The sport of kings could finally belong to a Queen

Red-hot favourite Carlton House carries Royal colours into 232nd Derby

One of the quirks of racing is the fact that, of the various blocks that comprise its structure, the keystone is usually the one that attracts least attention. The whole show is, after all, predicated on one man's desire to show his horse can run the fastest. But the owner – who pays the bills that enable the professionals to make their livings and who supplies the raw material for the bookmaking industry – is generally last in the publicity queue behind the skills of the trainer, the expertise of the jockey and any betting implications.

Ahead of Saturday's 232nd Derby, though, for once there is no doubt about the identity of the person whose colours will be carried by the red-hot favourite Carlton House. Or perhaps that should be personage. For, should he triumph, the colt will be the first to carry Royal colours to victory in the premier Classic for more than a century.

The last to do so, in 1909, was Minoru, owned by King Edward VII, who had also been successful as Prince of Wales with Persimmon and Diamond Jubilee. The Queen, his great-granddaughter, has tried on nine occasions to win the Derby. None of her challengers has come closer than the first, Aureole, who was runner-up to Pinza in 1953; her most recent, Church Parade, finished fifth to Shergar 30 years ago.

Carlton House has headed the Derby market since his vic-tory earlier this month in the key domestic trial, the Dante Stakes at York. On that performance he is a worthy favourite for the £1.25 million Investec-sponsored purse, though cynics will carp that his price will be artificially cramped because of his ownership.

But even the most committed republican cannot deny the importance of this particular thread through racing's tapestry. During the post-war era, the Queen Mother's involvement in steeplechasing was crucial in reviving public interest in that branch of the sport. And the result of the 1953 Derby, in which the newly knighted Sir Gordon Richards rode Pinza to beat the horse of the newly crowned Queen, took the event straight off the back pages.

Racing is currently perceived as going through a crisis of attraction within and without, its image and health tainted variously by allegations of race-fixing, whip misuse, risible prize money and political in-fighting. Win or lose, Carlton House's arrival on the scene is a timely feelgood one for the marketeers.

It is always said that to find the Grand National winner, just look for the story, and so it may be this year for the Derby. Carlton House is not merely in Royal ownership, but came to be so through the most whimsical of circumstances. Two summers ago, in the manner of routine horsetrading, Sheikh Mohammed made the Queen an offer for her useful performer Highland Glen as a prospect for the winter season in Dubai. But, knowing the horse's tendency to mulish behaviour at the start of races and wishing to avoid any possible future embarrassment, she decided to give him away rather than sell him.

In reciprocation, as is the Arab custom, the sheikh presented the Queen with four yearlings of his own breeding, of which Carlton House, a son of his high-class US-based stallion Street Cry, was one. Highland Glen did go on to win a handicap at Meydan early last year, and whether or not that can be regarded as fair exchange for the Derby, the sheikh will see the bigger picture and share in the delight if the gift horse should win the world's most famous race.

Carlton House has raced only three times, but horses have won Derbys with less experience and the colt's back-up team is one of the best. His trainer, Sir Michael Stoute, has already saddled five previous Derby winners, including Workforce 12 months ago. Those who like a coincidence will note that the first two, Shergar and Shahrastani (1986), also came in the year of high-profile Royal nuptials, and also that one of Carlton House's four maternal great-great grandsires, Doutelle, was bred by the Queen.

The bay colt will be ridden by the unflappable three-times champion jockey Ryan Moore, who not only steered Workforce to victory, but also won last year's Oaks on Snow Fairy round the tricky Epsom switchback.

The portents for a Royal victory are there, not least Carlton House's outstanding recent work on the Newmarket gallops. But there are plenty of other powerful young equine athletes charged with setting the middle-distance standard for their generation, with equally persuasive credentials. Aidan O'Brien will be mob-handed, with a squad headed by Seville, Recital and Roderic O'Connor. His stable's Coolmore owners have back-up from France, André Fabre's charge Pour Moi, who took over second favouritism after his impressive Epsom practice run on Thursday. And Sheikh Mohammed himself will be aiming to spoil the fairytale with the unexposed Godolphin candidate Ocean War. But racing, epithetically the sport of kings, may at last belong to a Queen.