Donn's Articles » The Derby

The Derby

“The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians, or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby. If you base your criteria on anything else, you will get something else, not the thoroughbred.”

Federico Tesio (1869-1954), Italian statesman, breeder of Ribot and Nearco

There are many imitations, but to the purist, there is only one Derby. To call it the Epsom Derby is to engage in a tautological waste of words. Speak of The Derby, and you speak of a 12-furlong helter-skelter ride around the rim of Epsom’s fish bowl that determines the best colt of the Classic generation. Quite simply, to the traditionalist, it is the most important horse race in the world.

It has been thus since 1784, three years after the instigation of the race, when the 12th Earl of Derby decided that it would be a good idea to extend its distance to a mile and a half, and have the horses wheel down around Tattenham Corner, still one of the most hair-raising experiences that flat racehorses are asked to endure at racing pace.

Contrast Epsom’s contours and gradients and near claustrophobic feel to the vast expanses and the comparative glassy calm of Newmarket or The Curragh, and you would be forgiven for thinking that The Derby does not present a fair test of a thoroughbred racehorse. There are those who still contend that it is not correct that such a significant prize should be beholden as much to how a horse handles the racecourse and the occasion as it is to pure racing ability. But that is to miss the point of The Derby.

This race tests more than racing ability. More by accident than by the 12th Earl of Derby’s design, The Derby systematically stress-tests all the attributes that the complete thoroughbred racehorse should have in his make-up. The build up to the race, the crowded parade ring, the walk down the narrow chute to the racecourse, the parade, all test a horse’s temperament, his ability to handle a big occasion, and that is as it should be when you are talking about a potential progenitor of the breed. A horse’s chance of winning The Derby can be shot long before he even reaches the start.

Pace is crucial. Because of the nature of Epsom’s racetrack, it is difficult to come from too far back to win the race. You climb for five furlongs from the Derby start, almost straight, a slight turn to your right after two furlongs, and it is imperative that a horse has the early pace to enable him adopt and maintain a good position, not too far back in the field. It is almost impossible to make ground from the top of the hill, seven furlongs out, until you level up again in the home straight. You start to turn left-handed and you start to go downhill at the seven-furlong pole, all the way down around Tattenham Corner and into the home straight, so you are invariably a hostage to the position that you held at the top of the hill until you straighten up for home.

As well as pace, a horse needs to have the ability to settle into a rhythm, he needs to have the wherewithal to drop the bit and relax through the race. Also, he has to be of sound conformation. Any chinks in his physical make-up will be thoroughly exposed by Epsom’s turns and twists. Finally, he must have the stamina that will take him up the last incline, through the final 100 yards and into the history books. This is a thorough test of all attributes, the thoroughbred’s Krypton Factor.

For all the talk about the track’s idiosyncrasies and the need for luck in-running, it is rare that the best horse in the Derby doesn’t win it. Perhaps El Gran Senor should have beaten Secreto in 1984, maybe Dancing Brave should have beaten Shahrastani in 1986, and subsequent events proved that Dylan Thomas was probably a better racehorse than 2006 winner Sir Percy, but that’s a short list from a long role of honour.

The importance of the Derby has long since been recognised at Ballydoyle. When John Magnier and Robert Sangster and Vincent O’Brien crossed the Atlantic in the 1970s with a plan to buy top class yearlings, baby stallions, it was primarily Derby winners they were seeking. Of course history tells us that it was a genius plan. The Minstrel’s gallant victory over Hot Grove in the 1977 Derby, and the financial implications thereof, was one of the early catalysts to the current position as the dominant force in the world of thoroughbred racing and breeding in which the Coolmore/Ballydoyle operation now basks.

The modern-day Ballydoyle, under the tutelage of Aidan O’Brien, has struck twice in The Derby, with Galileo and High Chaparral in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Galileo’s victory was significant, not only because it was Aidan’s first, but also because it was Sadler’s Wells’s first. In much the same way as AP McCoy’s CV would not have been complete without the Grand National, and in which Frankie Dettori’s had a gaping hole in it before Authorized carried him to victory in the 2007 Derby, so Sadler’s Wells, multiple champion sire and the most influential stallion since his own sire Northern Dancer, would not have been complete without a Derby win for one of his sons.

It is surprising that Ballydoyle haven’t had a Derby winner since High Chaparral. Only once in the eight years since Galileo’s success as the lone Ballydoyle gunman in 2001 has there not been a multiple entry from Rosehill. Some 32 darts have been hurled at the Derby board in the last seven years, a measure of the esteem in which the race is held by Aidan O’Brien, Federico Tesio’s words still resonating around the walls of Ballydoyle. Some of them have been pacemakers and there have been a few triple-figure SPs among them, but none have hit the bullseye.

Some have come close. The Great Gatsby got to within a length of Kris Kin in 2003, Dylan Thomas was beaten a short head and a head on 2006, Eagle Mountain gave best only to Authorized in 2007, while Aidan O’Brien would have been responsible for the first four home last year were it not for the presence in the race of the monster Sea The Stars.

This year, the top of the Derby market is dominated by Ballydoyle horses, and it is long odds-on that the eight-year gap will be bridged. Of course the trainer or the owners won’t really mind which of the contingent wins it as long as one of them does, but the difficulty for the rest of us, including for jockey Johnny Murtagh, is in determining the one with the best chance. And it isn’t easy. In the seven years since Galileo, when Aidan O’Brien has had more than one runner in the race, only twice has the stable jockey chosen the best-placed finisher of the bunch.

Long-time favourite St Nicholas Abbey went for a walk in the market on Friday morning after apparently not sparkling in a piece of work, and was usurped at the head of the betting for the first time since last autumn by his stable companion Jan Vermeer, impressive winner of the Gallinule Stakes at The Curragh last Sunday. There is also Midas Touch, gallant winner of the Derrinstown in a quick time, and possibly Dante winner Cape Blanco, although he may be bound for the French Derby at Chantilly next Sunday instead.

It is a formidable line up, all with their sights trained on that wooden stick.

© The Sunday Times, 30th May 2010