Andrew Balding’s Bonfire emerged as the most serious threat to Investec Derby favourite Camelot with an impressive comeback performance in the Betfred Dante Stakes at York yesterday.
The son of Manduro could hardly have promised more in his two starts as a juvenile, looking a class-act on his racecourse debut at Salisbury before finishing a luckless third in the Group One Criterium International at Saint-Cloud.
His seasonal return had been shifted to Britain’s most high-profile Epsom trial from last week’s Dee Stakes at Chester due to the rain-softened ground on the Roodee and it proved a wise decision.
The colt showed slight signs of waywardness before the off, but he was as good as gold once the gates opened and travelled supremely well in the hands of Jimmy Fortune.
Bonfire quickened past the well supported Ballydoyle-based favourite Ernest Hemingway in most taking style and it was recent Newbury winner Ektihaam who moved stylishly out of the pack to throw down a challenge.
The two of them fought out a crowd-pleasing finish heading inside the final furlong, but Bonfire was on top close home, officially scoring by threequarters of a length.
Balding’s ace is now 5-1 from 10-1 for Epsom with Boylesports, with the unbeaten 2000 Guineas winner Camelot a shade of odds-on at 4-5.
In a remarkable twist of fate, the two leading Derby contenders were raised in the same paddock at Highclere Stud.
The trainer now hopes his charge recovers in time for Epsom with the premier Classic this year only a little over a fortnight away.
Balding said: “It was very good. I was getting a bit uncomfortable with all the hype because he’s not a brilliant work horse and he’s done it in flashes this spring, so it was a relief to get him out.
“He behaved like a professional most of the time and he did it very well in the race. Jimmy was very impressed. It was a truly run race and a proper trial.
“The second has had a run already this season and Jimmy felt we were getting a little leg weary inside the final furlong, not through lack of stamina but through lack of race fitness so that is all the more encouraging.
“We’ve only got just over a fortnight, but as long as he comes out of this well, we’ve got to give Epsom serious consideration.
“It’s key at Epsom to get a position and it looks like he’s got the ability to do that. But what do I know? I’ve never had a Derby runner!
“I just hope it doesn’t take too much out of him.”
Fortune said: “He travelled really well and he has just got a bit tired in the last furlong, but I think he’ll stay the mile and a half all right.
“He’s a handy little horse and he should be the ideal type of horse for Epsom.
“It’s nice just to have a ride in the Derby, never mind a leading fancy. Hopefully he’ll run very well.”
John Gosden and William Buick followed up a first day double with the smooth success of Izzi Top in the Betfred Middleton Stakes.
Izzi Top is a daughter of Zee Zee Top who won the Group Two event nine years earlier for the same owners, Helena Springfield Ltd, before going on to claim the Prix de l’Opera at Longchamp – a race Gosden is now targeting.
Izzi Top won the Dahlia Stakes at Newmarket on her first start this season to prove that she had returned as good as ever.
Having finished third in the Oaks last term, hopes were high she would progress and all the evidence so far suggests she has improved a good deal.
The 7-2 favourite was always travelling kindly in the hands of Buick a couple of lengths behind the leader Mohedian Lady before hitting the front. She had to be ridden out to hold off Godolphin’s Sajjhaa by a length and a half.
Reg Hollinshead’s Cloudy Spirit (13-2) continued her progression by denying Dark Ranger back-to-back wins in the Investec Specialist Bank Stakes under Tony Culhane.
Eddie Ahern, the rider of Dark Ranger, was later handed an 11-day ban (May 31-June 9 and June 11) after finding him guilty of using his whip above the permitted level and in the incorrect place.
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