Saturday 24 March 2018

In desperate search of Epsom's Holy Grail

The Tipperary hurlers were reminded of how trivial the favourite's tag can be when Aisake O hAilpin plucked theirs out of the sky and ran amok with it down in Parc Ui Chaoimh on Sunday. It may have only been the first round, but Tipp were dealt a sublime lesson in the folly of underestimating the quiet resolve of the seasoned campaigner.

Donal Og Cusack, Sean Og O hAilpin and Ben O'Connor had three All-Ireland medals apiece going into the Munster Championship game; there were 14 other medals scattered among Cork's starting 15. Tipp had four. Hindsight is a fine thing, but it was never going to be as straightforward as the lopsided market suggested.

Today's marquee event at Epsom will be a slightly different brand of derby. Still, there are parallels. Until St Nicholas Abbey and Cape Blanco were ruled out this week, Aidan O'Brien had the first four in the betting for the premier colts' Classic. It wasn't so much a case of would he win the race, rather which one of his would win it?

And yet, despite the defection of the one horse that is said to tower above all others at Ballydoyle, and then the Dante winner, there remains a sense that the Derby is O'Brien's to lose. The bookies are odds-on that one of his trio collects, with money pouring in for Jan Vermeer, which will go off a short-priced favourite.


Two weeks ago the Montjeu colt was 20/1. All he has done in the meantime is coast through a middling Group Three, beating nothing of note. If he is a Derby winner in waiting, and he may well be, the birds in the trees were asleep on the job.

As was the case with Tipp, Jan Vermeer, a Group One-winning juvenile in the mud in France, is trading on last year's high, not anything he has done this year. There is a possibility that he will be hoisted on the hype of the Ballydoyle petard this afternoon.

Then there's the hired guns among the opposition on the basis that St Nicholas Abbey's inability to steamroll him on the gallops set alarm bells ringing in Tipperary two days before Aisake ever put up his paw in anger, consider the calibre of the personnel that lead the 'home' side.

Michael Stoute trains Workforce, a horse that finished second to Cape Blanco in the Dante on just his second start; Stoute has won four Epsom Derbies. Henry Cecil trains Bullet Train, which made all to run out an easy winner of the Lingfield Derby Trial. Cecil, too, has won four Epsom Derbies.

Between them, Stoute and Cecil have won four times as many Derbies as O'Brien, and unleashing multiple speculative darts has never been their style. They know exactly what's required -- theirs is the quiet resolve of the seasoned campaigner.

Which isn't to disparage O'Brien in any way, but merely to highlight that it would be unwise to presume that he is assured a result today. After all, he already has two 'medals' to his name, and he does know a thing or two about handling expectation.

However, it is he who trains at Ballydoyle, he who has the might of Coolmore at his disposal. Ballydoyle is a place inextricably associated with Derby winners; O'Brien's predecessor Vincent trained six of them. Maybe even six of the best.

Since his instalment in Rosegreen 16 years ago, Aidan has hardly been lost under the great man's shadow. Close to the top of his long list of achievements is his record in English Classics. At a relatively sprightly 40 years of age, he has 14 to his name, just two short of the Cork native's tally on retirement.

The thing is, though, he hasn't had an Epsom Derby winner since 2002. When High Chaparral led Hawk Wing home for a famous one-two on that occasion, it was O'Brien's second successive triumph in the race, following Galileo's brilliant initial success.

Somewhat naively, we assumed that the floodgates had been opened. But, Derby winners are hard found, and don't, as was famously said of great Cork hurlers, spring up like mushrooms overnight. O'Brien himself mused of the race this week: "It's the ultimate test, and you've no idea how hard it is to win it. The horses are put to the sword and any flaw is exposed, which is the way it should be."

There can be little doubt from the

way that he has laid siege to the Derby of late that O'Brien is desperate to embellish his record in the game's Holy Grail. The Epsom Derby is to Ballydoyle that which the Liam McCarthy Cup is to Cork or Tipp but, at the same time, O'Brien can hardly be condemned for an eight-year barren stretch.

After all, it took Vincent 20 years to accumulate his sextet. More notably, his third victory also came eight years after his first, which could yet prove the most significant parallel of all today.

What hangs over O'Brien more than anything right now is the stable's general paucity of English Classics during the past couple of years. In 2008, when he carried all before him with 23 Group One victories that included a clean sweep of the Irish Classics, Henrythenavigator won the first Classic of the season at Newmarket.

O'Brien has drawn a blank in the subsequent 12. He has gone close, including when Fame And Glory was second to Sea The Stars at Epsom 12 months ago, but nearly doesn't really count at this level.

Today, then, the Ballydoyle maestro is bidding to put the wheels back, not just on the Derby wagon, but also on the cross-channel Classic locomotive. Question marks abound going into the race, but perception and uncertainty will give way to conclusive reality in the way that it always does at Epsom. That much, and little else, is certain.

Irish Independent

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