Sue Montgomery: McIver can seize day and usurp mud-loving Mastercraftsman

Inside Track

Despite their communal Group One status, there is little doubt that some Classic races are more equal than others.

And despite the current dominance of Irish stables in the betting for the most equal of them all, the Derby, the equivalent in the home of Messrs O'Brien, Oxx, Bolger et al is, in the wider scheme of things, regarded with less reverence. In the same way, the Irish Open golf tournament is a nice prize to win, but the Open is a major.

When the Irish 2,000 Guineas was first run in 1921, the original in Newmarket was 120 years old and established as the first marker of the season for elite three-year-old colts. The quality of contestants in the facsimile is now infinitely better than in the early days, when it was purely a domestic affair, and some properly distinguished athletes have won it. But the likes of Sadler's Wells, Triptych, Barathea, Rock Of Gibraltar and last year's winner Henrythenavigator will be better remembered for their deeds elsewhere.

This afternoon's 89th edition of the Irish race has been reduced to a consolation prize (albeit a lavish one) as the Rowley Mile hero Sea The Stars is heading for the brighter uplands of the Epsom Downs. And, unusually, not only he, but two of the three who followed him in at Newmarket, Gan Amrhas and Rip van Winkle, as the Guineas for once reverted to its original template of a high-class trial for the Derby.

Their absence has left runner-up Delegator and fifth-placed Mastercraftsman to follow a different destiny, as potentially top-class milers. The pair – the former the invader, from Brian Meehan's Wiltshire yard, the latter one of the defenders, the perceived best from Ballydoyle – are vying for favouritism.

It may have taken an exceptional horse to better sharply progressive Delegator, whose Classic runner-up spot was his best performance to date. But all formbook logic may, like the nine contenders themselves, become bogged down in the prevailing conditions. The heavy, unrelenting rain that has been lashing Co Kildare finally relented in the past 36 hours, but the ground at the Curragh is barely raceable and today's mile will be a thorough test of endurance.

Mastercraftsman is already proven in demanding circumstances on the same track; he dug deep last year to haul himself through a gluepot and win the National Stakes by a short head. Delegator is not, although he is closely related to two horses who acted conspicuously well in mud, Tomba and Holding Court.

Delegator is one of two challengers from Britain; the other, Richard Hannon's charge Soul City, is making his seasonal debut. His performance last year in taking a valuable sales-related contest at the Curragh has not been diminished either by the runner-up Gan Amrhas, third in the Newmarket Guineas, or third-placed Intense Focus, subsequent winner of the Dewhurst Stakes. That pair are both trained by Jim Bolger, who has yet to win his local 2,000 Guineas and, if his teasing comments 12 months ago about preferring the race as a target over the Derby for New Approach are taken at face value, would dearly like to. As it turned out, New Approach found Henrythenavigator too good for the second time. But the former did go on to win the Derby.

Bolger fields an outsider today in Fergus McIver, a typically hard-working Coolcullen inmate. The Sadler's Wells colt has run four times this term, twice put in his place by the O'Brien-trained Derby favourite Fame And Glory. He is the only one of today's field who still holds an entry in the Epsom showpiece, presumably (but not certainly, because you can never second-guess the mind of a shrewd sphinx) as back-up to Gan Amrhas.

For progressive Recharge, carefully nurtured by Kevin Prendergast, today's race has been his target ever since he announced his arrival in the top ranks by accounting for Intense Focus on his seasonal debut in March.

Rayeni, though, must be regarded as something of a default third string for John Oxx, whose best miler Sea The Stars has a date elsewhere and whose second-best Arazan has succumbed to a setback. No outstanding candidate among the three-year-old miling ranks has yet emerged and any pecking order that emerges today is likely to be reshuffled come summer conditions at Royal Ascot next month.

Mastercraftsman, likely to progress from his Newmarket experience, may fare best of the two favourites. But those looking for an each-way punt at a price should consider Fergus McIver (3.45), who is tough as you like and will relish a test of stamina.

Tomorrow, the Classic fillies have their turn in the Irish 1,000 Guineas. The form of the Newmarket original is represented by runner-up Cuis Ghaire and third-placed Super Sleuth who, as a daughter of Selkirk, should not be inconvenienced by the ground. But the advice is to try Again (3.40).

Some tantalising older horses strut their stuff in the weekend's third Irish Grade 1 feature, the Tattersalls Gold Cup, which can go to Famous Name (3.05), race-fit and happy on soft ground.

The most interesting horse running in Britain today is Godolphin close-season headhunt Donativum (2.50), winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.

The best of his form puts him at Classic contender level but, as a gelding, he is ineligible for such contests.

O'Brien's domination of Derby keeps pot boiling

The presence of nine Aidan O'Brien-trained horses among the 20 remaining in the Derby has not deterred ante-post punters from having a go, it seems. The betting lists had something of a wake-up call yesterday as a gamble on one of the nine, the 2,000 Guineas fourth-place Rip Van Winkle, started to gather momentum, prompted by marked movement in the special "What will stable jockey Johnny Murtagh ride?" market offered by SkyBet.

Within hours, the major firms reacted by cutting the Galileo colt's price for the race itself. Coral halved his odds from 11-1 to 11-2. "It's the most significant gamble on the Derby since we started betting 12 months ago," said spokesman Simon Clare. "At the very least it suggests Rip Van Winkle is in good shape and expected to run well."

Since the Rip's performance under Murtagh at Newmarket, O'Brien has won trials in Britain and Ireland with Fame And Glory, Age of Aquarius, Golden Sword and Black Bear Island. The trainer does not make a habit of declaring his hand but Fame And Glory, currently shading his John Oxx-trained compatriot Sea The Stars for favouritism, was perceived by most as the Ballydoyle No 1, until yesterday's smoke signals.

"If you ran just the O'Brien horses in the Derby it would be a good betting market," added Clare. "Throw in the Guineas winner and third as well and you've got what looks like a vintage Derby both in terms of quality and competitiveness."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Nisaal (4.15 Haydock)

NB: Hawk Mountain (5.45 Newmarket)