All roads lead to Epsom Downs this coming weekend for the third and fourth Classics of the new Flat season, the Investec Derby and the Investec Oaks.
Steeped in tradition, the races provide the ultimate test for middle-distance three-year-old colts and fillies. But who will win the 2013 renewals? Here is the verdict on the Derby of our resident expert, RICHARD ‘SCOOP’ SILVERWOOD.
If you think DAWN APPROACH will stay the trip and you don’t mind backing favourites at a shade of odds-on, then Saturday’s Epsom Derby puzzle is easy to solve.
But if, like me, you cannot ignore the evidence on the dam’s side of his pedigree that stamina will desert him, then the race becomes a veritable head-scratcher.
Because finding a horse to beat him, even when factoring in the 1m4f test, is far from straightforward.
Dawn Approach is, by some distance, the best horse in the contest. Jim Bolger’s colt, champion two-year-old, extended his unbeaten record when powering clear to land the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket a month ago. And most punters are ready to celebrate a Derby victory that would ease this season’s well-documented woes of his owners, Godolphin.
Victory would also emulate the brilliant success in the 2008 Derby of his sire, New Approach. But his influence will have to be considerable because barely any element of the bloodline of the dam, Hymn Of The Dawn, contains even a trace of middle-distance fuel. Indeed Bolger himself is hugely suspicious of the colt’s ability to stay at Epsom.
This is what Bolger said at the end of last season: “It will only be his class and temperament that will enable him to get to 10f. I think he will probably achieve enough at 1m and possibly 10f to keep everyone happy.”
And this is what Bolger said as recently as last week: “If you take it at face value, he won’t get 12f. But because he settles, has a good temperament and class, he may get it. We don’t know until we try.”
Of course, from year to year in the great race, no-one knows until they try. That is one of the most appealing aspects of the Derby. As the original James Weatherby famously said many years ago: “Fortunately, nobody knows how to breed a Derby winner. If they did, it would take all the fun out of it.”
However, I think we’re on safe ground when we say that stamina is the be-all-and-end-all requirement to win the Derby. The race has often been won by colts who have proved more effective at shorter trips, but never by colts who cannot stay. Yes, they also need speed and balance and attitude, which Dawn Approach has in abundance. But when the crunch comes from that 2f pole and he needs to find more to defy the camber and fend off fatigue, with adrenalin pumping in front of the baying crowd, what will the chestnut’s response be?
And even if you believe the response will be enough, are you confident enough to wade in at odds-on? As Graham Cunningham wrote in his eminently readable ‘Racing Post’ column last week: “Dawn Approach’s Derby price carries an assumption he will stay a mile and a half. His pedigree offers no such guarantee.”
Faced with such a dilemma, we have to at least prod and probe for alternatives.
The probe will yield only a limited challenge from the UK, headed by LIBERTARIAN, shock winner of our most recognised trial, the Dante Stakes at York. Ironically, the Burkes’ colt is another son of New Approach -- and he should not be under-estimated. But his ability to lay up with the pace and handle the track are serious worries around Epsom, while it’s almost unheard of for a Derby winner to have been unraced as a juvenile.
While much has been made of the shortage of home-trained candidates, the race does boast an international mix, with the inclusion of the French-trained OCOVANGO and the German-trained CHOPIN. Both are respected galloping types, but the main threat to the favourite is likely to come from the Aidan O’Brien yard.
Before last weekend, the accepted view was that O’Brien would try and turn the race into a true stamina-test to expose any chinks in Dawn Approach’s armour. However, since raising the prospect of running MAGICIAN, O’Brien’s taking winner of the Irish 2,000 Guineas last Saturday, opinions have had to be revised.
Given that Magician’s dam was a sprinter, casting stamina doubts of his own, a searching slogfest would not be in Ballydoyle’s interests if they chose to turn him out only seven days after his exertions at The Curragh. Yes, Magician trotted up in a Derby trial at Chester. But that was a very steadily-run race round the tightest track in Britain.
What’s more, O’Brien has probably recognised that a race designed to suit stayers would not necessarily benefit his three other main contenders, BATTLE OF MARENGO, MARS and RULER OF THE WORLD, either because there is plenty of pace on the dam’s side of their pedigrees too. Maybe he has even recognised that Dawn Approach’s achilles heel could yet be a race lacking pace, preventing him from settling properly early on -- something Bolger himself has expressed fears about.
So where do we stick our pin? My best advice at the time of writing is to wait until you know whether Magician takes his chance. If he does, I suspect that Joseph O’Brien will ride, thus shortening the Galileo colt into clear second favourite, ahead of stablemate Battle Of Marengo, who has been the young jockey’s assumed mount.
That should duly send Battle Of Marengo for a walk in the market. Yet given that his credentials have Derby stamped all over them, given that he has been O’Brien’s assumed number one Derby contender for many weeks now, having contested (and won) the trainer’s preferred trials (the Ballysax and the Derrinstown) and given that he could well have a better jockey in Ryan Moore on board, he would become the bet.
The unflappable colt, another son of Galileo, does nothing fancy, nothing flash. He is a horse for whom the infuriatingly over-used phrase, “gets the job done”, was invented. His preparation has gone like clockwork and he is almost sure to stay.
The form of Battle Of Marengo’s fine win last September over TRADING LEATHER (second in the Dante and third in the Irish Guineas) stands up in particular. While the runner-up he beat in the Ballysax went on to land the Sandown Classic Trail, hammering Libertarian.
The third at Sandown, GALILEO ROCK, is an intriguing outsider, worth a mention and worth an each/way nibble. David Wachman’s colt is well held on the book, but was an incredibly impressive winner of his two-year-old debut and is bred to come into his own over middle-distances and even further.
It’s all a bit of a guessing game until we know the O’Brien battleplan. But whatever happens, it would be a remarkable feat of versatility by Dawn Approach to summon the stamina required to win the Derby, having unleashed the pace required to land the very first 5f maiden of the season as a two-year-old 14 months ago. If he does it, he will join the pantheon of greats. Believing that he won’t, here’s my 1-2-3:
1st BATTLE OF MARENGO
2nd GALILEO ROCK
3rd DAWN APPROACH