Donn's Articles » Ballydoyle and the Derby

Ballydoyle and the Derby

No race has shaped Ballydoyle thinking like the Epsom Derby. When John Magnier and Robert Sangster and Vincent O’Brien embarked on their pioneering plundering mission to relieve Kentucky breeders of their most blue-blooded yearlings – embryo stallions – in the 1970s, it was the Epsom Derby more than any other race that they had in mind. Fittingly, it was The Minstrel’s victory in the race in 1977 that effectively ensured the continuation of the project.

Galileo’s Derby victory in the 2001 Derby was significant on a number of levels. Not only was it a first Derby for a son of Coolmore super-sire Sadler’s Wells, but it was also a first for Team Ballydoyle under the tutelage of Aidan O’Brien. It bridged a gap that spanned nearly two decades between Vincent and Aidan, between Golden Fleece and the internet, and promised more.

High Chaparral continued the momentum in 2002, he and his stable companion Hawk Wing finishing 12 lengths clear of their closest pursuer. Aidan O’Brien two, new millennium nil. You would have been forgiven for starting to prepare a report for the Monopolies Commission. Certainly, you would never have believed that Team Ballydoyle would not win another Derby that decade.

Eight Derbies have since come and gone without a Ballydoyle victor. That’s the difficulty with the Derby, it is run just once a year. You get one chance every 12 months to win it. If the ball doesn’t hop for you during those two and a half helter-skelter minutes around Epsom’s jagged-edged soup bowl, there is nothing for it but to draw stumps and to start the process of assembling a brand new team for the following year.

In truth, the ball hasn’t hopped for Ballydoyle at Epsom in recent years. In 2003, The Great Gatsby gave best only to Kris Kin. In 2006, Dylan Thomas was beaten a short head and a head after taking up the running fully a mile from home. In 2007, Eagle Mountain finished second behind Authorized. In 2009, Ballydoyle horses finished second, third, fourth and fifth behind Sea The Stars, while last year, their three runners finished second, fourth and fifth behind Workforce.

Two wins, five seconds and two thirds in the last 10 years is a record for which most trainers would gladly trade a couple of family members. However, no win in the last eight is the stat on which Aidan O’Brien will inevitably be focussed now, and that is the wrong that he will endeavour to right this Saturday.

This year’s challenge looks set to be five-pronged, headed up by Derrinstown winner Recital and Dante runner-up Seville, and joined by Roderic O’Connor since he redeemed his reputation – tarnished at Newmarket – with victory in the Irish 2000 Guineas last Saturday. There is talk of one of the top three going to Chantilly to contest the French Derby instead, and the picture is further clouded by the fact that exchange student Pour Moi, trained by the French wizard Andre Fabre but owned in partnership by Mrs John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, is now a likely runner at Epsom.

Jockey arrangements will also be fascinating. There is no Ballydoyle stable jockey as such this year. Not that jockey bookings have ever been that helpful in deciphering the pecking order of the Ballydoyle Derby challenge, given that, in each of the last eight years when Ballydoyle have had more than one representative, quite remarkably the stable jockey has chosen to ride the best-placed finisher just once.

Ryan Moore has been O’Brien’s go-to jockey all season, but he couldn’t get off The Queen’s Carlton House even if he wanted to. Kieren Fallon came over to ride Recital in the Derrinstown, but he has also made a commitment of sorts to the Ed Dunlop-trained Native Khan, “as firm as Mr Fallon ever makes any commitment” said Dunlop on Thursday.

Christophe Soumillon went to York to ride Seville in the Dante, and Joseph O’Brien rode Roderic O’Connor to win the Irish 2000 Guineas, so it may be that those partnerships are kept intact if all three main contenders line up at Epsom, while Colm O’Donoghue and Seamie Heffernan are also sure to feature in plans.

Four of the top six horses in the ante post market are Coolmore/Ballydoyle horses. Perhaps the ball will hop right on Saturday.

© The Sunday Times, 29th May 2011