Each year before the Derby, which celebrates its 216th running this afternoon, there are reports on how the most fancied participants are expected to cope with the distance of the Classic. In recent days, the binoculars have been largely on Pennekamp, the 2,000 Guineas winner and market leader, and Spectrum, the second favourite.
The former's performance on Chantilly's La Piste Ronde on Monday was interpreted with such approval that the Eiffel Tower may already be wreathed in celebration lights and glitter. On that evidence, Pennekamp is expected to last out the longest journey of his life at Epsom today, as is Spectrum, who worked similarly pleasingly at Manton last Thursday. However, both that colt's trainer, Peter Chapple-Hyam, and Andre Fabre, who handles the favourite, recognise that speculation on home exercises is futile.
"My impression from his last important gallop was that he [Spectrum] would stay, but the only time we can be definite is on Saturday afternoon," Chapple-Hyam said this week. "I respect Pennekamp very much and if both of us stay I think it will be a two-horse race. But they are big ifs and I'd have to say that home work tells you just about nothing about whether they'll get the trip."
As insurance, both market leaders are entries for the one mile Sussex Stakes next month.
If Pennekamp, the most powerful Derby challenger yet for the world's most powerful owner, Sheikh Mohammed, does win he will have to be acknowledged as one of the great horses of recent times. Modern racing has become so competitive that it is closing in on impossible for a colt to be equally omnipotent over 12 furlongs as a mile. In the last 25 years only Nijinksy and Nashwan have married success in the 2,000 Guineas with victory in the Derby, and nobody has ever suggested that they were better animals at the shorter distance.
At this point it should be noted that Celtic Swing, whose absence undeniably takes a coat of gloss away from today's Classic, has proved himself a marvellous animal - if not the beast many hoped him to be. To come within a head of winning a Guineas and go on to Derby success (even in the less exalted fields of Chantilly) is a feat that falls only to the special few.
No French horse has won the Derby since Empery in 1976 and the last French jockey to succeed was Yves St Martin, who pointed Relko in the right direction in 1963. Since then there have been some disturbing riding performances, notably from Freddie Head, who is perhaps the only man alive who can get gypsies to wear hard hats.
It cannot be that the French are bad riders. But like all jockeys they are better at home than abroad and there are three reasons to believe Thierry Jarnet, Pennekamp's partner, will have a difficult job this afternoon. For a start, Epsom racecourse is built on a piece of land that would normally accommodate a funicular railway and is a circuit as far removed from those dotted around the peripherique as one could imagine.
In France, the pace from the stalls is so ponderous that pilots there could take out emery boards to give themselves something to do in the early stages. The 15 runners this afternoon will emerge as if a conflagration is behind them.
Lastly, Jarnet will have to get the run of the race as no one will help him through. As the predominantly British jockeys beseech each other for space and a safe passage around Tattenham Corner, the one phrase that it can confidently be predicted will not be uttered is "after you, Thierry".
While it may be an exaggeration to suggest that Sheikh Mohammed spends his winters sitting in the corner of a tent chanting the mantra "I must win a Derby", there is no doubt that this is the one race he would dearly like to win.
Once again he has several chances as, Pennekamp apart, Dubai's crown prince will have Vettori and Lammtarra in his heart if not in his colours. Both are part of the Godolphin hothouse experiment which has enjoyed so much success this season around the world with horses that have spent the winter months in the Emirates.
Vettori's prospects are compromised by the emphasis on speed in his pedigree, but Lammtarra has no worries on that score as he is a product of Derby and Oaks winners. However, he has run only once in his life and if the chestnut colt wins here he will spawn flight-loads of equine passengers to Dubai this winter.
There is, however, another horse in the maroon and white silks, the John Gosden-trained Tamure. The Sadler's Wells colt has a record eerily symmetrical to that of Commander In Chief, the victor two years ago. Both were unraced at two and both reached the Derby unbeaten after three runs, the last of them being in York's Glasgow Stakes.
Earlier this week Tamure was three times the price of Sebastian, whom he had beaten at Newmarket last month. For those who like to use logic as a tool, the brick wall stopped receiving the attention of their heads on Thursday when Sebastian was invalided out of the race with back trouble.
Tamure, already a winner over the distance, remains at 8-1 generally, which looks generous, especially each-way, as his narrow victories now look rather persuasive on the hard steel of the subsequent form of those behind him.
This afternoon's Derby is a race of imponderables: will Paul Cole's Salmon Ladder, who works as well at home as Mrs Beaton but who ran as flat as a pancake at York, show his best form? Will Pennekamp and Spectrum last the trip and go on from promising gallops to the ultimate success?
Amid such swirling options it should pay to go for a horse with conclusive stamina for the job, a horse with solid form. It should pay to go for Tamure.
THE EXPERTS' PREDICTIONS
1. Tamure (nap)