Today the road to Epsom takes in Sandown, as the eliminators for the Derby roll on. This afternoon's 10-furlong rehearsal has not been particularly dressy recently – it is 12 years since Benny The Dip became the last colt to take both races – but the sifting of talent of callow middle-distance three-year-olds always has a certain fascination. No matter how apparently ordinary the stuff in the riddle, one shake can reveal the glint of a nugget, and the answer.
No one present at the Esher track in 1981, for instance, will forget the sight of a white-faced bay colt careering away from his rivals down the straight to win the Classic Trial by 10 clear lengths, hard-held, on his seasonal debut. Before the race, twice-raced Shergar – for it was he – had been an unconsidered outsider for the Derby. He reprised his Sandown performance at Epsom to set a record winning margin for the Classic, and was its most recent odds-on winner.
Like Shergar, Taameer won over a mile at Newbury on his first racecourse appearance and showed much promise when runner-up on his second, is currently available at 33-1 for the Derby, will start a warm favourite today and has a broad blaze on his bay face. Whether or not he can emulate one of the world's most famous thoroughbreds remains to be seen but his trainer, Marcus Tregoning, who already has the premier Classic on his CV, courtesy of Sir Percy three years ago, is optimistic about this afternoon's test, at least. "He's done well over the winter and, obviously, he goes to Sandown with a good chance," he said. "The step up in distance should not be a problem as he's always given us the impression that is what he'll relish."
The performance of Taameer, the best son to date of young stallion Beat Hollow, will be eagerly eyed by Sheikh Mohammed and his Godolphin advisers, for the horse who beat him at Ascot last year was the Blues' chief Derby hope Kite Wood, scheduled to reappear in the Dante Stakes at York next month.
Three of Taameer's rivals today also hold the Derby entry. Aidan O'Brien, with Fame And Glory, Black Bear Island and Age Of Aquarius already prominent in the Epsom market, sends one of the perceived Ballydoyle foot soldiers Malibu Bay, a Navan maiden winner last year, over to test the British guns. Sir Michael Stoute fields the clearly well-regarded Saptapadi, who is thrown in rather deeper waters than his alternative engagement, a maiden at Leicester tomorrow (which, incidentally, was won last year by the subsequent Derby runner-up Tartan Bearer in the same ownership). And from the Barry Hills yard comes the optimistically named Above Average.
One who swerves today's race is Gan Amhras. Jim Bolger is reserving the option to use the 2,000 Guineas on Saturday week as an Epsom trial for the Galileo colt. The Co Carlow trainer reported all to be well with his more obvious Guineas candidate, the Dewhurst Stakes winner Intense Focus. "He has the class to be there," he said, "and he's already shown at Newmarket he has the temperament and the will to win."
As the Classic Flat season gathers pace, the domestic jumping campaign trickles to a halt at Sandown's mixed meeting tomorrow. Various gongs will be handed out, including the trainers' championship for Paul Nicholls and the riders' title for Tony McCoy (his 14th) that have been faits accomplis for some time, and the points-based equine Order Of Merit for Voy Por Ustedes.
The date chosen for the end of the season is arbitrary – there is no natural break; the new campaign starts at Ludlow on Sunday – and this year is incongruous, for Tuesday marks the first day of five at the Punchestown Festival, with 10 Grade One prizes on offer and champions like Master Minded set to run. As the Irish and British jumping programmes are inextricably linked, the current jumping campaign clearly should not be regarded as over just yet.