Donn's Articles » Cape Blanco v Workforce

Cape Blanco v Workforce

Now that the dust has settled on Derby season, it is time to take stock of the middle-distance Classic generation. We are well into the knockout stages now, and two colts are still standing, Cape Blanco and Workforce, both worthy of top billing, both on course for a winner-takes-all showdown at Ascot in three weeks’ time in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

Amazing how time changes things. At the beginning of the season, Workforce was a once-raced maiden winner who was reportedly going well at home, while Cape Blanco’s position in the pecking order at Ballydoyle wasn’t clear. How far he was behind St Nicholas Abbey and how many of his colleagues were between him and the top of the ladder were questions to which the answers weren’t readily forthcoming, but it is likely that it was a fair way and plenty respectively.

Cape Blanco has been a slow burn. He did win the Group 2 Futurity Stakes last year as a juvenile, his third win of three, a race that his trainer Aidan O’Brien had won in the past with such luminaries as Hawk Wing, Oratorio and Giant’s Causeway, but he didn’t win it like a 1/5 shot should have, and you never got the feeling that he was considered to be among the best of the Ballydoyle Derby contenders in the early part of the season. Even the fact that he ran in the Dante was an indicator of sorts.

The Dante is a top Derby trial, but not generally for Aidan O’Brien. The main Ballydoyle Derby horses run in the Derrinstown. That’s the rule. Galileo, High Chaparral, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Fame And Glory, all Derrinstown winners from Ballydoyle, all top Derby contenders. Compare that with the Ballydoyle Dante roster: Moscow Ballet, Falstaff, Albert Hall, Frozen Fire, Straight Forward, all beaten in the Dante and all absentees from the Derby. O’Brien’s two Dante winners, Septimus and Black Bear Island, did make the Derby line-up, but the former finished 12th and the latter finished 10th at Epsom.

It wasn’t a positive for Cape Blanco, then, that Mikhail Glinka, Midas Touch and At First Sight were being readied for Leopardstown, while he was being sent to York. And even after he danced in in the Dante, even after he leapt to second position in Derby ante post lists behind St Nicholas Abbey, connections appeared to remain uncertain. The fact that he ultimately went to Chantilly to run in the Prix du Jockey Club instead of taking his place in the race that has influenced Coolmore and Ballydoyle policy more than any other was just another indicator. Perhaps it represented a sea-change in Ballydoyle thinking, that it was time to take some of the good eggs out of the Epsom basket and win the French Derby with one of them. More likely, however, with Jan Vermeer and Midas Touch going to Epsom, that even in St Nicholas Abbey’s absence, Cape Blanco still had a way to go.

The change seems to have happened in the week before the Irish Derby, when Cape Blanco usurped his stable companion Jan Vermeer at the head of the betting for the race and the rumour-mill confirmed that Johnny Murtagh would ride him. All week, you got the sense that Murtagh wasn’t sure that he had made the correct decision, and after the race it emerged that it was the trainer who had effectively decided for him, suggested subtly that Cape Blanco just might be the one.

The Galileo colt’s performance in winning the Irish Derby was more workmanlike than flashy, more Dirk Kuyt than Arjen Robben. Paradoxically, that was what made it so impressive. Out of a sprinting mare, a half-sister to the speedball that was Paris House, even though he has been endowed with the stamina-influencing gene that Galileo invariably imparts, there was always a doubt about him staying a truly-run mile-and-a-half. He didn’t appear to be stopping at the end of the 10-and-a-half furlongs of the Dante, but that was one of the main reasons put forward for his participation in the Prix du Jockey Club, run over the Dante trip, instead of the Epsom Derby.

There is rarely any hiding place in the Irish Derby, and this year was no exception, with Bright Horizon and At First Sight doing what Ballydoyle pacemakers do, ensuring that it would be a truly-run race and that whatever won it was going to get every yard of the trip. Cape Blanco was given every chance to duck the issue when Midas Touch responded as he moved up on the outside, but he didn’t, he dug deep and galloped all the way to the line. It represented another step forward in what has been a solidly progressive career to date, and promised much more.

Workforce’s path through the group stages has been more high-profile. Well-touted even before he ran out a most impressive winner of his maiden on his racecourse debut at Goodwood last September, he was backed for the Guineas and for the Derby in the spring, didn’t make it to the Guineas, but was well backed to beat Cape Blanco in the Dante on his debut this season. Things didn’t go to plan at York, however. He hung badly to his left and he finished the race with the bit hanging out of his mouth. It isn’t clear whether the hanging caused the bit to come out, or whether the displaced bit caused the hanging, but either way, there were excuses.

His performance in the Derby has been well dissected at this stage. The widely held belief is that this year’s renewal of the Derby probably wasn’t a vintage one, a hypothesis that is supported by the fact that the 100/1 pacemaker At First Sight finished second, a horse who has subsequently been well beaten in both the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Irish Derby.

However, there were two things about Workforce’s performance in the Derby that suggested that he could be out of the ordinary. Firstly, there was the visual impression. Sometimes you have to go with your gut feel about a horse’s performance, and your gut told you that this was good. At First Sight was able to steal a march on his rivals on the downhill part of the track under a superb ride from Seamie Heffernan, and Workforce was the only one who was able to catch him. Not only did he catch him, though, he blitzed seven lengths past him.

Secondly, there was the time of the race, over four second faster than standard, the fastest Derby ever run. He had time-favouring elements in his favour, perfect ground and a solid even pace, but he still broke the record, and he broke it by a second.

There is probably very little between Workforce and Cape Blanco. Even taking At First Sight as a yardstick, Cape Blanco finished six lengths in front of him at The Curragh, Workforce finished seven lengths in front of him at Epsom. The official handicapper says that Workforce is 9lb better than Cape Blanco, the bookmakers have Michael Stoute’s horse five points clear in the King George betting, but both of those measures may be influenced by the hype that was whirled up in the Epsom aftermath. They may both overstate the Epsom Derby winner’s supposed superiority.

The good news is that, all being well with both horses, the intention is that they will meet at Ascot in the King George. It is an appetite-whetting prospect. The traditional mid-summer clash of the generations, lacking in lustre of late, has been crying out for a Derby winner for years now. This year, it will have two, in a championship decider.

The determining factor will probably be by how much each has improved since their respective Derby wins – if one of them is to win the King George, he will probably have to put up a career best – and that’s just something that we won’t know for sure until the day. For now, enjoy the ride.

© The Sunday Times, 4th July 2010