Donn's Articles » Derby pointers

Derby pointers

If the Investec Derby is one of those jigsaws that spreads itself out over your dining room table, and takes from Christmas Day until the middle of February to complete, then the Derby trials are the pieces that make up the puzzle. All the major trials have been run now and, injuries and scratchings notwithstanding, there is no more evidence to be gathered, no more pieces to put on the table. It doesn’t mean that it is an easy one to decipher mind you: just because you have all the pieces in front of you, it doesn’t mean that you have solved the puzzle.

2000 Guineas

In some respects, it is a little disingenuous to include the 2000 Guineas in a list of Derby trials. Of course the first colts’ Classic is not merely a stepping stone to the Derby, but it is a major pointer to the first Saturday in June, so it would be remiss to exclude it.

There are those who maintain that the Guineas is the best Derby trial, simply because it is a Group 1 race, the only Group 1 contest in this list. Group 1 form will out. The major flaw in the argument, however, is that the Guineas is run over a straight mile at Newmarket, with a Dip about a furlong and a half out that is the genesis of much conjecture and debate. The Derby is run over a mile and a half of peaks and troughs that makes Newmarket’s Dip look like a billiard table. It represents a completely different test for the thoroughbred, and a racehorse who has the speed to win a Guineas over a mile, the stamina to win a Derby over a mile and a half, and the constitution and the versatility to excel on the contrasting terrains of both Newmarket and Epsom is a rare commodity indeed.

Of course, we experienced that rare commodity last year with Sea The Stars, rare in every sense. Before last year, however, you had to go back 20 years to Nashwan to find the previous Guineas winner who went on to win the Derby. And before Nashwan? Nijinsky.

Others have gone close. El Gran Senor and Dancing Brave, for example, both Guineas winners, both unlucky not to win the Derby. Generous was fourth in the 1991 Guineas before he went and won the Derby, Hawk Wing was second in both Classics in 2002, Sir Percy was second in the Guineas in 2006 and won the Derby the following month, while New Approach was beaten a nostril by Henrythenavigator in the Guineas two years ago before going on to Epsom glory.

Actually, the recent record of Guineas losers is significantly better than that of Guineas winners in the Derby. St Nicholas Abbey, sixth in the Guineas, is the highest-placed horse from this year’s Guineas who is likely to take his chance in the Derby. He is bred to be better over a mile and a half than over a mile, and he is obviously a huge player. The Aidan O’Brien-trained colt could still be the story of the season.

Chester Vase

The Chester Vase’s claim as a Derby pointer rests squarely on the withers of Shergar, the 1981 record-breaking winner. Quest For Fame was second to Belmez in the race before he won the 1990 Derby, but the Chester Vase’s link to the Derby these days is tenuous at best, and it is not likely to be strengthened next month, with the 2010 Chester Vase winner, Ted Spread, currently a 50/1 shot for the Blue Riband. He may be more of a St Leger horse than a Derby horse.

Dee Stakes

The Dee Stakes, run, like the Chester Vase, at Chester’s May meeting, has been a little more relevant in recent times, with 1999 Derby hero Oath and 2003 winner Kris Kin using the race as a stepping stone to Epsom. This year’s Dee Stakes winner Azmeel can currently be backed at 20/1 for the Derby, but he does have a chance.

The John Gosden-trained colt didn’t have the run of the race in the Dee Stakes. He got hampered at the end of the back straight, with the result that he raced around Chester’s tight home turn on the wrong lead, yet he still picked up impressively and went bravely through a narrow gap to catch and pass Dancing David, who set a fair standard going into the race, fourth in last year’s Racing Post Trophy, second in this year’s Craven Stakes. On his previous run, Azmeel had been beaten by Chabal in the Classic Trial at Sandown, but he was expected to come on significantly for that, and he should progress again for his Chester run. He is not a forlorn hope.

Lingfield Derby Trial

The Lingfield Derby Trial should perhaps be a more significant pointer to the Derby than it generally is, given that the run into Lingfield’s home straight, down a steep hill and around a sharp left-hand turn, is the greatest simulation of Epsom’s Tattenham Corner that you will find on any other racecourse in Britain or Ireland. Teenoso won the Lingfield trial in 1983 before providing Lester Piggott with his last Epsom Derby win, and Slip Anchor won it in 1985 before carrying Steve Cauthen to his first, but it was 10 years from Kahyasi in 1988 to High-Rise in 1998, and we haven’t had another Lingfield winner follow up at Epsom since.

This year’s Lingfield Derby Trial was inconclusive. The Henry Cecil-trained Bullet Train looked good in winning, but he was allowed dictate a sedate pace and the form of the race doesn’t look to be that strong. While he did quicken impressively from the front, he will face a completely different test if he lines up at Epsom.

Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial

The Derrinstown Stud trial vies with the Dante for the Best Derby Trial title these days. Sinndar, Galileo and High Chaparral won the Leopardstown trial and the Derby in the first three years of this millennium, while Derrinstown winners Alamshar (2003) and Dylan Thomas (2006) both finished third at Epsom before winning the Irish Derby, and Fame And Glory (2009) finished second at Epsom before going one better at The Curragh.

The Derrinstown race this year was just a four-runner affair, but At First Sight ensured that it was a truly-run race, and Midas Touch stayed on really well up the home straight to get the better of a useful rival in Address Unknown. There was a lot to like about the attitude that the winner displayed, and the winning time was good.

Dante Stakes

Shahrastani, Erhaab, Benny The Dip, North Light, Motivator, Authorized – the list of horses who have recently completed the Dante/Derby double is long and impressive. Four live Derby candidates – Cape Blanco, Workforce, Coordinated Cut and Chabal – clashed in this year’s Dante at York last Thursday, and the Ballydoyle colt Cape Blanco ran out an impressive winner, despite drifting in the market beforehand. He did sustain a slight injury in winning the race, and you got the feeling afterwards that St Nicholas Abbey was still Ballydoyle’s Derby number one, but Cape Blanco is unbeaten in four runs now, he is most progressive, and he adds significant strength to the Ballydoyle Derby team.

Small postscript. There have been a few Derby winners in the last 20 years who have not trod a conventional path to Epsom. Lammtarra hadn’t run as a three-year-old before he won the Derby in 1995, nor had Shaamit in 1996, while Dr Devious’s last run before he won the 1992 Epsom Derby was, somewhat bizarrely, in the Kentucky Derby. If there is to be a winner from left-field this year, it could be the Godolphin colt Simon De Montfort. He has won both of the races that he has contested this year in France, a listed race and a Group 3 race, and he is as short as 14/1 with some bookmakers, despite the fact that he hasn’t even been entered in the Derby yet. If there is still a piece missing from this year’s puzzle, he could be it.

© The Sunday Times, 16th May 2010