Donn's Articles » Derby jigsaw

Derby jigsaw

When Indian Chief struck the front deep inside the final furlong in the Dante Stakes at York on Thursday, it appeared as though Aidan O’Brien was about to complete the set of British Derby trials. Then Libertarian stayed on best of all on the far side to get up and spring a 33/1 shocker.

The Dante was the final piece in the 2013 Epsom Derby jigsaw. As jigsaw pieces go, however, it wasn’t overly helpful. It was like finding the last piece of the puzzle at the bottom of the box, then finding yourself more confused than ever.

The most striking thing about the Derby picture at this stage is the apparent strength of the Irish and the relative weakness of the British. The Sir Michael Stoute-trained Telescope would have been a short-priced favourite for the Dante had he made it to York, but an infection ruled him out of Thursday’s race, and he is at best an uncertain runner at Epsom. Telescope aside, the Dante winner Libertarian, at 20/1, is the shortest-priced British-trained horse in the ante post market.

Recent history tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised by this situation. The Derby is a British institution, going back to 1780 when the 12th Earl of Derby and Lord Bunbury tossed a coin to determine the name of the race. Vincent O’Brien claimed the prize six times in the 20 years that stretched from Larkspur to Golden Fleece, during which time the French pilferred their share, but the race was won by a British-trained horse every year between Secreto in 1984 and Sinndar in 2000.

The home team have struggled in recent times, however. The prize has been plundered by foreign raiders four times in the last five years. This year, it looks set for export again.

The Irish are ubiquitous. Aidan O’Brien has dominated the British trials with Ruler Of The World, Magician and Nevis, and he has claimed the two Irish trials for good measure with Battle Of Marengo. Then there is Jim Bolger’s colossus, 2000 Guineas winner Dawn Approach.

It would be mildly anomalous were you to identify the 2000 Guineas as a Derby trial. Like the Derby, the Guineas is itself a Classic. It is an end, not a means.

That said, there has been no better pointer to the Derby in recent years than the Guineas. After Nashwan in 1989 and Generous in 1991, the first colts’ Classic became largely irrelevant to the Epsom picture for a while, with the Derby winners of the late nineties and early noughties skipping Newmarket and prepping for Epsom in the recognised Derby trials. Then Guineas runner-up Sir Percy won the Derby in 2006, New Approach repeated the Guineas-second-Derby-winner trick in 2008, while Sea The Stars and Camelot both completed the Guineas/Derby double in 2009 and 2012 respectively. The Guineas is relevant now all right.

Dawn Approach is a remarkable racehorse. He had the speed and the precocity to win the first juvenile race of the 2012 flat season over five furlongs, yet he had the pace, the class and the durability to land the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot at the height of the summer, and the National Stakes at The Curragh and the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket in the autumn, going unbeaten through his juvenile season, through six races and seven months. Then, on his debut this term, he won the 2000 Guineas.

The main concern about Jim Bolger’s horse, of course, concerns his stamina for a mile and a half. He has never been beyond a mile before, so nobody knows for sure if he will stay.

That, in itself, is not a major issue. It is a trait that Sir Percy, New Approach, Sea The Stars and Camelot all shared before they went and won the Derby. And Dawn Approach is by New Approach, who obviously stayed a mile and a half well.

However, he is out of the Phone Trick mare Hymn Of The Dawn, whom Bolger also trained and who raced primarily over six furlongs, and he is a half-brother to Comadoir, who has raced 44 times to date and has never won over a distance in excess of seven furlongs nor raced beyond a mile.

On the positive side, his trainer and his part-owner Sheikh Mohammed obviously feel that he has every chance of getting the distance, otherwise they would not be allowing him take his chance. Bolger has two worthy Derby contenders in Trading Leather and Loch Garman who would be legitimate deputies if Dawn Approach was considered a pure miler who could perhaps stretch out to 10 furlongs.

Also, the New Approach colt is such a relaxed individual, much more relaxed than his sire was, and that improves his prospects of staying. Kevin Manning should be able to switch him off for nine or 10 of the 12-furlong trip down around Tattenham Corner, and that would give him every chance of seeing out the next two or three.

Conversely, there are no stamina worries about Battle Of Marengo. A son of stamina influence Galileo, his dam Anna Karenina won a listed race over nine and a half furlongs. More importantly, however, he has won the Ballysax Stakes and the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial this season already, both races run over 10 furlongs, and he shaped on both occasions as if he would relish the step up to a mile and a half.

He proved his class as a juvenile by landing the Group 2 Beresford Stakes at The Curragh, and the vibe from Ballydoyle all season has been that this fellow is their Derby number one.

That doesn’t mean that the other Ballydoyle representatives will just be there to make the numbers or the pace. It doesn’t always follow that the Ballydoyle Derby number one finishes in front of the Ballydoyle Derby number two or three.

Nevis may not have had that much to beat in the Lingfield Derby Trial after the withdrawal of Greatwood, but he still did it well. Ruler Of The World galloped on resolutely to land the Chester Vase, while Magician showed a fine turn of foot to come clear of his rivals in the Dee Stakes. Between them, the four Ballydoyle colts have won their respective trials by an aggregate of over 20 lengths.

The final make up of the Ballydoyle Derby team has yet to be decided, but you can be sure that Battle Of Marengo will be on it. Ruler Of The World may make the line-up too, while Guineas sixth Mars, Magician and Nevis are all possibles.

The other fascinating dimension to this year’s Derby is the European one. The Andreas Wohler-trained Chopin, described as “the New Approach of Germany”, was impressive in winning a Group 3 race in Germany by eight lengths last month and is reportedly en route to Epsom, while Andre Fabre has confirmed that Frenchman Ocovango is also on track.

The son of Monsun wasn’t overly impressive in winning the Prix Greffulhe on his prep run, but he appeared to win with more in hand than the bare half-length margin, he is unbeaten in three runs now, and the Fabre-trained Pour Moi wasn’t hugely impressive in winning the Prix Greffulhe in 2011 before he came to Epsom and won the Derby.

We have all the pieces now. All we have to do is put them together properly.

© The Sunday Times, 19th May 2013