Things We Learned » Derby magic

Derby magic

It is difficult to appreciate the enormity of what was achieved at 4.05pm on Epsom Downs last Saturday, even seven days later. Another step forward by the racehorse Camelot, unbeaten now in four runs, three Group 1s, two Classics, proving his stamina for a mile and a half after having proved his pace for a mile, still filed in the could-be-anything drawer.

Another Irish win in the Epsom Derby, a third in five years, a sixth in 13, and we could be guilty of becoming a little blasé about the whole thing, which is sort of strange given that there wasn’t even one in the 15 years that separated Secreto and Sinndar.

Another Derby for the late Montjeu, his fourth, which is quite remarkable when you consider that he didn’t have his first three-year-olds until 2005. He has been responsible for the Derby winner in four of the eight years in which his progeny has been qualified to run in the race.

Another for Team Coolmore, who subscribe to Federico Tesio’s hypothesis more than any other, and without whose unfailing support over the last decade and a half or so, it is not unreasonable to say, the Epsom Derby would almost certainly be a lesser race perceptually than it is.

Another Derby for Aidan O’Brien, his third, his first after peppering the target for a decade since High Chaparral, a monkey of sorts off his back. A first for the just-turned-19-year-old Joseph O’Brien, a typical iceberg ride, easy in hindsight when you’re on the best horse, but not so easy when you are six lengths off the pace with the eyes of the racing world watching, and the pressure that goes with the best job in racing and riding for your father.

As well as that, it was a family occasion, the first father and son team ever to win the Epsom Derby. The Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs last November was special, but last Saturday had to have been even more special for Team O’Brien. Closer to home in a race that has been top of your wish list since you were eating your breakfast at the kitchen table in Piltown as a just-turned-one-year-old. Magic.

Camelot plans

Camelot can go wherever he wants now, he would probably get through a couple of rounds of the Irish Greyhound Derby, but you know you want to see him target the St Leger, become the first horse since Nijinsky 42 years ago to win all three legs of the Triple Crown, and it looks like connections are leaning that way.

If the St Leger is his ultimate goal, options between now and then are multiple and varied. You could go down the Nijinsky route, Irish Derby, King George, St Leger, ideally avoiding the bout of ringworm that Charles Engelhard’s horse contracted. You could go down the 10-furlong route, Eclipse, Juddmonte International, St Leger. Or you could take a break now, have a well-earned rest and gear up at home for the St Leger so that you arrive at Doncaster finely-tuned to race for your place in history.

Of course, the opportunity cost of taking a break now is significant, but that is commuted somewhat by the array of talent that has been amassed at Ballydoyle – Imperial Monarch, Astrology, So You Think, Excelebration, St Nicholas Abbey and the rest – who could take their respective places in those top 10 and 12-furlong races through the summer. Also, it would mean that Camelot would arrive at Doncaster a fresh horse, probably fresh enough, all going well, to be able to run for his life again in the Arc de Triomphe three weeks after the Leger – a race in which Nijinsky floundered and in which St Leger winners historically have a terrible record – and possibly again in the Champion Stakes (two weeks after the Arc) or the Breeders’ Cup Turf (four weeks after the Arc). It’s an attractive option.

Classic dates

Interesting debate going on across the water after Irish 1000 Guineas-winning trainer Mick Channon, supported by clear thinkers Richard Hughes, Richard Hannon and Hughie Morrison, suggested that it might be a good idea to move the Guineas and the Derby back two weeks into the season.

You can see the argument. As well as the fact that the schedule as it stands may reward precocity as much as true ability – some still say that the Guineas is the last juvenile race of the season – and that, as Hughes says, in preparing a horse for the Guineas, trainers are asking immature horses to do something at a time when they shouldn’t be doing it, it means that, here we are, less than one-third of the way through the season, and four of the five Classics have been run.

The arguments from the authorities against the move were strong. The knock-on effect would be huge, they said. Royal Ascot would have to be put back, as would the Eclipse, the time at which the three-year-olds start to take on their elders, and that is without even going into the implications for the European Pattern. The current schedule has served well for over 200 years, bedded down, they said. The ecology of the season has developed over time. You can’t move one element of it without having a huge impact on others.

All very fine, but didn’t these arguments hold true when they drove a fait accomplit JCB through the programme for juveniles last year?

The Oaks that Was

If you didn’t think that The Fugue was unlucky in the Oaks last Friday when you watched at the time, you sure as hell think so now after all the race reports told you that she was.

There is no doubt that The Fugue didn’t have the run of the race. Squeezed out of it after they had gone two furlongs, and forced to give up a good position in mid-division just one off the rail as a result, she was further back in the field than ideal off a sedate early pace, she was wider than ideal around Tattenham Corner and into the home straight, she had to make her challenge into a quickening pace in the centre of the track, and she was still only beaten a half a length and a neck.

However, The Fugue wasn’t the only unlucky filly in the Oaks. Kailani and Maybe had a coming together after three furlongs in the scrimmaging that unsurprisingly occurred behind the muddling early pace, and both of those fillies had to race wider around Tattenham Corner and make their challenges from further back than The Fugue. Also, Coquet had the Was door between Nayarra and the inside rail closed when Robert Havlin tried to follow Seamie Heffernan through that particular precarious needle-eye, and she ran on remarkably well once snatched up and kick-started again.

As well as that, always in these instances you have to entertain the possibility that the winner Was actually the best horse in the race on the day. Was benefitted from racing handily, just behind the steady pace, but she had the tactical speed to adopt and retain that position, and she stuck her head out willingly and galloped all the way to the line. If and when a clutch of these fillies next meet, the probability is that The Fugue will be put in as a warm favourite to come out on top, and that may be more a reflection of popular opinion in the aftermath of the Oaks than of the fillies’ respective true abilities.

Pas de chance

Speaking of unlucky, for the second weekend in a row the feature race in France last Sunday was characterised by a slow early pace which – much more, even, than the Prix d’Ispahan the previous Sunday – resulted in a less than satisfactory running of the Prix du Jockey Club. The 25/1 shot, Saonois, ultimately emerged victorious, but every time you watch the race you spot another unlucky loser. Christophe Soumillon said afterwards that it was a 20-runner race with 18 hard luck stories.

From a form-evaluation perspective going forward, you can almost completely ignore this race, you can simply put a line through the race and move on, which is a poor reflection on the race that is universally recognised as the French Derby, despite the fact that it is now run over 10 and a half furlongs.

From the perspective of the race itself, it would be a mistake for the French authorities to not at least consider a return to the pre-2005 classic Derby distance of a mile and a half, a move that would apparently be supported by some of the top professionals within French racing, with most recent calls for a return to the longer distance voiced by Freddy Head, who send out Sofast to finish 13th of the 20 runners on Sunday.

An unlucky 13th.

© The Irish Field, 9th June 2012