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.
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 well supported Ballydoyle-based favourite Ernest Hemingway in 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 to home, officially scoring by three-quarters 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."
It was another fantastic result for owners Highclere Thoroughbred Racing.
This particular syndicate of 20 people are the same group who own leading Oaks candidate Vow.
Enthusiastic racing manager Harry Herbert said: "It's quite remarkable really that the same owners own these two horses.
"Each owner paid £14,000 each for the share in each horse and they could never had dreamt they would have ended up with two like these.
"Bonfire was still quite green today but Jimmy was very impressed indeed. He said the way he picked up the Ballydoyle horse was very exciting and he has just got tired at the finish."