Sport Horse Racing

Thursday 14 December 2017

Derby still waiting for a hero

Trial results leave Epsom desperate for Golden Horn entry

Golden Horn heads the Derby betting despite not being entered
Golden Horn heads the Derby betting despite not being entered

Ian McClean

Should I stay or should I go? That enduring classic Clash anthem could easily perform the soundtrack to the dialogue between John Gosden and owner Anthony Oppenheimer as to whether the Dante winner Golden Horn should be supplemented for the Epsom Derby in less than three weeks.

"If I go then will he stay?" is the more pertinent question being posed by the owner/breeder who has always viewed his latest progeny as a mile and a quarter performer, pointing out that not many members of the family stayed more than 10 furlongs.

Golden Horn had better go - for up until last Thursday, whoever was writing the story of the 2015 Investec Derby was suffering writer's block. No recognised traditional Derby trial had yielded up anything close to a headliner, yet everything seemed to be colluding nicely for the most habitually instructive of trials, the Dante. So much so that Frankie Dettori described Thursday's edition as a "mini Derby". At last, the first three in the ante-post market front up in a race certain to throw up the top-liner the race so badly needs. And it did. Except Golden Horn isn't even entered for the race.

So far we have witnessed a truly remarkable sequence of stepping stone trials towards the world's most famous flat race - a chequerboard of either underwhelming form or absence. In chronological order: the winner of the Ballysax - not entered at Epsom; Fielden Stakes winner - not entered; Sandown Classic Trial - not entered; 2000 Guineas winner - not running; Chester Vase winner - 16/1 for Epsom; Dee Stakes winner - not entered; Lingfield Derby Trial winner - 33/1 for Epsom; Derrinstown winner - not entered; and finally, the emphatic Dante winner is now a media will-he-won't-he saga.

The Derby contender that has shot up the market is the Dermot Weld-trained Zawraq, now second choice to only the unconfirmed Golden Horn, purely owing to the fact he has stayed in his Rosewell House box for the entire duration of trials season. The twice-raced colt has found himself inadvertently at the forefront of the betting by simply observing the first principle of Buddhism: first, do no harm.

Perhaps what the present weakness in the Derby currency most illustrates is the extent to which it has recently come to rely on Ballydoyle for its value. Aidan O'Brien has won the race five times, and has dominated recently by taking the last three renewals. Coolmore has never made a secret of its affection for the race and its bloodstock strategy is centred around producing horses that excel under the prevailing conditions of the Epsom Derby. It is no coincidence that among the Tipperary operation's stallions currently are no fewer than five Derby winners, including Galileo, now the pre-eminent European middle-distance sire.

It should also be remembered that even the epoch of Ballydoyle's Epsom drought (no winner for nigh on a decade between 2002 and '12) was characterised by a bombardment of 39 runners, including a fruitless assault of eight horses in 2007. However, the current glitch in the Ballydoyle matrix is characterised by the Dante in that its most prominent Derby contenders (John F Kennedy and Ol' Man River) filled the last two positions home in a field of eight. This, following on from two tepid seasonal reappearances, means a return to base for a full MOT and a pass out of the Epsom classic for their leading contenders.

It leaves O'Brien in the unusual position of housing two unheralded trials winners (Hans Holbein and Kilimanjaro) uninspiringly priced at 16/1 and 33/1 respectively, and unless the back-end maiden winner Giovanni Canaletto can pull a rabbit from a hat somehow in the next 10 days, it looks like relatively slim pickings for both Ballydoyle and, as a direct consequence, the race itself.

Of course the absence of an obviously fashionable O'Brien contender has brought the question of Gleneagles back into vogue, but I doubt if the outfit's astute wisdom will impulsively succumb to Epsom's seduction given the world seems to be squarely at Gleneagles' pleasure over a mile and mile and a quarter for the remainder of the season, no matter how much Coolmore cherishes the Derby. O'Brien will still remember the parallel profile of his first UK 2000 Guineas winner King Of Kings, prodigiously precocious juvenile beaten only once that won the Guineas first time out and, ruined by the Derby experience, never saw a racecourse again. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Much can happen in the next three weeks, but meantime the Derby is still waiting for a hero. Many hope that hero comes in the form of a £75,000 supplement for Golden Horn, but that will depend very much on John Gosden's advocacy skills with the scion of De Beers, Mr Oppenheimer. I think, whatever the choice, we can safely label it a first-world problem.

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