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Dermot Weld

Epsom Downs, June 1981, Dermot Weld gives Lester Piggott the leg up on Blue Wind before the Oaks. There isn’t much chat beforehand, Lester is never one for going into tactics in any great detail, but the general plan is to be handy early on, third or fourth, out of trouble.

So the young trainer, watching on his own, is surprised and anxious when, before they have gone a furlong, Blue Wind is stone last. After they have gone three furlongs, she is still last, with daylight between herself and the second last filly. He concludes that something is wrong with his filly, that today is not her day. Hopefully there will be another day.

Then Blue Wind starts to progress around the outside at the top of the hill, and she moves into fifth on the run down around Tattenham Corner. She is still fully eight lengths behind the leader Leap Lively, but they have gone hard from early and Weld thinks, we have a chance here.

She moves into third as they pass the three-furlong pole and Piggott gets lower in the saddle. As he does, the filly picks up noticeably. She hits the front before they reach the two-furlong pole and she keeps on powerfully all the way to the line to win by seven lengths.

“I was a little bit worried early on,” says an ecstatic trainer after he has welcomed his horse and jockey back to Epsom’s famed winner’s enclosure.

Piggott looks at him, characteristically deadpan, and answers in his quite literally inimitable economy-of-words matter-of-fact way:

“They went too fast.”


Strange the way the world goes around. Two weeks ago, Weld sent Tarfasha to Naas to win the Group 3 Blue Wind Stakes, the race named in honour of the trainer’s first Oaks winner, his first Classic winner. In the intervening 33 years, he has trained 21 more Classic winners in Europe, but he has not yet won another Oaks. This Friday at Epsom, all going well between now and then with the filly’s preparation and the weather, Tarfasha will bid to bridge the gap back to Blue Wind.

“Tarfasha is very much on track,” says the trainer. “The only thing that would stop her running would be if the ground were to come up very soft. She’s a talented filly, but she’s a good-actioned filly who will be well suited by really good or fast ground. The ground was easy enough at Naas when she won the Blue Wind, and she would be fine on that type of ground, but she will not run if it comes up real soft.”

Tarfasha has always been a good filly. She is fast, and she will stay. A stayer with speed, her trainer tells you. Beaten just a neck by Geoffrey Chaucer on her racecourse debut at Leopardstown last July, she was an easy winner of her maiden at Galway on her second run 12 days later.

“What that run at Galway told you was that she will handle the contours at Epsom,” says Weld. “She went down the hill very fast at Galway, and around the corner and up the hill. She was very impressive on her seasonal debut at Naas, as I thought she would be, given how well she had been working in the lead up to that race. I would expect her to run a big race on Friday, as long as the ground is not too soft.”

But this weekend at Epsom is not only about the Oaks for Dermot Weld. On Saturday, Fascinating Rock provides him with a real live chance of claiming his first ever Epsom Derby.

“Fascinating Rock has surprised me with the magnitude by which he has improved this year,” says the trainer slowly. “He was a lovely quality big backward two-year-old, and I thought he ran a really nice race to finish fifth on his racecourse debut last October at Leopardstown.

“Did I expect him to be a Stakes horse this year? Yes. Did I expect that he would be an Epsom Derby horse? No is the answer. But we really liked him, and he has made huge progress this year.”

Winner of his maiden at Leopardstown in March, the son of Fastnet Rock stepped up markedly on that to win the Ballysax Stakes at Navan in April.

“Navan is very like Epsom. Not only is it left-handed with an uphill finish, but it also cambers down towards the rail, like Epsom does. So the fact that our horse was so good at Navan augurs well for Epsom.”

His last run was in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial back at Leopardstown, when he went down by a head to Ebanoran, but was awarded the race in the stewards’ room.

“Nobody likes to win a race on a stewards’ inquiry,” says the trainer. “I prefer to win it on the racetrack. But I did think that our horse was coming to win his race when he got impeded, and the stewards decided to award us the race. He did well though, it was a messy race and he was out the back off a slow pace, so he showed a lot of speed to come from where he came from. We go to Epsom with a live chance, and he won’t mind soft ground.”

Fascinating Rock and Tarfasha are the brightest stars in what has been a glittering season so far for Dermot Weld. His 34 winners sees him clear at the top of the trainers’ championship, and that is with a total of just 107 runners, which gives him a strike rate of a remarkable 32%.

But the season so far has not only been about the statistics. There is a strong qualitative element to it.

Weld has just about as exciting a bunch of three-year-olds as he has ever had. Fillies Flying Jib, Vote Often, Afternoon Sunlight and Tested, as well as the exciting Aga Khan pair Edelmira and Ebeyina. Three-year-old colts like Amethyst Stakes winner and Irish 2000 Guineas third Mustajeeb, and Tetrarch Stakes winner Alkasser. And that is without mentioning Free Eagle, one of last year’s star juveniles who had a little setback in the spring but who is on track to be back for an autumn campaign.

“I am training more for owner/breeders now than ever before, people like Prince Khalid and Moyglare and Sheikh Hamdan and now HH the Aga Khan. I’m very fortunate. So I tend to get to train more staying types, which I enjoy, and the types with which we have done well in the past. These are later-maturing horses, so I can give them more time to develop as two-year-olds, and look forward to their careers as three-year-olds.

“It’s like a football team. If you’ve got some good players, it makes it a lot easier. And we definitely have some nice horses this year. Towards the end of last year, I had some very nice two-year-olds who were showing lots of ability. I was conscious that it was likely that we were going to have a strong three-year-old team. We’re running out of ammunition a little now, but we are very happy with the way the season has gone so far.”

It could get even better at Epsom this weekend. Next objective is Classic win number 23.

© The Sunday Times, 1st June 2014