Whenever I touch down at Tattenham Corner train station for Derby Day, I make a point of trudging up to the top of the hill to survey the scene as the Downs stretch into the distance.
The spectacular sight, with Epsom’s ocean-liner stands overlooking the helter-skelter terrain of the most unique of tracks that winds its way round a packed, raucous infield, never fails to send a shiver down the spine and the blood rushing to the heart.
Never fails to remind that here, in a small market town in Surrey on the first Saturday in June, we are privileged to pay homage to one of the country’s greatest sporting institutions.
The race never fails to excite either. Yes, it received a sorely needed shot in the arm back in 1995 when the meeting shrank from four days to two and the Derby itself was switched from Wednesday to Saturday, which used to host the Oaks. And yes, it was energised further by the advent of backing from the current sponsors, Investec, in 2009.
But it is mystifying, depressing and sickening in equal measure that certain sections of the racing media still delight in rubbishing a race they should be hailing as one of the sport’s flagships.
Most of the diatribe should be ignored given that it comes from jaundiced critics with National Hunt blood coursing through their veins, eager to pursue an agenda denigrating Flat racing.
But if we are going to knock Britain’s richest, most prestigious race and the oldest continually-run sporting event in the world, let’s at least support the argument with evidence, rather than a half-baked hankering for its return to a midweek slot or a meaningless comparison with the Melbourne Cup.
The fact is that racegoers will converge on Epsom Downs in huge numbers for Saturday’s 240th Investec Derby, and punters will bet on the race in even larger numbers. Yet, all we’ve heard about in the build-up is the supposedly unhealthy domination of entries from the Aidan O’Brien yard and his cohort of owners, John and Sue Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith. Disgracefully, some pieces even willed O’Brien’s colt, JAPAN, to be beaten in the Dante Stakes at York to prevent O’Brien landing all the major Derby trials.
The master of Ballydoyle will be responsible for more than half of Saturday’s runners. But all deserve to take their chance, and the criticism ignores the indisputable fact that the Epsom Classic is all about the horse. The identity of the owner and trainer is secondary in the minds of those aforementioned racegoers and punters who simply want to see a competitive race, contested by the best horses of the generation at the middle-distance discipline and won, hopefully, by an embryo legend they can recall for years to come.
Instead of berating their multiple entries, the snipers should be hailing O’Brien, the Magniers, Tabor and Smith for their wholehearted support of the Derby over the last 20 years, not least their policy of breeding colts specifically to tackle it. Without them, the race would certainly not be in the healthy position it is in on the eve of the 2019 renewal.
Usually, when O’Brien fields several runners in the Epsom Classic, the theory goes that none of them is any good. Time will tell on that, but let’s hope they are all allowed to run on their individual merits and there is no repeat of the clanger dropped last year when Kew Gardens, the yard’s subsequent flagbearer in the St Leger and Arc, was sacrificed as a pacemaker.
The big question is will O’Brien and Co be greeting their record-equalling seventh winner on Saturday? I do think so, but suggestions that competition is thin on the ground are misguided. The likes of TELECASTER, BANGKOK and MADHMOON provide serious alternatives. Even John Gosden’s HUMANITARIAN and Charlie Appleby’s LINE OF DUTY are outsiders from powerful Newmarket stables not to be dismissed. Make no mistake, this is a richly fascinating Derby.
Every year, arguments about the chances of the contenders revolve around their stamina. Last year was a classic example of a handful of top-class colts, such as Roaring Lion, failing to stay the 12f trip. However, this time round, almost all seem sure to be suited, given that they are infused with the blood of the mighty Galileo, the first of O’Brien’s Derby heroes back in 2001.
The one exception might be Madhmoon, a respectable fourth in the 2,000 Guineas and trained in Ireland by the shrewd Kevin Prendergast, who regards him as one of the classiest tools he has handled. The colt’s great-grandad is Galileo and his grandad also tasted Derby glory. But his dad bombed in the race, and although I desperately want to back him, there is enough evidence on his dam’s side to suggest he might struggle to get home on Saturday.
