Sport Horse Racing

Saturday 16 December 2017

Australia still standing tall as rivals flounder

Aidan O'Brien's colt remains clear favourite to secure Epsom Derby, writes Ian McClean

Trainer Aidan O'Brien
Trainer Aidan O'Brien

Ian McClean

Since the 2000 Guineas there have been at least four recognised Epsom Derby trials either side of the Irish Sea. The collective impact has been only to improve favourite Australia's chances from odds-against to odds-on while the Aidan O'Brien colt does nothing more than his idle daily routine as others apparently flounder in a set of racecourse trials that together have yielded plenty of tribulation.

Take the premier UK Derby trial, York's Dante, as an example. The only horse in the race to have improved his Epsom odds as a result of the two minutes spent on the Knavesmire was the Peter Chapple-Hyam trained runner-up Arod.

The trainer's reply in the direct aftermath ("It will be up to Sheikh Fahad but I suppose we'll go to Epsom") does not quite parallel with the his swashbuckling ebullience after Authorized had triumphed in the same race back in 2007. It seems PCH doesn't fancy Arod will be quite up to scratching that seven-year Derby itch this time around.

Since its inception back in 1958 the Dante has been responsible for more Derby winners (10) than any other recognised trial, and while Arod will certainly improve for both the experience in what was only his third ever run, the faster ground and the step up in trip, bookmakers are not flattering his chances at Epsom with anything more than a 20/1 quote.

What is most disappointing about the Dante is that with the exception of Kingston Hill all the right horses showed up and the time was good – 1.22 seconds faster than the Middleton on the same afternoon – it is just the result that was wrong from a Derby trial perspective. For starters, just four and a half lengths covered the whole six runners.

The winner The Grey Gatsby was a doubtful stayer at the Dante trip of a mile two and a half, never mind the full Derby distance, and will now stay at that trip for the Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly. Notwithstanding that, the fact that he had never previously won a Group race and had finished seven places behind Australia in the Guineas puts the Dante form into crystal clear perspective.

The Hannon hope Bunker was put away for the season after beating recent French Guineas and dual Group One winner Karakontie in a Listed race at Deauville last August. Reported to have made "enormous physical progress" over the winter, he lacked a change of pace when the York race developed and was described simply as "ring-rusty" by Al Shaqab representative Harry Herbert.

As he's been supplemented for the Derby, he'll probably still go there but you can have 50/1 about him at Coral. However, the greatest let-down of all on Thursday was Godolphin's True Story, which the scribes came to York to hail, but instead were left to nail.

It's not that he ran badly, he arguably should have been second but for interference from the winner, but all Newmarket's Fielden fireworks were missing, and instead of another step forward this laboured effort was definitely one in reverse.

The jump up in trip will suit at Epsom and better ground will help, but whether he can do a Workforce and go one better from Dante to Derby is very much open to question.

Leopardstown's Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial has been historically the best stab we have had at Epsom from the Irish side down through the years with a golden spell at the turn of the millennium where Sinndar (2000), Galileo (2001) and High Chaparral (2002) all followed up victories at Epsom.

But while each of those subsequent stallions delivered clearcut wins at the Foxrock venue, this year's renewal proved highly unsatisfactory. The disqualification of Ebanoran following interference to Fascinating Rock, not to mention the serially interrupted passage of third placed Geoffrey Chaucer, means it is impossible to be adamant which from amongst the first three home possesses the best credentials for Epsom on June 7.

Lingfield used to be good for a Derby winner having produced four since 1983 but it seems like a long time now since it last delivered with High Rise in 1998. Last weekend's trial saw the imposing Snow Sky beat a rabble of opponents clogged together in a heap and it is significant that Michael Stoute wasn't rushing to confirm his colt for Epsom straight away.

With his big white blaze and his Juddmonte silks, the Nayef colt might have all the appearance of a Workforce, but not yet in the eyes of his trainer at present.

Snow Sky is the first of the Racing Post Trophy field to have come out and won. He had previously succumbed to Western Hymn at Newbury, before Western Hymn went on to win the Sandown Classic Trial, a Derby trial peculiarly staged even before the Guineas. Both Western Hymn and Kingston Hill (winner of the Racing Post Trophy) are heading straight for Epsom without a further run, which means the only other trial of worth is the race which launched last year's winner Ruler of the World.

The 1977 Derrinstown Derby Trial was won by an Orchestra (trained by John Oxx Senior and ridden by Raymond Carroll) and it is another horse of the same name that triumphed around Chester in the Vase. Ryan Moore is said to have been impressed by the Coolmore horse and the manner of victory, and his defeat of benchmark rival Scotland (beaten eight lengths) measures up favourably with how far the same horse finished behind Western Hymn at Newbury previously.

And so, with all Derby trials now staged and executed, it is now simply a matter of whether you are for or against the overwhelming market leader Australia. The Ballydoyle 2000 Guineas third trades at best at a shade of odds-on and it is double-digit price every runner outside of the favourite.

Luckily, there are still a number of challengers willing and ready at least to head for Australia in three weeks' time.

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