after scoring at Lingfield by 15 lengths and, like last year's Derby victor New Approach, carries the colours of Princess Haya of Jordan.

Should Popmurphy pass today's test, it will be a step towards his becoming a first Derby runner for Karl Burke (right). The Montjeu colt created a pleasing impression when he overcame inexperience to score at Windsor 16 days ago on his debut and has, according to his trainer, markedly improved mentally and physically for his first racecourse experience.

"He got the hang of it and started racing only in the last 100 yards at Windsor," Burke said yesterday, "and I should think he's come on a stone since then. He isn't the greatest worker at home, but he had shown us enough to suggest he was well above average.

"He's well-bred and a lovely scopey horse, he's athletic and balanced and should handle the track, and is the sort who will learn more in one day out than in 10 gallops at home. He ticks a lot of boxes and we'll know if we can tick a few more after this race."

A former jump jockey, Burke, 45, has been based for the past eight years at Spigot Lodge in Middleham. And though Yorkshire was the cradle of the thoroughbred in this country, the last Derby victory for a northern yard came in 1945, when Dante was sent south to take the last wartime edition of the Classic at Newmarket.

The most recent Epsom winner from Yorkshire was Pretender 140 years ago; like Popmurphy, like Dante, he was trained on the bracing Middleham moors. And Spigot Lodge itself once housed a Derby hero, The Flying Dutchman, successful on the Surrey Downs in 1849.

If all goes to plan today Popmurphy (named after his owner Maura Gittins' two pet dogs) will take in another trial before his return to Epsom. In terms of timing, the Dante Stakes at York three weeks tomorrow would be ideal, but his route may be less conventional. "He would have to be supplemented to the Dante," Burke said, "but there's a decent race over a mile and three at Hamilton the day after. We'll see."

As well as a Derby contender, Burke's burgeoning stable also houses a Gittins candidate for the 2,000 Guineas, the 33-1 shot Lord Shanakill. The battle-hardened colt, beaten a whisker in last year's Dewhurst Stakes, has recovered from last week's temporary setback of a high temperature and will go to Ripon on Saturday, a week before the Newmarket showpiece, for a racecourse gallop.

"He's been on the go for most of the winter, looks tremendous and is pretty fit," Burke said. "He could have done with a prep but I hope the trip to Ripon, with the crowd and raceday atmosphere, will give him a bit of a buzz."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Mr Freddy (5.25 Epsom)

NB: Debussy (3.40 Epsom)