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Derby picture

So all the main trials for the Epsom Derby have been run, yet the picture still lacks clarity.  It lacks certainty.  Three of the top five horses in the market are quoted ‘with a run’, two of them are fillies, and another one does not even hold an entry in the race at present.

There was Derby talk about US Army Ranger even before he made his racecourse debut at The Curragh in early April.  Available at 20/1 and 25/1 for the Derby before that maiden, he was 10/1 and 12/1 for it after he won, and the money continued to come for him.  Then he won the Chester Vase 10 days ago, and he drifted.

He was not overly impressive in winning the Vase, he only scraped home by a short head from his lesser-fancied stable companion Port Douglas, from whom he was receiving 4lb.  In mitigation, that was only US Army Ranger’s second ever race, and Chester is a tricky track for an inexperienced adolescent.  Trainer Aidan O’Brien said that he was very happy with the Galileo colt, that he would have learned plenty and that he was bang on track for Epsom.

That left the Derby favourite’s armband available, waiting for someone to grab it, staple it to his arm and wear it proudly until Derby day, but nobody did.  The day after US Army Ranger’s victory at Chester, the Dee Stakes was won by the 12/1 shot Viren’s Army, who got home in a three-way photo from Linguistic and Housesofparliament.

Trainer Richard Hannon said that the Derby was under consideration for Viren’s Army, and John Gosden said that runner-up Linguistic was not out of the picture yet, but the market remained underwhelmed.

Last Saturday, the Lingfield Derby Trial was won by Humphrey Bogart.  Another Richard Hannon representative, the Tagula colt is a wholly likeable individual, but he is another who does not hold a Derby entry, he would have to be supplemented to the race, and he is still available at 33/1.

Last Sunday, the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown was won by Moonlight Magic, the Jim Bolger-trained colt springing a mild surprise in beating the two Ballydoyle colts Shogun and Idaho.

A 33/1 shot for the Derby before Sunday, Moonlight Magic is no better than 12/1 now, and he is fully deserving of his place in the Derby line-up.  Shogun and Idaho are also still in the picture, but the first five in the Derrinstown finished within two and a half lengths of each other, and the 84-rated Saafarr was fifth.

Fifty minutes before Moonlight Magic won the Derrinstown, the Andre Fabre-trained Cloth Of Stars won the Prix Greffulhe at Saint-Cloud.  You wouldn’t ordinarily include the Prix Greffulhe in a list of traditional Epsom Derby trials, but the Sea The Stars colt was impressive in winning, and Godolphin representative John Ferguson did mention the Derby as a possibility afterwards.  Andre Fabre plotted a similar path to Epsom – Prix La Force, Prix Greffulhe – with 2011 Derby winner Pour Moi.

Galileo Gold is the Guineas winner, but he was more or less ruled out of the Derby by trainer Hugo Palmer a few days after he landed the Guineas on the basis that he probably wouldn’t stay the one-and-a-half-mile trip.  Then during the week, the owner’s representative Harry Herbert said that the Paco Boy colt was not definitely out of the Derby, that he could still take his chance in it.  It’s that type of year.

On Thursday, it was Midterm’s turn to step forward in the Dante at York.  Midterm had inherited the Derby favourite’s armband from US Army Ranger after the Chester Vase, and the hope was that he would make it his own, post an impressive victory in the Dante and move on to Epsom as the standard-bearer.  But that didn’t happen either.

The 3/1 favourite for the Derby on Thursday morning, and sent off the 5/4 favourite for Thursday’s race, Sir Michael Stoute’s horse came under pressure early in the home straight, but he just couldn’t get close to the leaders, eventually finishing fifth, eight lengths behind the winner Wings Of Desire.

By contrast, Wings Of Desire was impressive.  John Gosden’s horse travelled through the race well, he made nice progress on the outside of runners early in the home straight, he picked up impressively when Frankie Dettori asked him to, and he kept on well all the way to the line, getting up to beat Deauville by a neck.

Wings Of Desire does not hold a Derby entry either, not any more – he was an original entry – but it does appear as if owner Lady Bamford is going to come up with the £75,000 that she needs to pay in order to put him back in the race.  Interestingly, Golden Horn – who was also trained by Gosden – did not hold a Derby entry either when he won the Dante last year, but that didn’t stop him winning the Derby, before he went on to land the Eclipse and the Irish Champion Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Finally, the fillies’ undercurrent to this year’s Derby is a strong one, with Minding and So Mi Dar both holding entries.  Minding was last year’s top juvenile filly, she was seriously impressive in winning the 1000 Guineas on her three-year-old debut, and she shapes as if she will get a mile and a half.  So Mi Dar beat Humphrey Bogart and Viren’s Army in the Derby Trial at Epsom last month, and she ran out an impressive winner of the Musidora Stakes at York on Wednesday.

Of course, the Oaks is the obvious target for both fillies, but this is a strange year.  It is exactly 100 years since a filly last won the Derby, and it could just be that type of year again.


© The Sunday Times, 15th May 2016