05/15/2006 11:00PM

Epsom prep comes up soft

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The Group 2 Dante Stakes, which will be run for the 49th time at York in England on Thursday, has long been the key prep for the Epsom Derby. Its last two winners, Motivator and North Light, have duly followed with victories in the Epsom classic, but this year's event, to be run at 1 1/4 miles, 88 yards for a purse of $272,000, may not be up to producing a solid challenger to the undefeated Derby favorite, Visindar.

With the favored Hala Bek having been withdrawn by trainer Michael Jarvis after scoping poorly on Monday, the Dante could come down to three colts who ran in last October's Racing Post Trophy, but they all have questions to answer.

Godolphin Racing purchased Palace Episode after his victory in the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy at a mile, in which Septimus finished third and Best Alibi fourth, but the stable's horses are off to a very slow start in England this season. The Aidan O'Brien-trained Septimus was only seventh in the Group 3 Prix La Force at Longchamp on April 23, while the lone victory of Best Alibi, whose dam is a half-sister to Fourstars Allstar and Fourstardave, came in a so-so seven-furlong maiden at Leicester last fall.

Michael Bell, who saddled Motivator to his Dante/Derby double last year, has the Montjeu colt Leningrad this time around. The winner of a 1 1/4-mile maiden on the Lingfield all-weather in his April 3 debut, he could be good enough to beat his more experienced rivals.