Vexing creatures, horses. Vexing, bloody-minded, perverse even. Or do they merely absorb and amplify the foibles of their masters? On the first day of this meeting, the success of Lush Lashes enabled Jim Bolger to reiterate a mysterious aversion to Epsom. Yesterday, in pitiless contrast, the failure of Twice Over left another trainer stricken by his infatuation with the place.
Henry Cecil was unmistakably aghast as he saw Twice Over relegated to the lowest tier of the podium while Tartan Bearer gamely saw off Frozen Fire in the Totesport Dante Stakes. His colt had come here unbeaten, sacrificing a crack at the 2,000 Guineas in order to maximise his chance in the Vodafone Derby. But it turns out that Cecil had turned down a bird in the hand, for two in the bush.
Though he had expressed reservations about the fast ground, Cecil drew impassively on a cigarette as Twice Over travelled smoothly through the race. But as the stub burned down towards his fingers, so did Khaled Abdulla's colt seem to discover his own limits. Cecil's worn features revealed first anxiety, and then alarm, as Twice Over failed to join issue under pressure in the straight. Afterwards, in a moment of inadvertent cruelty, Ted Durcan told Cecil that his mount might prove better off over a strongly-run mile. In other words, a race like the 2,000 Guineas.
Trainers, quite understandably, do not like to be told that they are running horses in the wrong races – whether by dishevelled scribblers or other, no less meddlesome bystanders (sometimes, perhaps, including their own patrons). But the public is becoming increasingly bewildered, this season, by the Classic strategies of some of the modern Turf's most accomplished horsemen.
In fairness, while few can know quite what to make of Bolger, nobody imagines Cecil guilty of wilful pursuit of some peculiar, quixotic agenda. It is true that Twice Over was never guaranteed to get the Derby trip, but nobody entertained the possibility that his stamina might fail over the intermediate distance here. After all, he had won over 10 furlongs even as a juvenile.
"I am not blaming the ground, as all the others went on it," Cecil said. "He came there and emptied out. He was disappointing really. Whether he needs to come back in distance or not, I don't know. It is up to the Prince, but I don't think he will run in the Derby after that."
His perplexity was mirrored by the bookmakers as they sought to identify a new Derby favourite. Some went for Curtain Call. One decided on Casual Conquest, on the basis that he will surely be supplemented now. And others, mindful of the fact that three of the last four Dante winners had followed up at Epsom, cut to the chase with Tartan Bearer.
After all, Sir Michael Stoute has now saddled the winners of three different Derby trials, and the fact that he chose the toughest of them for Tartan Bearer is presumably expressive of his belief. This flashy chestnut had previously contested just two maidens, but obviously shares the aptitude of his brother, Golan, won the 2,000 Guineas on only his second start.
Held up by Ryan Moore as Centennial harried McCartney in the lead, Tartan Bearer engaged readily as the field spread into the straight. Getting past Frozen Fire with a furlong still to run, he was always just holding the Irish colt, who ostensibly rallied to force the photo. The likelihood is that the winner was idling in front; stamina should not be an issue, Golan having also won a King George. Regardless, it was two and a half lengths back to Twice Over, in turn well clear of the humdrum Centennial, with the Godolphin pair bringing up the rear.
Stoute won this race in 2004 with North Light – also owned and bred by Ballymacoll Stud – and did not demur over Tartan Bearer's eligibility to follow that colt to Epsom. "I have to say I'm entitled to be fairly hopeful about this fellow," he said. "He has progressed so well since Leicester. It got a little bit tight out there, he had to go for that split, and was probably just in front long enough. The experience should have taught him a good deal."
He confirmed that Tajaaweed would also go to the Derby, and Doctor Fremantle, his other Chester winner, may yet run as well. That colt would have to be supplemented for £75,000, but Abdulla may well be tempted now that Twice Over is out of the game.
As for Frozen Fire, the fact that he started at 14-1 implied a fairly meek standing among the many potential Derby colts at Ballydoyle; on the other hand, the fact that Aidan O'Brien had been prepared to run him in a Group One race last autumn, after just one start, told a rather different story. The handsome Montjeu colt is entitled to a rematch over the extra distance at Epsom. Notoriously, however, no horse has ever won the Derby after being beaten in the Dante. And history offers a far more explicit precedent to the winner, who was foaled in the very same stall as North Light.
DERBY (Epsom, 7 June) Coral: 3-1 Casual Conquest (with a run), 4-1 Tartan Bearer, 5-1 Curtain Call, 7-1 Frozen Fire, 9-1 Tajaaweed, 10-1 Henrythenavigator, 14-1 Doctor Freemantle, Kingdom Of Naples, 16-1 Kandahar Run, Alessandro Volta, 20-1 Bronze Cannon, Rio De La Plata, Washington Irving, 25-1 others.
Nap: Wyatt Earp