Savill takes soft option with Celtic Swing

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The Independent Online
The first course at yesterday's Derby lunch was irony. "Holding Out For A Hero" was the backing track as they played a video of the major Classic trials to an assortment of owners and trainers. The audience, though, knew only too well that the hero was going elsewhere.

Four hours earlier, at a press conference at the Jockey Club, Peter Savill had announced that Celtic Swing, whose standing with the punting public was only slightly tarnished by his narrow defeat in the 2,000 Guineas, will be added to the field for the Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) at Chantilly on Sunday.

It will cost Savill, Celtic Swing's owner, FF250,000 (pounds 32,000) to avoid a rematch with Pennekamp, the Guineas winner, in the (original and best) Derby at Epsom tomorrow week, but while the easy going in France will undoubtedly suit Celtic Swing, many British backers will feel that his owner has chosen the soft option in more ways than one.

"It's the most heart-wrenching decision I've ever been asked to make in racing," Savill said yesterday, though stomach-churning might be the preferred adjective of the punters who have been backing Celtic Swing for the Derby since his brilliant victory in the Racing Post Trophy last October.

The thick part of pounds 500,000 will remain in the bookies' satchels as a result of Savill's decision, including the owner's own stake, at 250-1, which would have returned "a six-figure sum" had Celtic Swing prevailed at Epsom. It is a fact which will only increase the astonishment of ordinary British backers at the colt's departure to France.

It was, after all, going to be the rematch to cross continents for. Celtic Swing, the freakishly brilliant two-year-old, was beaten by Pennekamp in his first attempt at a Classic but apparently capable of taking his revenge in the one which really matters. A pinch of Anglo-French rivalry was ready to add extra spice.

Instead, we have the slightly bizarre scenario of the best horse from over there coming over here - Pennekamp is now no better than 6-4 for Epsom - while the best from over here goes over there.

Savill, a Cayman Islands-based publisher, offered plenty of reasons for his choice, even if it was sometimes debatable whether he was trying to convince himself or the British racing public. "The decision has been made solely in the interests of Celtic Swing," he said. "We had some very serious concerns about his physical and mental well-being. He is not only a horse with a tremendous stride, which means that Epsom might not suit him, but more importantly he does not have perfect conformation, and if you run a horse like that on a course like Epsom, you run the risk of jarring him up, particularly his knees.

"When horses are being asked to do something they don't like, they will do it once or twice but eventually they will say no thank you, and it's important to have him in a good mental state. We're talking about a valuable asset, and if you mess him up physically or mentally your asset is nothing."

Savill, at least, seemed convinced - which may be why the scene was so reminiscent of an old TV game show. Surely, it was only a matter of time before he reached into a box to produce a sign reading "Bluff", at which point everyone would start to laugh.

But he didn't, and Celtic Swing's supporters will not be the only ones with long faces.

At Epsom, the management has spent weeks spraying millions of gallons of water on the track in an attempt to keep the colt in Britain. If that policy seems unwise now, it will appear positively foolish if the heavens open next Friday evening and the ground comes up heavy.

When the bookmakers' ante-post books were re-arranged yesterday to take account of Celtic Swing's defection, Pennekamp was top-priced at 6-4 (Ladbrokes), with Spectrum at 7-2 (Coral), Sebastian on 7-1 (Coral also), and 10-1 bar the three.

At first sight, it appears that a thin spectacle will be played out for racegoers at the first Saturday Derby since the 1950s, but if the Classic's history shows anything, it is that a bad Derby is a rare thing indeed.

It is a point which Savill, who has put himself forward as a stout defender of British racing's status, should appreciate, and perhaps, deep down, he does. For apart from the fears about the going and the gradients, there is another possible reason for Celtic Swing's absence from the field at Epsom in eight days' time. It is the feeling that the colt would be beaten - again.

Epsom, for all its idiosyncracies, was good enough for Sea-Bird II, Nijinsky, Mill Reef and Shergar. But Celtic Swing, it seems, is not good enough for Epsom.