Three championship races defined Epsom’s 2019 Derby meeting, writes Tony Stafford. Three times Ryan Moore struck the front in Classic Lester Piggott mode at around the two-furlong pole, the first twice on horses just shaded for favouritism but with outstanding claims and finally on the clear Derby favourite. All three times he was usurped in what in time might come to be regarded historically as a one-off Golden Highway up the far rail.
Traditionally Epsom’s camber takes hold of tiring horses, especially at the end of the mile and a half Group 1 trio of Investec Derby, Oaks and Coronation Cup. Routinely it deposits them struggling for balance on the rail where any recent rain, especially when combined with excessive watering (very rare with Andrew Cooper in charge), would slow the ground compared with higher up the camber and interfere with faltering stride patterns.
This time, fast conditions and, particularly on Saturday afternoon, hot weather and a drying breeze more than countered the three millilitres Cooper decided to put on the track on Friday night. First Defoe in the Coronation Cup, then Anapurna in the Oaks, and finally Anthony Van Dyck in the Derby came late and fast to deny Ryan in turn on Kew Gardens, Pink Dogwood and Sir Dragonet in the Derby.
It was easy to criticize Moore (as many did) and I went home on Friday having imagined seeing him go clear on both Kew Gardens and Pink Dogwood, but the reality was that neither ever got far ahead of their eventual nemeses.
Equally, it was unusual in the extreme just how Andrea Atzeni aboard Defoe, Frankie Dettori on Anapurna and above all Seamie Heffernan, the Peter Pan-like 46-year-old rider (really?) of Anthony Van Dyck found a clear course along the rail. In Heffernan’s case he was actually wider than Moore as the Coolmore number one rider launched his mount to the lead.
A right-hand tap on a horse clearly going very well, took him left and as he stayed on strongly, the same leftward course found the rail. In the same moment, four rivals on his outside contrived almost to manufacture a quadruple dead-heat, AvD’s stamina kicking in to pass them all 100 yards from home for a half-length victory.
For the record, the only interloper in an O’Brien multi-coloured justification of his block entry of seven in a 13-horse field, Madhmoon, rallied late to pinch second back with on the outside Japan and Broome staying on strongly, all three catching Sir Dragonet and relegating him to fifth in a miasma of a nose and two short heads.
You could understand Ryan cursing his luck. Not only had he ridden Anthony Van Dyck to victory in the Lingfield Derby Trial when O’Brien believed the Galileo colt to be well short of peak fitness, he had been in the saddle on five of his eight previous races including when unplaced behind Line of Duty – never sighted on Saturday – at the Breeders’ Cup last backend.
Had the decision to supplement Sir Dragonet at a cost of £85,000 not been made – at a time when there was an expectation of imminent rain – Ryan almost certainly would have been on the winner. But would he have won if he had taken the same up-the-middle course?
So quickly did the picture change in the Derby that if it were run multiple times, who could say which of the O’Brien four in their respective pink (Magnier second colours), purple (Derryck Smith), blue and orange (Michael Tabor) or dark blue (Magnier) – or the Prendergast one – would have prevailed.
The tendency in any close finish is to condemn the whole lot as ordinary. That could be a very dangerous assumption. Sir Dragonet showed class and speed enough to win the race and failed by less than a length. He did wonderfully well to make light of his inexperience – the first race of his life was only 37 days previously – and he was also in his first contested finish on an alien track and under novel fast conditions.
Japan and Broome flew home on the outside, Japan finding at least 14lb on his Dante run when acknowledged as well short of peak fitness by his trainer before and after the fact, while Broome continued to show the kind of stamina that could make him the number one St Leger candidate come the autumn.
But what O’Brien manages to a degree that no other trainer can – and of course he has the raw material, not just in quality but numerically – is to identify the right horse for the right target.
The Derby comes early in the season, just nine weeks since the start and we’re already 80 per cent through the English Classic races. This year it was the earliest possible, so these staying horses are still in a semi-embryonic stage. Which of them will go to the Irish Derby? By late July will any be ready to take on the older generation, and that possibly means Enable in the King George?
And then there’s the Eclipse, the Grand Prix de Paris, as zealously sought as the remodelled (some time ago now, but we live in the past!) French Derby which yesterday had its normal token Ballydoyle attention: Epsom Derby Trial winner Cape of Good Hope, first string of three at 24-1, was guided to a creditable fourth by that man Moore behind the impressive winner, Sottsass.
Moore suffered a frustrating weekend. That Derby slide from second to fifth in the last 20 yards was costly indeed. Second spot was worth £350,000 and fifth £43,000. Eight per cent or thereabouts of the 300k he forfeited will be hard to stomach.
I happened to be walking through along the side of the weighing room as Chris Hayes came out wheeling his little case and still sporting the “I got Ryan’s money!” grin. I couldn’t help remembering that his first trip to the UK came when I booked him to ride my filly Ekaterina, named after Mrs Stafford, but of widely differing abilities as a 16-year-old when he looked about ten.
“I thought I had it!” he said without a glimmer of regret. It’s great when nice people do well and as one of the Irish jockeys young enough and with no weight problems to have multiple chances in the future, I’d be amazed if he didn’t win the race one day.
I felt truly sorry for Hughie Morrison and the brother and sister team of Mark Weinfeld and Helena Ellingsen that Telecaster found Derby Day all too much. The most obvious sweater in the paddock, he was also the least compliant as they went out for the parade, possibly exacerbated by being last of the 13 to go out.
There was concern that number two draw had been a guarantee of failure in the past, but watching the initial stages, it could only be a mathematical anomaly rather than a physical negative. What was not arguable was that he was the first of the leading bunch to be beaten and, along with his Doncaster conqueror Bangkok, never looked like denting the Irish hegemony.
At least the Weinfeld family had the Oaks win to cheer them and soften the blow of the blown 85 grand. Anapurna is a direct descendant of Egon Weinfeld’s 1979 1,000 Guineas winner One In A Million. No such luck for Morrison, whose father James was owner of the other 1979 Classic winning filly, Scintillate.
The Queen unveiled a bronze statue of Lester Piggott, nine-time Derby- winning jockey, on Saturday. Aidan O’Brien, in equalling that number, also equalled the record for training the winner and surely as night follows day, will beat it sooner rather than later.
Galileo, the 2001 hero, is now responsible for four Derby winners. John Magnier and Michael Tabor have been associated with all five horses and three other Derby winners, so are one ahead of O’Brien in the official records, although one report suggested Magnier had reached number ten, presumably as a minor partner in Robert Sangster winners.
Whatever the accuracy of that account, the astonishing fact is that six of the winners of the years between 2011 and 2019 have been in their ownership, all with Derrick Smith, a late entry into the team. Only Pour Moi, trained by Andre Fabre, did not hone his Epsom credentials on the Ballydoyle gallops.
Some wonderful trainers based in England have massive strings of expensively-bought or home-bred colts with Classic pedigrees. Gosden, Haggas, Varian, Charlie Appleby and the like you would think, might be feared but every year the one to beat is Aidan O’Brien. It’s not very often that he is.