Scarcity of Derby challengers

RACING: Trials for Epsom begin in earnest but credible rivals to Pennekamp's domination of the market appear thin on the ground
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The Independent Online

Celtic Swing may not be the wonder horse that we had hoped for and Pennekamp may be only a neck better, but together they have achieved something unique in modern times. They are horses bred to stay the Derby distance of a mile and a half who have managed to fill the first two places over the mile of the 2,000 Guineas. Their achievement has smothered the sense of anticipation that usually greets the trials for the premier Classic which start today.

It is necessary to go back to Nashwan in 1989 to find a Guineas winner that could confidently be expected to last home in the Derby. In most years, the winner is a specialist miler whose career at that distance is interrupted while he embarks on a fruitless trip to Epsom. Mister Baileys, Rodrigo De Triano, Mystiko and Doyoun provide strong enough recent evidence of this trend. Then there are the horses that fail to make the No 1 spot at Newmarket, who are backed in the belief that they will have a better chance of Classic success once they tackle a trip. From the dozens touted to make the progression, only Generous, in 1991, has succeeded in the last 15 years.

So with Pennekamp heading the Derby betting at around evens and Celtic Swing, standing at odds of 2-1 - with the insurance of money back if he fails to turn up because of firm ground - there is little room at the top of the lists for the aspirants from the trials.

A spectacular display would be required to unseat Pennekamp and that seems unlikely to be forthcoming at Chester today, where only three of the seven runners in the Chester Vase - Court Of Honour, Maralinga and Singspiel - are entered in the Blue Riband.

The Christleton Maiden Stakes earlier on the card brings together just as many Derby entrants, with Istabraq, Mackook and Royal Solo trying to extend their limited experience, while at Doncaster, two more Epsom hopes, Baker's Gate and Mezaan, take in tonight's Fukushima Maiden Stakes.

Saturday's Derby trial at Lingfield is hardly likely to set Classic betting alight and, with only seven entries declared yesterday, the race has had to be re-opened in order to attract further runners.

From there the search moves on to York next week for the Dante Stakes and finally to Goodwood the week after, when the Predominate Stakes provides the platform.

Overshadowing the action will be the question of whether Celtic Swing can be lured to Epsom. The chances are slim of rainfall alone keeping such a fast-draining track moist and so it is the amount of watering which will decide the going.

Naturally, the course executive is anxious to attract such a high-profile horse to their first Saturday Derby and yesterday its efforts began to assure Peter Savill, Celtic Swing's owner, that the underfoot conditions will be more luxury shag pile than durable stair carpet.

Edward Gillespie, managing director of United Racecourses which owns the track, said: "Epsom has an extremely reliable record of providing good going for the Derby [four times in the last five years]. The fact that the Vodafone Derby will be run on the second day of the meeting should not impact on our ability to continue this record. Watering started last Monday, 1 May, and this will continue with the aim of providing good going."

There are other considerations inhibiting confirmation that the 1,000 Guineas winner, Harayir, will head to Epsom for the Oaks. Dick Hern, her trainer, maintained his winning run with Cuff Link at Kempton yesterday, but he has not yet discussed plans for the filly with her owner, Hamdan Al Maktoum.

The trainer's assistant, Marcus Tregoning, said: "She's taken the race well and lost about 15lb. Sheikh Hamdan visited the stable this morning but they haven't decided where to go next. That will be sorted out in the next few days with the Oaks, Irish 1,000 Guineas and the Prix de Diane among possible objectives."