Sport Horse Racing

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Preamble proves classic has regained its old lustre

This year's Epsom Derby is rife with intrigue and plenty of talking points, writes Ian McClean

This time last year the Epsom Derby had just lost its box-office horse. In spite of the injury to St Nicholas Abbey, Aidan O'Brien still boasted four of the first seven in the betting in his quest to bring the world's most famous classic back to Ballydoyle for the first time since High Chaparral in 2002.

With the loss of the headline act many felt the race was reduced to a bit-player affair -- to the point where Tom Segal (Pricewise) suggested that the most likely winner of the Derby was a horse at that belated stage that wasn't even entered. Owned by Godolphin and trained in France by Andre Fabre, Simon De Montfort -- winner of four of his five races to that point -- in the event was never supplemented, and never saw a racecourse again last season.

Yet in spite of the downbeat anticipation and the frenzied fishing for a champion, along came Workforce: exploding in the race to become the most devastating Derby winner in years, posting the fastest ever time for the race and adding the Arc to his three-year-old CV before signing off the year.

Reality trumped expectations in 2010, but this year's renewal by contrast appears rife already with intrigue and more talking points than a footballer's super-injunction.

Can the world's most famous monarch win the world's most famous race? Can the multiple French champion trainer finally break his Epsom hoodoo after nine miserable attempts? Can Ballydoyle stop the rot that now extends to nearly a decade?

These are just some of the questions that will find an answer next Saturday afternoon in a race that, according to that remarkable Italian owner-breeder Federico Tesio, defines the very purpose of the racehorse: "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."

If some pundits are to be believed, then the engravers should just crack on with inscribing Carlton House on the trophy. A wide-margin win in a Newbury back-end maiden followed by a workmanlike job in the most prolific Derby indicator, York's Dante, is only the A-side of why the Queen's best-ever chance of Epsom glory is such a prohibitive price for the race.

The B-side is provided by the trainer Michael Stoute in the approach to Epsom. For a man who can view microphones and notebooks as instruments too depraved for Torquemada, at a media morning at Warren Hill last week Stoute seemed conspicuously relaxed. Disturbingly for the opposition, the man who has already racked up five Derby winners when asked about Carlton House's homework replied: "It's difficult to find a horse who works better than him." It isn't absolutely clear if the remark includes last year's hero Workforce, which on Thursday evening at Sandown became the first Derby winner since High Chaparral to score on his seasonal reappearance as a four-year-old. Jockey Ryan Moore, another who doesn't want for circumspection, was equally relaxed and even compared the 2010 model to this year's incumbent. "Workforce was bigger, and more backward," Moore said. "Mentally he was a bit behind this lad, who had a bit more training at two. Carlton House is a smaller horse, as well, a bit more agile. He only needed half a gap at York, and just put his head down, and I still had so much still underneath. I can't see the track being a problem at Epsom."

Although the Queen has had to wait since 1977 for an Epsom Classic winner [Dunfermline in the Oaks], the French have to go back a further year for their last Derby winner [Empery in 1976]. However, if the market support for Pour Moi in recent days is to be believed then the 35-year drought may be coming to an end on Saturday.

It would also bring to a happy end a relationship between France's most successful trainer Andre Fabre and the race -- an entente described by himself as far from cordiale, but rather "a disaster". Champion trainer in his native country some 24 times -- and consecutively for the last 19 -- his closest finish at Epsom in nine attempts has been fifth with favourite Visindar in 2006. The fact he is eschewing the French Derby just a day earlier to run at Epsom speaks volumes for intent. He even brought the colt over on Thursday for bed and breakfast and a spin around Tattenham Corner and was uncharacteristically forthright given he has black-balled the French media for years.

"Pour Moi has the ability to win. The question was his experience. It was a worry for me that the French type of races would not give him enough preparation. In his previous race, they had walked, and he pulled hard. But in the Greffulhe they went a good pace, he could switch off, and show his true ability." Rational summary is one thing but it was the concluding remark, "I'm in love with him", that raised the eyebrows of most present.

Intriguingly, the son of Montjeu is owned by the Coolmore connections, whose majority Epsom assault next Saturday will be launching as usual from Ballydoyle. Aidan O'Brien spoke on Thursday of five "strong possibilities" -- from eight remaining entries -- for Epsom: Seville, Recital, Memphis Tennessee, Roderic O'Connor and Treasure Beach. Should all five turn up in Surrey, it will bring to 40 the number of runners from Ballydoyle attempting to bring the Derby back to Tipperary for the first time since 2002. With outside jockeys Christophe Soumillon, Ryan Moore and Kieren Fallon all having ridden either Seville, Recital, Treasure Beach or Roderic O'Connor this season so far, jockey bookings for Epsom are going to be almost as fascinating as the outcome itself.

Fallon, strongly associated with Recital since he rode him to victory in the Derrinstown, was at Epsom on Thursday to partner Guineas-placed Native Khan for Ed Dunlop in his final preparation for Epsom. Asked if Fallon had given a firm commitment to riding the horse in the Derby, Dunlop's reply was succinct as it was cryptic: "As firm as Mr Fallon makes any commitment".

The best horse that never turned up for the 2010 Derby, Simon De Montfort, was trained by Fabre and would have been ridden by (then unknown teenager) Mickael Barzelona for Godolphin. One year on and the same trainer-jockey combination are indeed turning up, this time for Coolmore. All things considered, it will be one hell of an outcome if the race itself is as box office as the prologue.

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