EPSOM DERBY REVIEW: was the eclipse of Dawn Approach part of a tactical plot hatched at Ballydoyle?

One of the world’s most famous Flat races, the Investec Derby, was run for the 234th time last Saturday. More than 110,000 spectators flocked to Epsom Downs. And more than two million watched on TV.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 4th June 2013, 11:22 am
Ruler of the World ridden by jockey Ryan Moore comes home to win the Investec Derby during The Investec Derby Day at Epsom Downs Racecourse, Surrey PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday June 1, 2013. See PA Story RACING Epsom. Photo credit should read: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire.
Ruler of the World ridden by jockey Ryan Moore comes home to win the Investec Derby during The Investec Derby Day at Epsom Downs Racecourse, Surrey PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday June 1, 2013. See PA Story RACING Epsom. Photo credit should read: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire.

Among those on course was our resident racing expert, RICHARD ‘SCOOP’ SILVERWOOD. Here is his review of a fascinating race.

It was the Derby in which the flopping favourite became a bigger talking-point than the workmanlike winner.

Aidan O’Brien’s RULER OF THE WORLD might have lived up to his name to sweep to victory and earn “the lads” at Coolmore their third successive Epsom Classic.

But most eyes were focused on, and most column inches were occupied by, the demise of DAWN APPROACH, who trundled home an unprecedented last.

In one of the most bizarre, yet absorbing, Derbys for many years, Jim Bolger’s colt, brilliant winner of the 2,000 Guineas and Dewhurst Stakes, surrendered his unbeaten record.

Not through lack of stamina, which many thought would be the 5/4 shot’s achilles heel. Indeed he was beaten well before his stamina could even be examined. But through an abject failure to adapt to the step-up in trip to 1m4f and to handle a gallop much slower than he’s accustomed to.

Whatever their pedigrees might say, it’s rare for colts to refuse to settle in the Derby because the first half of the race rolls uphill. But climbing on the heels of rivals in front of him, throwing his head from side to side, a fired-up Dawn Approach would not play ball.

Jockey Kevin Manning struggled to find cover to help the cause and, in the end, saw little option but to send his mount to the front as the 12-strong field began the descent to Tattenham Corner.

However, the chestnut’s recalcitrant exertions were soon taking their toll and his Derby was soon over -- ironically at almost exactly the same point his sire, New Approach, had launched his searing charge for victory in the 2008 race.

As he limped over the line, piling misery on Godolphin’s fraught season, the inquests began. Had the favourite been the victim of a tactical plot, executed by O’Brien and Co, to deliberately stifle the gallop? After all, a similar strategy appeared to have been designed four years earlier to hinder the chances of a similarly hot market-leader, Sea The Stars. A strategy that John Oxx’s superstar had been good enough to repel.

At first, I thought yes. Equally, I accepted that getting your main rival beat was a legitimate tactic to deploy. And I was pretty pleased with myself as one of the few analysts in the build-up to the race to have suspected it might happen, as opposed to a relentless gallop to expose Dawn Approach’s stamina limitations. The clue came with the possibility that O’Brien was sorely tempted to saddle the speedy MAGICIAN, a Group One winner over 1m hardly crying out for the Derby distance.

However, the master trainer insisted no. “Taking away the winning chance of any horse by using him for another purpose is bad,” he said. To disbelieve him is tantamount to calling him a liar. And after giving the issue serious thought, I don’t think we are in a position to do so.

If this was a tactical operation, why risk sacrificing your best horse in the race to perform it? For it was BATTLE OF MARENGO, second favourite and the ride of Ballydoyle’s number one jockey, who found himself at the head of the field from an early stage, dictating most of the pace. A colt who had tended to idle when hitting the front in his previous wins.

If this was a tactical operation, why not use the stable’s rags, FLYING THE FLAG or FESTIVE CHEER, to carry out the pacesetting duties? Failure to do so rendered their very presence in the race a mystery.

And if this was a tactical operation, what a monumental gamble to take. For if it had backfired, as Bolger himself pointed out this week, it would have made life easier, not harder, for Dawn Approach by transforming the race into something more akin to a 5f sprint.

Indeed how could Ballydoyle know which horse would benefit most from such a pace-strangling exercise? As it happened, in a curious twist to the whole affair, the first three places were filled by the horses boasting arguably the biggest reserves of stamina -- Ruler Of The World, the sole challenger to have won over the trip, LIBERTARIAN, a colt who seems tailormade for the St Leger in his home county, and GALILEO ROCK, a close relation of smart stayer Saddler’s Rock.

Gallop or no gallop, the 2013 renewal still somehow contrived to reinforce the notion that stamina is the key requirement of any Derby winner. And talking of twists, the fillies’ version the previous day contrived to prove that a horse can still triumph after pulling for its head -- and even when you are progeny of New Approach! Ralph Beckett’s second string, TALENT, was lit up like a firework on the downhill stretch to Tattenham Corner and into the home straight, where she also encountered interference. But she quickened up in dramatic fashion to collar her stablemate, the favourite, SECRET GESTURE.

The two races spearheaded another memorable weekend at Epsom, which deserves rich credit for the way it packages and delivers the Classics these days in a feelgood festival that appeals to all types of racegoer.

The Derby debates of the connoisseurs will continue to rage. But as a fully-paid up member of the Ban Conspiracy Theories Club, I am content to give the O’Brien team the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, it is palpably clear that the lack of early tempo helped to bring about the eclipse of Dawn Approach. But it is also worth pointing out that the overall time of the race was still faster than the 12f handicap that followed on the card, 50 minutes later. And the manner in which the Derby unfolded did not seem to follow the blueprint of some masterplan pieced together in the drawing room of John and Sue Magnier. After all, I suspect the connections of most of the runners were fully expecting the French raider, OCOVANGO, to lead, given that he’d made all and stayed on strongly in two of his three wins.

From the mess that prevailed, it would be churlish to deny the winner the credit he deserves. Not since Sir Henry Cecil’s Commander In Chief 20 years ago has a horse landed the great race without seeing a track as a two-year-old. And when he took the Chester Vase last month, Ruler Of The World very much gave the impression he wouldn’t possess the tactical speed to tackle Epsom. So for such an inexperienced colt to quicken up in a race not run to suit, despite leaning persistently left from the moment Ryan Moore asked him to pick up, speaks volumes for his ability and his potential.

Moore’s ride was a typical masterclass. In contrast to that afforded another Ballydoyle challenger by the jockey Moore will surely usurp as champion at the end of the season. Richard Hughes was not seen at his best on MARS, who was not only given too much to do but also met with more traffic problems than most in the home straight before running on in the style of a horse with much more to give this summer.

Next stop for Mars could be Royal Ascot. Next stop for Ruler Of The World will be the Irish Derby. Next stop for Dawn Approach? After this experience, who knows?. Both Bolger and the Godolphin entourage have expressed fears that it will have lasting effects. Let’s hope the attributes of power and pace that have characterised his career have not been jettisoned by a decision to cross a bridge too far.