Sport Horse Racing

Thursday 26 April 2018

Camelot stepping up to claim his birthright

Aidan O'Brien's new star is on the cusp of greatness, says Ian McClean

The recent disturbingly widespread trend by sponsors to eliminate the original race titles, supplanting them with their own brand and in one foul swoop consigning years of tradition and history to the trash, would be taken to its most extreme should Investec ever attempt to replace the Derby with its own wealth and asset management label.

Mind you, 'The Investec' does have a certain ring to it. I wonder would it catch on? After all, do we really need to maintain a tradition that only stretches back to 1780? And in any case it would have been called The Bunbury had Lord Bunbury won the toss and who could take a race called The Bunbury at all seriously?

It would certainly have exercised the thoughts and writings of remarkable 20th century Italian owner/breeder Federico Tesio who captured the reverential tradition of the Derby thus, "The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians or zoologists: but on a piece of wood -- the winning post of the Epsom Derby."

It is the same piece of wood that has been of some preoccupation to Aidan O'Brien in recent years. The trainer managed to win the historic race with Galileo at just O'Brien's fourth attempt in 2001, and followed up the very next year with High Chaparral. But it has been poor pickings ever since and the Derby drought now extends to eight years and 39 runners and precipitated the remark at Ballydoyle's media morning that "we are used to coming home from Epsom very humbled".

Indeed if the Epsom Derby is truly the pinnacle of achievement for the thoroughbred and Coolmore is the true leader in its field, then the importance of the race to the operation is clear. Yet in spite of a colossal annual intake of bred-in-the-purple colts, its return on investment in Derby terms is abysmal. At the previous entry stage this year, O'Brien still had 25 horses left in the race, reasoning correctly how "all these horses are bred and reared to turn up in the Derby".

It has been no different in previous years when as many as eight runners (in 2007) turned up to compete on the day. Exemplified by its carefully constructed Tattenham Corner replica on the gallops, the desire from Ballydoyle to annex Flat racing's greatest Classic is as palpable as it is understandable, and each year that passes increases the intensity of desire and pressure to deliver. That Coolmore should have owned last year's winner Pour Moi, and that he should be trained in France by Andre Fabre, does little to alleviate matters.

Of the 24 horses remaining in next Saturday's classic, O'Brien still holds five. However, it is really all about one of those -- Camelot -- which represents O'Brien's best chance to return to the Derby groove.

Over the years there have been many apples in O'Brien's eye but Camelot has fulfilled all expectations to date. "He's been very exceptional from day one, when he was born," the trainer said. "He impresses with his looks, his pedigree, his movement and his presence."

He has also impressed where it counts most, on the track, unbeaten now in three races including two Group

Ones, one a Classic. He entered the winter as Derby favourite and has done nothing but contract meantime. Despite the fact that another of Ballydoyle's entries, Imperial Monarch, won Sandown's significant Classic trial easily -- at media gatherings the only talk is of Camelot.

He is as short as 4/6 to re-instate Ballydoyle on the Derby roll of honour. Yet the last horse to start 4/6 was Entrepreneur and he finished only fourth behind Benny The Dip in 1997. More encouragement can be had from the last winning odds-on shot in the Derby, Shergar, the most impressive (ten lengths) winner of the modern era. In total, 14 horses to start odds-on have been beaten in the race and 17 have won.

In terms of Derby trials the Guineas is not as robust as one might expect. However, many exceptional Guineas winners are simply milers trying their luck at the Derby distance, whereas Camelot's pedigree appears more suited to the longer trip and the Guineas could be seen as a bonus.

In all, 36 Guineas winners have gone on to win the Derby, the most recent of course being Sea The Stars. However, we have to go back to Nashwan in 1989 to find the one prior to that.

Of course, the Derby is the middle leg of the Triple Crown, an accomplishment last achieved by Nijinsky way back in 1970. Shakespeare wrote that some are born great, some achieve greatness. It appears Camelot was blessed with the former. Next Saturday will tell us more about the prospect of the latter.

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