Mind you, the dam’s side of the pedigree of my main fancy, ANTHONY VAN DYCK, positively screams that he has not a prayer of relishing the 12f distance. Yet, as a direct son of Galileo, he lapped it up when a smooth and impressive winner of the Lingfield Derby Trial. This is a colt who showed Group One form last term, not far behind the very best 2yos.
Like all of the Ballydoyle contingent, Anthony Van Dyck is sure to improve again for his trial run. But I suspect even O’Brien won’t know by how much. That’s the way he trains his horses in their developmental stage. He learns as much as anyone from their performances on the track.
In such circumstances, don’t rule out prominent showings from his quartet of outsiders, CIRCUS MAXIMUS, NORWAY, JAPAN and SOVEREIGN, all sons of Galileo. At this juncture, all appear to be either not quite good enough or one-paced gallopers more likely to appreciate stiffer stamina tests. But all boast positive assets on their CVs. Circus Maximus has become the trendy tip of the press room cognoscenti, especially now Frankie Dettori has been booked for the ride. Norway is a full brother to the 2013 Derby victor, Ruler Of The World. Japan was touted as the yard’s number one hope for the race during the winter, and needed the run massively at York. And Sovereign is the consistent mount of a former winning pilot in Padraig Beggy .
The betting market suggests the O’Brien charges to concentrate on most, however, are BROOME and SIR DRAGONET, sons respectively of two other Ballydoyle Derby winners, Camelot and Australia. The race trends suit the former, who has landed Ireland’s most recognised Derby trials, the Ballysax and the Derrinstown Stud, at Leopardstown this spring. But on both occasions, he was no more than workmanlike and needed plenty of stoking up before hitting top gear. A shortage of natural speed was also his undoing as a 2yo when he was well beaten by two of Saturday’s rivals, Anthony Van Dyck and Madhmoon.
Sir Dragonet bolted up in the Chester Vase, gliding from last to first on only his second racecourse outing. It was a display almost too good to be true, and you have to wonder why connections took so long afterwards to commit him to Epsom. He lacks experience, most crucially on the kind of fast ground likely to prevail on Saturday.
However, tellingly, Sir Dragonet is the chosen mount of O’Brien’s number one jockey, Ryan Moore, which might well help him to overcome another negative in that only twice since 1992 has the Derby been won by a colt who did not see a racecourse as a juvenile. This also hampers the appeal of Telecaster, but Hughie Morrison’s colt has made such dramatic progress in three starts this season that he cannot be ignored. That progress culminated in a most taking success in the Dante which, in my opinion, was the strongest of all the trials. He beat, fair and square, last season’s champion 2yo Too Darn Hot, and while Japan were gaining at the death, it is worth noting that the Derby has only ever been won once by a horse beaten in the York contest. Telecaster can be keen early in his races, but worries that this might stretch his stamina at the business end are countered by a cursory glance at his pedigree, which reveals that he is a son of a Derby winner out of an Oaks runner-up. Furthermore, he will be partnered by jockey of the moment Oisin Murphy.
Mind you, if you fancy Telecaster, you must consider Bangkok, who conquered him when they met in a Doncaster maiden in March. Andrew Balding’s colt went on to land Sandown’s Classic Trial with a turn of foot as striking as I have seen from any 3yo so far this season, and is almost guaranteed to improve again for Saturday’s Derby distance. He would be a most poignant winner for the owning operation of King Power Racing, which was created by the late Leicester City Football Club chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and few jockeys ride the tricky Epsom track better than the reigning champion Silvestre De Sousa.
Whether the Derby can be won by a colt beaten three times as a juvenile -- a trait that also belongs to Broome and Anthony Van Dyck, as well as Bangkok -- is another matter. Maybe we should be looking instead at one that WON three times as a juvenile in Line Of Duty, who bids to repeat the success of last year’s winning connections, Godolphin and Appleby. He wound up 2018 by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, no less, and is a son of…..yes, you’ve guessed it, Galileo!
Whoever triumphs on Saturday, let’s hope we get a Derby that maintains the quality that has engulfed the race since the turn of the century. And one we can shout about from the top of the hill at Tattenham Corner.
MY 1-2-3-4 FOR THE DERBY (Saturday, 4.30)
1 ANTHONY VAN DYCK
MY 1-2-3 FOR THE OAKS (Friday, 4.30)
3 LAVENDER’S BLUE