Donn's Articles » The Derby

The Derby

Ever since the summer of 1779, when Sir Charles Bunbury and Edward Smith-Stanley – known to the majority of 18th Century folk as the 12th Earl of Derby – tossed a coin to determine which of them would lend his name to the latest addition to the British racing calendar, the Epsom Derby has held an indelible position in the world of thoroughbred racing.

The Derby has always been the crown jewel. It is to flat racing what Wimbledon is to tennis, or the Open to golf. Of course it is one of the five Classics, just as the Open is one of the four majors, but it is just a little bit more classic than the other four. Such is the Derby’s position historically in racing’s psyche that you usually don’t need a qualifier to differentiate it from the plethora of replicas that have sprung up all over the world. Mention the Derby to a racing enthusiast and he will immediately think of Epsom. In a sense, it is just as well the toss went the right way – the Bunbury could never have been a Classic.

Vincent O’Brien cemented his position as a trainer of international renown when he sent out Larkspur to bring home his first Derby in 1962. When Sir Gordon Richards rode Pinza to win the race in 1953, on his 28th attempt, he was able to abdicate the best-rider-never-to-win-the-Derby title, the same ambiguous honour from which Frankie Dettori was animatedly relieved when he won the race on Authorized last year.

The recently-retired über-stallion, Sadler’s Wells, had been crowned champion sire 10 times by 2001, but he had never sired a Derby winner. It didn’t matter that he had sired Oaks winners and Irish Derby winners and French Derby winners, his cv was glaringly incomplete until Galileo ran out an emphatic winner at Epsom. It was a bit like Jimmy White never having won the World Snooker Championship or Phil Mickelson never having won a major – until he did.

In recent times, however, the Derby’s position as the most coveted prize in racing, the Penny Black, the hazelnut whirl, has been called into question. The value and profile of other races like the Irish Derby and the Arc de Triomphe are continually increasing, and competition for the top class middle-distance three-year-old colts is rife and fair. This notion was hammered home a couple of weeks ago when Jim Bolger stated that his stable star, New Approach, would not go to Epsom, that he would run in the Irish Guineas and then the Irish Derby instead. This notion would not have been countenanced until recently. If you had a horse that you thought might be good enough, you ran him in the Derby. No debate.

Adding to the Derby’s travails is the prospect that the Dermot Weld-trained Casual Conquest, winner of the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, may not make the Derby line-up either. Not because of any aversion that Weld or owners Moyglare Stud have to Epsom, but primarily because the colt was not entered at the early final entry stage, and because it will cost £75,000 to put him in the race now should they choose to do so. Thus, we are faced with the prospect this year of two of the top middle distance three-year-old colts on the continent – and perhaps potentially the two best – not even taking part in what is purported to be the quintessential test for middle-distance three-year-old colts. It would be akin to running the Cheltenham Gold Cup without Denman and Kauto Star, Augusta without Woods and Mickelson, Wimbledon without Federer and Nadal. Unimaginable.

Aidan O’Brien restored a sense of calm when he declared, the day after the 2000 Guineas, that the hero of the first colts’ Classic, Henrythenavigator, was still in the Derby picture. It used to be said that the 2000 Guineas was the best Derby trial, that Group 1 form will out in a Group 1 race. However, not since Nashwan in 1989 has any horse completed the Guineas/Derby double. Surely Henrythenavigator is a miler to the marrow, a top class one, and there are more suitable candidates for Derby honours this year among his colleagues at Ballydoyle.

But the Derby heart beats strongly around Ballydoyle, inextricably linked through tradition. After Larkspur, Vincent O’Brien sent five more Derby winners on the well-trodden path from Ballydoyle to Epsom. Aidan has sent two to date, with the prospect of many more to come. The esteem in which the Derby is held in Fethard reverberates around the entire Ballydoyle/Coolmore axis. Last year, there were eight Ballydoyle representatives in the Derby, in both 2006 and in 2005 there were four. Only twice in the last seven years has an Aidan O’Brien-trained colt failed to finish in the first three in the Derby and, quite remarkably, six of the last nine Derby winners were by sired by Coolmore stallions.

All the major trials for this year’s Derby have now been run, but still the picture has yet to crystallise. The trials have been trying, not having really gone to plan. There is a certain satisfaction, a surety, that pervades when a big favourite wins a big race, as if things are as they should be and order is maintained. By extension, it is somewhat unsettling when the pre-determined race plan does not come to fruition, fostering, as it does, a lack of certainty, the feeling that perhaps the protagonists lack quality.

The Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial and the Dante Stakes are by far the two best Derby trials these days, producing six of the last eight Derby winners. This year, we had a warm favourite for each of them, an odds-on favourite, and both were beaten.

Twice Over, inheritor of New Approach’s mantle as Derby favourite, was sent off at 4-6 for the Dante at York on Thursday. Impressive in a brace of victories as a juvenile, he had won the Craven Stakes on his only start this year over what was thought to be an inadequate trip of a mile. Trainer Henry Cecil decided to skip the Guineas with him in order that he could prepare him for the Derby. Turns out, with the benefit of hindsight, not the best decision ever. The Observatory colt almost certainly didn’t stay the 10 and a half furlongs of the Dante, and his probably a miler. His participation in the Derby now looks a remote possibility.

Washington Irving was also put in at 4-6 for the Derrinstown race at Leopardstown last Sunday. Trained by Aidan O’Brien, he was still a maiden going into the race, but he was obviously impressing at home, a fact to which odds of as short as 9-1 for the Derby bore testimony. Before the race, common consensus was that if Dermot Weld had a Derby contender in his yard, it was probably impressive maiden winner Winchester, a son of Theatrical who had beaten leading Oaks contender Moonstone in a hot maiden on his only start this term. But as Casual Conquest bounded clear of Washington Irving, both lines of thinking were turned on their respective heads.

The ante post market for the Derby today bears little resemblance to its mid-April counterpart. Exit New Approach, Twice Over, Ibn Khaldun, Thewayyouare, Washington Irving and Centennial, enter Tartan Bearer, Frozen Fire and Tajaaweed. Of the top seven horses in the betting eight weeks ago, only one remains, Curtain Call, who has effectively retained his position in the market by standing in his box, side-stepping his intended engagement in the Lingfield Derby Trial, as his would-be rivals have fallen from theirs. It is all a little unsettling for the purists.

Winner of the Beresford Stakes last year as a juvenile when trained by Jessica Harrington, Curtain Call has run just once for new trainer Luca Cumani, winning an ordinary three-horse race at Nottingham, not a recognised Derby trial, from which the runner-up has since been well beaten in a handicap. The fact that he is now favourite in most lists (a general 5-1 shot from 12-1 in mid-April) owes more to the failings of his contemporaries and to the fact that he is alive and well than it does to anything remarkable that he has achieved as a three-year-old.

Frozen Fire has come from nowhere to finish second in the Dante and plant himself firmly in the Derby frame, quite possibly the Ballydoyle number one, while, from having no horse in the top eight two months ago, Sir Michael Stoute is now responsible for three of the top six in the betting. Tartan Bearer, a full-brother to Derby runner-up Golan, is following the path that Stoute used for 2004 Derby winner North Light and 1986 winner Shahrastani, having run out a game winner of the Dante on Thursday. Tajaaweed, winner of the Dee Stakes at Chester 10 days ago, is taking the Kris Kin route, while Doctor Fremantle, who still has to be supplemented, winner of the Chester Vase, is on the path that Stoute chose for Shergar in 1981.

But if there is a superstar Derby winner lurking, surely it is the Dermot Weld-trained Casual Conquest. Winner of the trial from which Sinndar, Galileo and High Chaparral were propelled forth, the turn of foot that he showed at Leopardstown last Sunday on the outside of a quickening field was the hallmark of a top class individual. The form of the race is solid, with a Group 3 winner in third and a highly-touted Ballydoyle horse in second, six lengths back, and the winning time was impressive. A son of stamina-influence Hernando, he raced like he will have little difficulty staying the extra two furlongs of the Derby and, chances are, he will improve markedly for that run, his seasonal debut and just the second race of his life.

Weld has yet to commit him to the race, mindful of his inexperience and the supplementary entry fee that owners Moyglare Stud will have to find to put him in it, but you have to think that, if the trainer feels that he has a Derby horse, an Epsom horse, the fee will be found. Moyglare’s racing manager Stan Cosgrove intimated as much when it was put to him on Thursday after the Dante.

At its base level, it makes economic sense, the potential gains are a high multiple of the required outlay. It is a good value bet. But perhaps more importantly, Moyglare Stud have never owned a Derby winner, Weld has never trained a Derby winner. For a team so steeped in racing’s tradition, which has plundered prizes all over the racing world, the Derby is almost certainly on top or near the top of their wish list.

The Epsom executive will await the decision with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation. Casual Conquest’s presence in or absence from this year’s race could have lasting implications for the most classic of Classics.

© The Sunday Times 16th May, 2008