Friday 20 October 2017

Legend of Camelot gathers pace

Derby winner writes new chapter in the history of Flat racing, writes Ian McClean

Days like this. They could have adopted the Van Morrison tune as a soundtrack to yesterday's Derby at Epsom -- especially if you were connected to Ballydoyle, Camelot or indeed the sport of racing as a whole.

In winning the Derby by a facile five lengths, Camelot entered a whole new chapter into the legend of the world's most historically famous Flat race. Never before have a father and son combined as trainer and jockey to win the race in the chronicle of its 223 years.

The same groundbreaking remark incidentally applied to the Breeder's Cup last autumn when St Nicholas Abbey famously provided the O'Brien duo with the same historic precedent. It was fitting therefore that St Nicholas Abbey should turn up again at Epsom yesterday to take the other Coronation Cup earlier in the afternoon.

Following the Oaks win of the previous day, it brought to three the haul of Group Ones for Ballydoyle at the prestigious two-day Epsom fixture. The tally represents a satisfyingly sharp contrast to Aidan O'Brien's observation at Ballydoyle's recent pre-Derby media morning that "we are used to coming home from Epsom very humbled". This time around the only humility lay in victory.

History reflects that Ballydoyle has sent out the Derby winner in 1962, 1972, 1982, 2002 and now 2012. If the Queen was kicking off her Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Epsom Downs yesterday, then Ballydoyle was choosing the same venue for their own Golden Jubilee.

What makes the Derby victory all the sweeter is that is was achieved with Camelot, a horse even the circumspect John Magnier had to admit afterwards is "right there" with the best the illustrious operation has had in its care.

For a horse that has been favourite since last October, the Derby was very much his race to lose. After all, at 8/13 a Camelot defeat would have come as a shock. However, three out of the last four odds-on Derby favourites have been beaten -- the last to win was Shergar back in 1981. The opposition yesterday looked weak with no representation from the quarters of other superpower Godolphin, or the major yards of Stoute or Cecil.

The field of nine was the smallest since 1907. Just two O'Brien runners from an earlier entry of 25 -- significant given that the yard has fielded as many as eight in previous years -- signalled supreme confidence in the favourite. It was a particularly robust statement of intent considering the yard had experienced an Epsom Derby drought extending through 39 runners back to 2002.

The race itself went off without incident. Joseph O'Brien dropped anchor and restrained Camelot from the gate as O'Brien's other runner Astrology pressed on at the head of affairs. Settled in second-last at one point Camelot was more than 10 lengths off the lead. The jockey patiently made up his ground, giving his mount both space and time as he swept widest of all around Tattenham Corner and into the straight.

When O'Brien pushed the button at the three furlong marker, the response wasn't instant but it was irresistible and, joining Astrology a furlong out, he careered away to a five-length verdict at the post. It was revealing afterwards to hear the young O'Brien report that Camelot "didn't come down the hill at all".

Apart from confirmation of what we already knew about the calibre of the horse and the trainer, yesterday's victory announced the continued progressive blossoming of 19-year-old Joseph O'Brien's talent. Mother Anne-Marie, fighting back emotion, described watching the race unfold as "torture", revealing also how Lester Piggott last week had told her to advise her son "not to be in any hurry". The coolness of the ride would have done even the sage old Maestro proud.

The young Lester rode Never Say Die to victory in 1954. He would go on to ride a further eight Derby winners. It is anybody's guess how many Joseph might ride in the future given that yesterday's win came almost three years to the day since he had his first ever ride in public. Weight, rather than talent, may be the deciding factor in addressing that question. Lester famously coupled champagne with cigars as his preferred weight-watcher. It is likely Joseph will opt for a less extravagant approach.

All talk after yesterday was of the Triple Crown, a feat last accomplished by another Ballydoyle legend Nijinsky back in 1970. William Hill momentarily took leave of its senses by offering evens about Camelot repeating the achievement (while Ladbrokes were a far more sober 1/3). However, it is what happens in the meantime against older horses that will indicate what class of legend we really have in Camelot.

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