So which do you prefer? A Derby dominated by a short-priced favourite that might just be a superstar? Or a Derby so thrillingly competitive that they go 5/1 the field and it’s more about the race than the winner?
No prizes for guessing which of the two Epsom Downs will stage this weekend. The 237th Derby is a race full of possibilities, not many probabilities and even fewer impossibilities. It is also the richest race ever to be run on these shores, thanks to supplementary entries boosting the purse to a mouthwatering £1,545,000. And with a large field containing not a single no-hoper, those all-too-easy processions of recent years can be forgotten for a while.
Aidan O’Brien muddies punters’ waters by saddling multiple runners as he seeks his fourth Derby triumph in five seasons. The well-worn adage is that when O’Brien throws so many darts at the Epsom board, it’s unlikely that any will hit the bullseye. But the confidence behind the unbeaten US ARMY RANGER has propelled him into joint favouritism, even though he has seen a racetrack only twice in his life. Victory on heavy ground in a Curragh maiden in April was followed by a successful step-up in class in the Chester Vase. The son of Galileo is a banker to improve again and, despite his inexperience, the tricky nature of Epsom is unliklely to faze a colt who moves so smoothly. But even his most ardent supporters will be worried that, at Chester, he only just outpointed a stablemate, PORT DOUGLAS, who was giving him 4lb. A stablemate openly referred to by O’Brien as just a solid Group Two horse and one openly used as a pacemaker on occasions last term. What’s more, just once since 1993 has the Derby been won by a colt that didn’t run as a juvenile.
O’Brien might harbour more appealing credentials in DEAUVILLE, a dogged and determined street-fighter who was a close second in a hot renewal of the main Derby trial, York’s Dante Stakes. Neither would I rule out IDAHO, something of a forgotten horse after his failure to justify favouritism in the Derrinstown Derby Trial at Leopardstown. The expensive, long-striding full brother to a French Derby runner-up has been considered Epsom material since winning on his two-year-old debut and being pitched into a Group One contest only days later. Given that his stamina is guaranteed, the hold-up ride he received at Leopardstown was misjudged.
Whether Idaho can still reverse placings with the winner that day, though, is open to question. Jim Bolger’s MOONLIGHT MAGIC bagged the prize in efficient, accomplished fashion and boasts a profile that has Epsom written all over it. The dam, Melikah, was third in the Oaks. The dam’s sire, Lammtarra, won the Derby. And two of her half-brothers, Sea The Stars and Galileo, also strode to Downs glory. And when a man as wily as Bolger speaks of a horse in the same breath as St Jovite, whom he trained to finish second in the 1992 Epsom Classic before winning both the Irish Derby and the King George, it pays to sit up and take notice.
Moonlight Magic is owned by the Godolphin operation, whose continued failure to land the world’s most historic Flat race remains one of racing’s great anomalies. Yet the son of Cape Cross is not the only gold-plated bullet the boys in blue are firing this year. For in CLOTH OF STARS, they have another descendant of the mighty Sea The Stars and another live contender. If, like me, you’re a sucker for race trends, this is the only colt in the field who fits all the criteria. Victory would be extremely painful for connections of Robin Of Navan, who beat Andre Fabre’s colt twice as a juvenile but was not deemed by them to be good enough to be even entered for Epsom. But it’s not inconceivable the way he turned the tables on Harry Dunlop’s stable star at Saint-Cloud last month. Blighted by a refusal to settle properly last season, he was much more amenable this time and appears to be maturing and improving fast. Fabre does not put him in the same bracket as his 2011 Derby hero, Pour Moi, but has no qualms about his stamina.
So fascinating is this year’s race that I’m running out of space before I’ve even mentioned the joint market-leader and the Dante winner, WINGS OF DESIRE, who is bidding to give John Gosden back-to-back Derbies, nor MASSAAT who, strictly on the formbook, is the class act of the race, having finished second in the 2,000 Guineas. Will the former have sufficent pace? Will the latter have sufficient stamina?
It is unheard of for horses to spring from maidens to Derby glory, yet ULYSSES is being touted as a likely Sir Michael Stoute winner, and with even more enthusiasm than his stablemate Midterm was before his participation was sabotaged by injury. It is also unheard of (in fact, not for 32 years), for horses to spring from handicaps to Derby glory, yet RED VERDON carries the full confidence of champion jockey Silvestre De Sousa.
Throw into the mix three more winners of recognised trials, HUMPHREY BOGART, also proven at Epsom, the classy HARZAND and the tough ALGOMETER, both of whom would be threats to all on ground with give, and you have an Investec Derby to savour. It is also worth noting that Kieren Fallon, second only, in my opinion, to Lester Piggott in mastering the onerous art of riding Epsom, is back, on board ACROSS THE STARS. And if you’re still puzzled, here’s one final clue: ten of the last 12 winners have been drawn between stalls three and ten!
* Twelve months ago, I got my fingers burned when suggesting we were heading for a sub-standard Derby. Along came a legend in GOLDEN HORN and a top-class runner-up in JACK HOBBS. However, unless my eyes and antennae are deceiving me, I’m certain its Classic sister, the Investec Oaks, is not a vintage renewal this year.
The stand-out filly in a small, uninspiring field is the favourite MINDING. But even she comes with considerable risks attached. Her stamina for the 12f trip is far from guaranteed and while she was deeply impressive in the 1,000 Guineas, her preparation for Epsom was rudely interrupted by a hard race when beaten in the Irish equivalent.
She will have had only 12 days to recover, tempting me to seek each-way alternatives in EVEN SONG and ARCHITECTURE.