It was celebrated owner Lord Weinstock who, with quintessential Englishness, once stated: “It is vulgar to win the Derby two years running.”
So I wonder what he would make of Aidan O’Brien and “the lads” at Ballydoyle/Coolmore, who are on the cusp of a THIRD successive Investec Derby this week.
In 2013, O’Brien saddled Ruler Of The World to land the Epsom Classic -- 12 months after odds-on favourite Camelot had delivered the goods for the same operation.
Now, AUSTRALIA is a short-priced favourite to complete the treble and continue O’Brien’s love affair with the great race.
As I write, the market for this year’s renewal has a distinctly lop-sided renewal, which does not reflect a fascinating contest featuring several colts with persuasive claims.
But try as you might to make a case for the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, True Story, Ebanoran, Fascinating Rock, Kingston Hill and Arod, you are always driven back to Australia.
The son of Galileo represents the best trial-form in the shape of a 2,000 Guineas that, by the day, is living up to the vintage status many of us suspected of it at the time. And few horses to have tackled the race in its long and illustrious history can have been so distinctly bred for the job.
Another Epsom-related quote, often regurgitated at this time of year, is that of former Jockey Club guru James Weatherby, who once said: “Fortunately, nobody knows how to breed a Derby winner. If they did, it would take all the fun out of it.”
Well, when the gurus of Coolmore got their heads together in the breeding shed and paired Galileo, brilliant winner of the 2001 winner and subsequent superstar sire, with Ouija Board, runaway winner of the 2004 Oaks and subsequent superstar globetrotter, they did a pretty good job of proving Weatherby wrong!
Australia’s pedigree screams Epsom Downs on the first Saturday in June. Anything else achieved in the run-up to the big day would have to be considered a bonus. Finishing a close third, over an inadequate mile, in probably the best Guineas of recent times, was some bonus and explains exactly why he hovers around the even-money mark for Saturday’s race.
Of course, we are barely a month further down the road and not all the evidence is in. But consider this fallout from the Newmarket Classic -- runner-up Kingman has bolted up in the Irish 2,000 Guineas, while the fourth, Shifting Power, chased him home in second at The Curragh. And just for good measure, the tenth, The Grey Gatsby, who trailed Australia more than five lengths at HQ, not only won the Dante Stakes at York but also powered to victory in the French Derby last Sunday.
Add to the mix the guarantee that, on pedigree, O’Brien’s colt will improve markedly for the step-up in trip and that the trainer believes he is potentially the best horse he’s trained and you begin to realise why many feel it would take a cataclysm -- maybe a mudbath or a misjudgement in the saddle -- to get Australia beat.
So, need I go on? Shouldn’t I just stop the preview here and let you lump on?
Lovers of the Derby know it’s not that simple. Especially amid the manic atmosphere of a raucous Epsom, on the helter-skelter gradients of a unique track and against young rivals improving at a rate of knots.
I freely concede that Australia remains the most likely winner. I struggle to attach negatives to his name. But look back at previous Derbies that have been bossed by one short-priced favourite, most notably Camelot’s in 2012 and that of Authorized in 2007, and you will be struck by the shortage of strength in depth rt the opposition. Not this year.
Another contender has emerged from the 2,000 Guineas in Kingston Hill. Ireland’s major Derby trial, the Derrinstown Stud Stakes has yielded three challengers of repute. And while many pooh-poohed the strength of the UK’s main trial, the Dante, at the time, The Grey Gatsby’s French Derby success has cast new light on it. Maybe the beaten odds-on favourite for the York contest, True Story, was not so disappointing after all and remains a live Epsom candidate.
Throw into the mix Orchestra, Snow Sky and Western Hymn, impressive winners of three more respecfed trials at Chester, Lingfield and Sandown, and all of a sudden, you have a deep race laced with quality.
Let’s look at them one by one.
TRUE STORY is a conundrum, and likely to remain so until about 4.15 on Saturday when we will find out whether the truth is his buccaneering victory at the Craven meeting, when he bounded clear, or the aforementioned flop on the Knavesmire.
My Derby worries after Newmarket were that he was still green (including in the paddock) and keen. If York was an exercise in erasing those traits, it worked. Perhaps it worked too well because Kieren Fallon had to get racing on him far too soon at York. Perhaps the reason he failed to quicken is the surface, which was not only on the unsuitably soft side on the day but has also earned a reputation since being relaid as more suitable for grinders and gallopers than smooth travellers with a turn of foot. Believe all that, and you must still support him at Epsom, especially if you agree that no-one rides the course better than Fallon.
Mind you, if you’re persuaded by True Story, you cannot ignore AROD, who finished just in front of him in second in the Dante. Peter Chapple-Hyam’s dark horse is not bred to win a Classic, and is not particularly bred to stay the 12f trip. But the manner in which he flew home that day suggests he will be suited by Saturday’s bunfight.
To step straight from a Windsor maiden to the runners-up berth in a Dante is no mean sign of rapid improvement. It’s possible he was flattered by running on late, having never been put in the race, on educational grounds, to teach him to settle properly. Again, we’ll find out on Saturday when, Chapple-Hyam says, he will be ridden in a more orthodox manner.
