06/02/2006 11:00PM

Sir Percy the victor in a close one

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Jockey Martin Dwyer brought Sir Percy up the rail with a scintillating late run to win the $2.35 million Epsom Derby in a blanket four-horse finish Saturday in a race that saw the breakdown of Horatio Nelson, who was later euthanized.

A son of European champion miler Mark of Esteem, the 6-1 Sir Percy just got up to defeat the 66-1 maiden Dragon Dancer by a short head, with the pacesetting Dylan Thomas another head behind in third and recent maiden winner Hala Bek - who was making just his second start - fourth, a head behind Dylan Thomas. It was another two lengths back to the 2-1 favorite, Visindar, the previously undefeated French challenger who found little when the real running began entering the stretch. The time for the 1 1/2 miles was 2:35.23 on ground labeled good, good to firm in places.

There was no doubting Sir Percy's class entering this 227th Epsom Derby. He had capped an undefeated juvenile campaign with a pair of

victories at seven furlongs in the Group 2 Vintage Stakes and the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes, England's definitive 2-year-old race. In his seasonal debut on May 6 he ran second to George Washington in the 2000 Guineas in his first try at a mile. Out of a mare by the 1969 Epsom Derby winner, Blakeney, Sir Percy proved on Saturday that the European classic distance is well within his scope.

Dwyer was content to settle Sir Percy near the back of the 18-runner field early on after Dylan Thomas, one of four Aidan O'Brien-trained derby entrants, had taken over as pacesetter from Atlantic Waves. Dylan Thomas and Dragon Dancer were staying on late as Sir Percy came up the rail, while Hala Bek took a wide route. Dragon Dancer and Dylan Thomas never gave up, but Dwyer courageously came through a narrow gap with Sir Percy to nail it on the line. The winner, whose trainer, Marcus Tregoning, had received a speeding ticket on his way to Epsom, was not going to be stopped. The Irish Derby at The Curragh on July 2 looms as his next objective, where he could be joined by the fast-improving Hala Bek.

The start of the Derby was delayed by 10 minutes as veterinarians checked the condition of Horatio Nelson. With his trainer, O'Brien, present, the 11-2 second choice was finally allowed to enter the gate, and jockey Kieren Fallon had him in perfect position a few lengths off the lead when disaster struck at the three-sixteenths pole.

As Visindar loomed up alongside, Horatio Nelson's legs gave way beneath him. He stumbled and was immediately pulled up, soon to be vanned off, having broken a front leg, the injury so serious that he could not be saved.

Named for the British naval hero who died at the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson was by Danehill out of the English Oaks winner Imagine. At 2 he won the Group 1 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere and the Group 2 Futurity Stakes before finishing second by a neck to Sir Percy in the Dewhurst Stakes. In six career starts for owners Mrs. David Nagle and Mrs. John Magnier he won four races and earned $488,433.