06/30/2005 12:00AM

Derby winners clash in Eclipse


A clash of Derby winners is calculated to create a sensation at Sandown Park on Saturday, when Motivator and Shamardal go head-to-head in the $675,000 Eclipse Stakes.

The battle between the Epsom Derby champ, Motivator, and the French Derby winner, Shamardal, is the race of the year to date. Both horses have given every indication that they are exceptional, neither has ever lost on turf, and both are in prime condition for this 1 1/4-mile Group 1 contest, which should have a major impact on European championship honors.

The connections of both horses bypassed last Sunday's Irish Derby in favor of a first meeting with older horses in this shorter event, and it is no coincidence that the two 3-year-olds have frightened away all of the best older 1 1/4-mile horses.

Motivator, the 4-5 favorite with race sponsors Coral by virtue of his five-length romp at Epsom on June 4, is cutting back to 1 1/4 miles from 1 1/2 miles, yet he is talented enough to take the drop in his stride. He prepped for his Derby heroics with a victory in the Group 2 Dante Stakes at 1 1/4 miles and 88 yards, so trainer Michael Bell has no qualms about the distance. Johnny Murtagh has the ride aboard Motivator, a son of Montjeu who is seeking his fifth career victory without a loss.

In the 9-4 Shamardal, Motivator will be facing a confirmed front-running son of Giant's Causeway who has gone from strength to strength since returning to England from a winter in Dubai. Sandwiched around his 1 5/16-mile French Derby triumph over the subsequent Irish Derby winner Hurricane Run are Group 1 tallies at a mile in the French 2000 Guineas and St. James's Palace Stakes. In Frankie Dettori he will have the world's supreme judge of pace on his back, but Sandown's grueling uphill four-furlong stretch may find him out. Motivator's stamina should see him catching Shamardal inside the final sixteenth of a mile.

Overlooked in the brouhaha concerning the top two are their older rivals, chief among them an Australian invader, Starcraft. Now with trainer Luca Cumani, he was recently a sharp third behind Valixir in the one-mile Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes off an eight-month absence. Altieri is a two-time Group 1 winner going 1 1/4 miles in Italy.