KINGSTON HILL’S runaway win in the Group One Racing Post Trophy last backend was not only stunning for its visual impact, but also because it came only a month after his debut. Connections think so highly of the grey son of the brilliant Mastercraftsman that they were disappointed he finished only eighth in the Guineas, just ahead of The Grey Gatsby
Reportedly, he has been working the house down since, including at the Breakfast With The Stars event at Epsom itself, and is expected to improve for the step-up in trip. But whether, in his first Derby ride, jockey Andrea Atzeni can induce more improvement for it than the favourite and, at the same time, retrieve a five-length deficit with him from Newmarket must be debatable. The beautiful way he travelled at boggy Epsom last week confirmed to me also that he definitely prefers give in the ground, although his stamina would be far from guaranteed if the race deteriorated into a mud-strewn slog.
Give in the ground would not faze the Derrinstown principals making their way over to Surrey this weekend. I was bewildered by the way so many supposed experts dismissed the race because it was run at an unsatisfactorily steady gallop, Surely, the more pertinent conclusion was that here were three very smart colts, all on the upgrade.
FASCINATING ROCK was awarded the contest in the stewards’ room to complete the striking progress he has made this term under the tutelage of the wily Dermot Weld, in-form trainer of the moment in Ireland.
He is admired as a tough and likeable sort sure to relish the Derby distance. But it wouldn’t surprise if EBANORAN and GEOFFREY CHAUCER improved past him.
John Oxx’s colt unleashed a terrific turn of foot to swoop to the front at Leopardstown before battling gamely to hold on, albeit illegally, in the closing stages. It might go against the grain for many to see a son of champion sprinter Oasis Dream win the Derby, but the dam landed the Irish Oaks and the French Leger and her bloodline includes Ascot Gold Cup winning stamina.
Oxx, of course, is a trainer who knows what it takes to sample Epsom glory but, equally, he is a man not prone to bullish outpourings. Therefore, I thought it hugely significant the other day when he said of Ebanoran: “He’s a live player and has a serious each/way chance.” For owner, the Aga Khan, victory would earn him his fifth Epsom Derby.
Geoffrey Chaucer finished two-and-a-half lengths behind in third in the Derrinstown. But unlike the front two, the son of Montjeu did not have the benefit of a previous run this term. What’s more, he was giving those rivals 3lb and also suffered two telling bouts of interference in the home straight.
Since his juvenile debut victory over Oaks candidate Tarfasha last July, O’Brien has spoken of the colt in the same breath as Australia and War Command, and you certainly get the impression he is the yard’s second choice behind the favourite for the Derby. If the trainer’s renowned skills for bringing horses on from their first runs of the campaign manifest themselves again, Geoffrey Chaucer must go close.
Having said that, my personal preference for second choice from the Ballydoyle battalion would be ORCHESTRA.
Another son of Galileo, he has a lot to find on the book. Indeed, as much as 11 lengths with Australia if you take collateral two-year-old form with Free Eagle seriously. But stamina doubts are zero. He’s already conquered the 12f trip, and on Soft ground, oozing class when taking the Chester Vase on his seasonal bow last month.
For a big horse, Orchestra handled the tight turns of the Roodee with admirable smoothness and while he idled through greenness in the home straight, I got the impression that Ryan Moore allowed him to drift left so as not to interrupt his momentum. Moore was still mightily impressed, which takes some doing, by a colt whose dam is a half-sister to the 2008 Oaks runner-up, Moonstone.
In normal circumstances, of course, Moore would be riding for Sir Michael Stoute on Saturday. But Stoute’s contender, SNOW SKY, is owned by Khalid Abdullah, whose retained jockey is James Doyle.
Doyle gets the leg-up on a colt who is progressive and won the Lingfield Derby Trial in pleasing fashion. But it was a sub-standard renewal, and the son of Nayef has already been found wanting twice at Group level, behind two of this weekend’s rivals. His best hope would be a mudbath, which he defied with startling ease in one of his jvenile successes last season.
John Gosden’s unbeaten colt, WESTERN HYMN, outclassed Snow Sky at Newbury in April en route to victory in the trainer’s preferred Derby trial at Sandown. Neither race can be spoken of in the same stratosphere as the Investec Derby, but he has natural talent in abundance, although perhaps more speed than stamina.
An ability to stay is the strong suit, however, of Gosden’s second string, ROMSDAL, who was supplemented for the race this week.
This is the horse who was tigerishly bearing down on Orchestra in the closing stages of the Chester Vase. If he can reverse the form, it would complete an astonishing turnaround only ten weeks after he finished third in a modest maiden at Doncaster on the opening day of the season.
Stamina is certainly what you’ve needed to plough through this preview-athon! But I hope it’s helped you make your mind up.
Of course, the weather could yet scupper the best-laid plans and predictions. But on the assumption the ground will be Good to Soft, below is my 1-2-3. It would not surprise me if they finished in a different order. If the ground turned Soft, it would not surprise me if Kingston Hill upset the favourite. If the ground turned fast, it would not surprise me if True Story won.
INVESTEC DERBY (Epsom, Saturday 7th June, 4.00)