HIS father’s Mill Reef, one of the greatest racehorses of all time, prevailed at York before landing an iconic Epsom Derby – and now Andrew Balding hopes Bonfire can do likewise after burning off his rivals in the Betfred Dante Stakes.
It will take a career-best performance to douse the flames of Camelot, Aidan O’Brien’s red-hot favourite for the Flat’s showpiece race in a fortnight, but Bonfire, a 3-1 chance, will take a deserved place in an otherwise sub-standard Derby.
Ridden by Jimmy Fortune, Bonfire appeared to have plenty in hand as he fuelled Derby dreams by beating Sheikh Hamdan’s Ektihaam following a prolonged duel – the first two had pulled clear of in-form William Buick’s mount Fencing who was back in third.
The big disappointments were Godolphin’s Mandaean who was unplaced and the O’Brien-trained Ernest Hemingway – he trailed home last after the trainer’s teenage jockey Joseph O’Brien set an unsustainable pace.
And it is this that gives the Balding camp hope ahead of their date with destiny – O’Brien junior is set to partner Camelot at Epsom and it will be his first experience of the Derby, a race which remains the greatest test of a jockey’s tactical knowhow.
It also needs remembering that this was Bonfire’s third career start and he will surely improve as the summer unfolds.
“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,” said relieved Balding, whose father Ian trained Mill Reef to land the 1970 Gimcrack Stakes en route to Derby immortality the following year.
“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.”
Bonfire would be a first Derby runner for Balding whose sister Clare still presents the last remnants of the BBC’s racing coverage – indeed this year’s renewal will be the last time that the Corporation’s cameras will be at Epsom.
“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,” added Balding. “I just hope it doesn’t take too much out of him.”
Bonfire, now 5-1 for the Derby, is owned by the same Highclere Thoroughbred Racing syndicate that is responsible for the William Haggas-trained Vow, the second favourite for the Epsom Oaks – the fillies’ Classic – behind Wednesday’s sublime Musidora winner The Fugue.
The latter is trained by John Gosden whose Izzi Top proved that she is another filly of top class when winning the Middleton Stakes under the aforementioned Buick.
The four-year-old, third in last year’s Oaks, is likely to have a break before attempting to seek an elusive win in a Grade One race – the Nassau Stakes at Glorious Goodwood is one possibility after she held off the Frankie Dettori-ridden Sajjhaa in a thrilling finish that helped a tactically-inspired Buick land another major prize at his beloved York.
Izzi Top was emulating her dam Zee Zee Top who won the corresponding race nine years ago under Kieren Fallon, and has a great rapport with her jockey.
“I love this filly, she’s top-class. She tries her hardest and what she really needs now is a Group One. She really deserves it (and) that would be the obvious next step up,” said Buick.
“She jumps very well from the stalls and I could probably ride her from a bit further back, but they can’t get away from her from the front. She was just looking around in front a bit, so (yesterday) she was probably in front soon enough.”
In other day two action, Fury (3-1) just denied last season’s Cambridgeshire hero Prince Of Johanne in a tremendous finish to the Betfred Hambleton Stakes.
The two greys had the finish of this mile handicap to themselves and the result was in doubt right to the line with Fury, trained by Yorkshireman Haggas, just obliging in the hands of former champion jockey Ryan Moore.
“I’m really, really pleased. He went off the boil last year but he’s a much stronger horse now and he’s really fought when he needed to,” said Haggas.
Meanwhile Thirsk trainer David Barron has a smart sprinter on his hands in Pearl Secret who was a winner for Jamie Spencer.
The only disappointment was that Malcolm Jefferson’s Cheltenham and Aintree hurdling hero Cape Tribulation was unplaced in the two and a quarter mile finale – the spoils went to Cloudy Spirit with Brian Ellison’s Bruslini back in third under jockey Graham Lee, who has made a successful switch from National Hunt racing to the Flat.