Believe it or not, there are people within racing who still think the Investec Derby should be run on a Wednesday. They cling to the notion that the race can grab the nation’s attention even on a day when most of us are at work.
Of course, such a notion died a death in the early 1990s when interest in the Derby, at a time when it was the centerpiece of a four-day meeting at Epsom, dipped alarmingly.
However, this year’s race is one of those renewals you could easily hide away on a working Wednesday. Maybe even behind closed curtains.
OK, it does possess a competitive element, which couldn’t be said about the last two weak Derbies of 2012 and 2007, both one-horse processions for Camelot and Authorized. But quality appears to be sorely lacking for the £1.4 million showpiece, the richest race of the Flat season.
Of course, it will still be a great day. In collaboration with sponsors Investec, Epsom have done a wonderful job in revitalising the raceday experience on the first Saturday in June. Certainly the last three or four years have been far more enjoyable than my first, and last, Wednesday Derby in 1989 when only the victory of Nashwan lifted a flat, cold and wet afternoon.
Also, I very much get the argument that the Derby is the beginning of a journey, not the destination, for three-year-old colts. And most years, the race yields a top-class performer or two.
However, unless market leaders GOLDEN HORN and ZAWRAQ defy serious doubts over their stamina and/or wellbeing, this might well be the year when those annoying critics of the global status of our flagship race might have their field day. Especially if the weather forecasters are right and Epsom is hit by a deluge of rain 24 hours earlier that could add to the likelihood of a messy outcome.
Perhaps the reason for the absence of the wow factor this year is a rare dearth of credible challengers from the Ballydoyle operation of Aidan O’Brien. A large plank of O’Brien’s modus operandi is producing a conveyor-belt of middle-distance excellence. Hence five Derby winners and six runners-up since the turn of the century. But this spring has been more like a conveyor-belt of letdowns with the likes of JOHN F KENNEDY, OL’ MAN RIVER, SIR ISAAC NEWTON and HIGHLAND REEL all blowing their pretensions to the Epsom throne, while GLENEAGLES and FOUND have been diverted to chase alternative prizes. Highland Reel did redeem his reputation in last Sunday’s French Derby with a performance that suggests O’Brien missed a trick in not targeting him at the UK version. But in his absence, the Ballydoyle boys are left with a sub-standard triumvirate..
HANS HOLBEIN looked all stamina when front-running his way to the Chester Vase and surely needs all the rain predicted to have his say on Saturday. KILIMANJARO makes more appeal after a pleasing performance to land the Lingfield Derby Trial. However, the most attractive proposition of the trio is GIOVANNI CANALETTO, whose re-appearance performance at The Curragh two weeks ago was unfairly rubbished in many quarters. The way he ran on strongly in his first race after a long absence, plus an injury setback, and his first in Group company tempted me to take each/way odds of 16/1. Needless to say, my view has since been bolstered by the decision of Ryan Moore to ride the colt. As a full brother to 2013 Epsom hero Ruler Of the World, he will improve massively for the outing and the step-up to 12f.
Which, of course, is something that cannot be guaranteed with John Gosden’s unbeaten favourite, Golden Horn. He was a brilliant winner of the hottest trial by far, the Dante Stakes at York, unleashing a similar turn of foot to the one that left Nottingham racegoers open-mouthed on his sole juvenile start. And in doing so, he burst the bubbles of stablemate JACK HOBBS, who went off a shorter price, and one of the leading winter fancies for the Derby, ELM PARK.
Making the big leap from handicap company, Jack Hobbs showed his inexperience on the Knavesmire, while Elm Park needed the run on his seasonal return. But both were so soundly hammered that it is hard to envisage them bridging gaps of nearly three lengths and six lengths. Indeed it is more than 30 years since the Derby was won via a handicap, and while it’s pleasing that Godolphin have bought Jack Hobbs, halting the depressing drain of middle-distance talent to Australia, even they admit he is a long-term project, as the son of one late developer, Halling, out of a dam by another, Swain. Softish ground would escalate Elm Park’s chances, but his exhibition at Epsom’s Breakfast With The Stars event last week induced more chortles and chuckles than cheer. One observer felt he handled the descent into the home straight and the course’s camber like a crab. Another wag felt he changed his legs more times than Douglas Bader.
On a more serious note, both colts remain exciting prospects. And one advantage both might have over Golden Horn is stamina. Visual evidence, to my eyes at least, suggests that the favourite will stay Saturday’s trip. Pedigree evidence is less persuasive. Yes, it’s encouraging that the dam is a half-sister to winners of a Cheshire Oaks and a Lingfield Derby Trial, but his owner-breeder, the vastly experienced Anthony Oppenheimer, knows the family better than most and it’s not easy to forget that his original view about the colt’s suitability for 12f was so robust that he didn’t even enter him for the race.
There has been no such shortage of confidence behind the credentials of Zawraq, who aims to give one of the giants of the game, Irish handler Dermot Weld, the first Epsom Derby success of his distinguished career. In 40 years, the master of Rosewell House has saddled the winners of 22 Classics across Europe, not to mention two Melbourne Cups, so when he says his son of Shamardal “has always struck me as a Derby type”, we have to sit up and take notice.
It takes a special horse to be “a Derby type” in the eyes of Weld, and there is no doubt Zawraq has looked just that in two runs so far.. As a juvenile, he stunned Sir Isaac Newton who, at the time, was something of a talking horse in the O’Brien yard. And on his return in 2015, on significantly Heavy ground, he dismissed a highly talented rival, ENDLESS DRAMA, who has since given a scare to mighty miler Gleneagles in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.
One concern is that a minor setback has kept Hamdan Al Maktoum’s charge off the track since that win in April. An even bigger concern is that he sustained a minor cut in his last gallop on Tuesday morning. You also have to go further back in his pedigree than Golden Horn’s to find compelling evidence of his stamina assets. But then you hit the family of Nashwan, Nayef and Unfuwain, and notwithstanding the necessity to arrive in Surrey in prime health, Weld is confident, based on the horse’s homework, that he will get the Derby distance.
Of the rest of Saturday’s 15-strong field, I toyed with advertising the chances of Godolphin’s second string, BEST OF TIMES, until his disappointing effort at Goodwood last time, which failed to build on previous progression. I have also considered mud-loving raiders SUCCESS DAYS and EPICURIS, who would be in their element if the heavens do open. But while both boast a string of 1s next to their names, deeper inspection of their form leaves them with lots to find.
No, this is a Derby desperate for the cream to rise to the top. I respect the potential of Giovanni Canaletto, but I hope Zawraq and Golden Horn can overcome prevailing negatives and add to the cameos of class they have already shown.
Gosden is convinced his horse, helped by his laid-back nature, will stay and provide Frankie Dettori with a second Derby winner to further fuel the former champion jockey’s renaissance. And it’s hard to believe that formidable racing men like Weld and Sheikh Hamdan would risk Zawraq if he was not 100% fit and healthy. The confidence behind him before this week’s knock, proffered most notably by Weld’s reliable lieutenant Pat Smullen, had been infectious.
Of course, Weld does know how to win an Epsom Classic. After all, he did send out Blue Wind to take the 1981 Oaks. But for a trainer of his standing, that was far too long ago. In fact, so long ago that they were still running the Derby on a Wednesday!
MY DERBY 1-2-3
2 GOLDEN HORN
3 GIOVANNI CANALETTO