Things We Learned » Things we learned – from The Derby

Time for perspective

It is quite bizarre that sectional times are not commonplace for one of the most important races – or the most important race, according to Federico Tesio and some other noteworthy judges and custodians – in the world of horse racing. It doesn’t make sense that we have to rely on hand-times from stalls to path, to path to winning line to try to gain an accurate picture of how The Derby was run.

Fortunately, Simon Rowlands of Timeform has recorded accurate hand-timings for the three sections of the track that are neatly determined by the paths that cross the Derby course: one at the top of the hill, just over four furlongs from the stalls, and the other at the top of the home straight, about three and a half furlongs from the winning line.

These hand-timings relate that, contrary to popular belief, they did not dawdle through the early stages of the Derby. Actually, they got to the first path over one and a half seconds faster than they did in the Coronation Cup, run over the same course and distance 80 minutes earlier.

It was the second section of the course on which they dawdled. Having got to the first path 1.6secs before the Coronation Cup horses, the Derby field actually got to the second path 1.2secs after them. So the Derby field lost 2.8secs on the Coronation Cup field in the half-mile or so between paths. That is significant.

Also, the Derby field got to the first path 2.7secs after tearaway leader Colinca’s Lad did in the concluding handicap run over the Derby course and distance, and they got to the second path 6.3secs after him. That means that they lost a further 3.6secs on the 0-100-rated handicappers during the second part of the race, having lost 2.7secs on them during the first part. That’s dawdling for Group 1 horses.

Talking tactics

Strange thing. When Sea The Stars – a Guineas winner who had never been beyond a mile before – won the Derby in 2009, despite the presence of six Aidan O’Brien-trained rivals, universal reaction after the race was that Team Ballydoyle had got the tactics wrong. Three of the Ballydoyle horses in that Derby were proven over a mile and a half, and two of them were proven over a mile and a quarter, so the wonder was, why not employ race tactics that would play to the strengths of the horses with proven stamina?

Roll forward four years to last Saturday. Similar scenario. Five Ballydoyle horses with stamina either in their race-records or their pedigrees, against another Guineas winner whose stamina was unproven. Again the pace is slow, the Guineas winner races too keenly, an Aidan O’Brien-trained horse wins, and the tactics are acclaimed as genius.

So what was different? The result. That’s all. The tactics were evaluated with the benefit of hindsight. It’s like saying that Tails was value at 4/6 after the coin has been tossed.

Consider this though. What if there were no tactics? What if every Ballydoyle horse was ridden as an individual, with no cognisance taken of the fact that he had four stable companions in the race?

In 2009, Colm O’Donoghue gave the 25/1 shot Golden Sword an expert wait-in-front ride that saw him lead until inside the final furlong. On Saturday, Joseph O’Brien gave Battle Of Marengo a similar ride, slowly from the front. You won’t win from the front if you go too fast. And if Ballydoyle had fielded a sacrificial pacemaker, surely it would have been a lesser-fancied member of the team that would have led, not the 11/2 second favourite.

Pace precedent

In all of Dawn Approach’s races since and including last year’s Coventry Stakes, he had stable companion Leitir Mor for company. In the Coventry, the National Stakes, the Dewhurst and the Guineas, Leitir Mor bowled along up there on or near the pace, with the net result that the pace in all of those races was strong. Last Saturday, Dawn Approach travelled alone.

It was reasonable to assume that the pace would be strong in the Derby, that Team Ballydoyle would set a pace that would place the emphasis on stamina, so Sheikh Mohammed and Jim Bolger were well within their rights to presume that there was no need to field a pace-setter or a pace-helper clad in Godolphin blue or Bolger purple and white.

There is a recent precedent for this as well. In last year’s Derby, the Aidan O’Brien-trained Astrology set a fast pace and kicked on early in the straight, leading until his stable companion Camelot swooped past at the furlong pole. In the Irish Derby, Astrology again set a fast pace until he was passed on the home turn, with the same Camelot going on to complete the Derby double.

When Camelot stepped up in trip for the St Leger at Doncaster last September, however, he was the lone Ballydoyle ranger. No pace-maker, no pace-helper. John Gosden had three horses in the race, and the expectation was that one of his horses would make the running and set a searching gallop so that if Camelot – Guineas winner, Derby winner – was going to complete the Triple Crown, he was going to have to fully see out the extended one-and-three-quarter-mile trip.

As it happened, one of the Gosden horses, Dartford, did make it, but he made it at a steady gallop, with William Buick sitting on his outside on his stable companion Thought Worthy, controlling the race, as Camelot raced keenly in behind.

You can’t take pace for granted any more.

World class

The performance that Ruler Of The World put up in winning the Derby has probably been significantly under-rated by many, including the British handicapper, who has awarded him a mark of 120, the lowest for any Derby winner since the turn of the millennium.

Perhaps the winning time has influenced the handicapper. A time of 2mins 39.06secs was the second slowest winning time of any Derby (after High Chaparral’s Derby in 2002, which was run on rain-softened ground) since Secreto beat El Gran Senor in 1984. But the slow time is eminently forgivable because of the slow fractions to the home straight.

There was a lot to like about Ruler Of The World’s performance. Firstly, if you had been asked before the race to name the horse who would be most inconvenienced by a slow early pace, it would have been a photo finish between Ruler Of The World – the only contender who had won over a mile and a half beforehand – and Dante winner Libertarian, who ultimately chased him home.

Secondly, Ruler Of The World was wider than ideal, he covered more ground than most of his rivals, and he was further back than ideal off the sedate early pace. Thirdly, he hit the front plenty early enough, he probably idled as he rolled down the camber towards the inside rail, and he probably won with a fair bit more in hand than the official winning margin. It is very difficult to argue that he wasn’t the best horse in the race on the day by some way.

Put with that the fact that he made his racecourse debut less than two months before the Derby, that he was racing for just the third time in his life and that – a half-brother to Duke Of Marmalade who improved with age (he didn’t win at all as a three-year-old, but won five Group 1 races at four) – he has bundles of scope for progression, and this fellow could be destined for the very top now.

Reputations enhanced

Two horses who weren’t present at Epsom on Saturday had their respective reputations significantly enhanced by this year’s Derby.

Galileo was one. Not only did he sire the winner, but he also sired the third, the fourth and the sixth. Moreover, he also sired New Approach, who sired the runner-up. Put the Derby result with victory for another Galileo colt, Intello, in the Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly on Sunday, and victory for the New Approach filly Talent in the Oaks on Friday, who was chased home by the Galileo filly Secret Gesture, and it was a remarkable weekend for the Coolmore stallion, even by his own record-breaking standards.

The other horse who had his reputation enhanced by the Derby was Sugar Boy. Not only did the Patrick Prendergast-trained colt get to within two lengths of Derby fourth Battle Of Marengo in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown on his debut this term, but he had Derby second Libertarian and Derby third Galileo Rock behind him when he won the Classic Trial at Sandown in April.

The Authorized colt’s reputation was probably enhanced by more than the 2lb by which the official handicapper has raised him, and he should do even better when stepped up to a mile and a half.

We could be in for a cracking Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.

© The Irish Field, 8th June 2013