At the start of the year, Aidan O'Brien appeared to have a stranglehold on this season's Epsom Derby. Yet now, a little more than a week before the race that is central to the Coolmore universe, he is struggling to mount a realistic challenge. All, however, may not be lost, as Donn McClean reports.
The relationship between Ballydoyle and the Epsom Derby goes way back. It was in 1962 that Vincent O'Brien – who had long since been sending horses to Cheltenham to win Cheltenham Gold Cups and Champion Hurdles – sent Larkspur from his County Tipperary base to Epsom to win the Derby. And he won it again in 1968 and 1970 and 1972 and 1977 and 1982.
Vincent's successor Aidan O’Brien (still no relation) sent his first Derby winner to Epsom in 2001. The long stride of Galileo – who would in time succeed his sire Sadler’s Wells as the most influential Thoroughbred stallion of his generation – taking him three and a half lengths clear of Golan. Aidan also sent out the 1-2 the following year, High Chaparral outlasting Hawk Wing on the rain-softened ground, the pair of them coming 12 lengths clear of their rivals.
We had to wait 10 years for Aidan’s next winner, but the wait was worthwhile, Camelot coming clear under the trainer’s son Joseph, the Guineas winner setting up a tilt at the British Triple Crown – the 2000 Guineas, the Derby, and the St Leger, a trio of victories last achieved by Nijinsky in 1970 – that only just failed.
Camelot did, however, set up the Ballydoyle rat-tat-tat: Ruler Of The World followed his stable companion’s lead in 2013 and Australia emulated the feat in 2014. Aidan O’Brien thereby becoming the first trainer ever to land three consecutive renewals of the Epsom Derby. Australia was Aidan’s fifth Derby winner, leaving him one behind his predecessor Vincent and just two short of the all-time record. You feel that this one is a case of when rather than if.
Legendary Italian breeder Federico Tesio – breeder of, among others, Nearco and Ribot – said that the Thoroughbred existed because its selection depended not on experts, technicians, or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby. His words resonate around the world of Thoroughbred racing, and the Coolmore/Ballydoyle drum beats to the rhythm of the Derby like it does to no other race.
The build up to the Derby starts a long way out at Ballydoyle, long before the Derby runners start the roller-coaster descent around Tattenham Corner. Derby prospects are continually sought and identified.
Last year, on his final run as a juvenile, John F Kennedy was impressive in winning a G3 at Leopardstown on Irish Champions Weekend and was immediately promoted to the top of all Derby betting lists. Then Ol’ Man River won the G2 Beresford Stakes at the Curragh, the race that Sea The Stars had won in 2008, and had his Derby odds cut from 14-1 and 16-1 to 8-1 and 10-1.
Giovanni Canaletto, Ruler Of The World’s full brother, was in the mix for the G1 Racing Post Trophy in late October, the race that has been the best juvenile pointer to the following year’s Derby in recent times, but he was re-routed to a maiden at Leaopardstown on the same day, and he won it doing handsprings. Three days later Sir Isaac Newton made his racecourse debut, running the highly-regarded Dermot Weld horse Zawraq to a half-length, the pair of them miles clear.
Then, of course, there was Gleneagles, by Galileo out of Giant’s Causeway’s full sister You’resothrilling, bred for stardom and a dual G1 winner as a juvenile. While the 2,000 Guineas appeared to be his primary objective, the Derby was always there as an option if he was needed to bolster the team.
At the start of this season, Ballydoyle’s prospective Derby team could hardly have been stronger. Racehorses being racehorses, however, this sport being the volatile creature that it is, it started to unravel. John F Kennedy got beaten in the Ballysax Stakes and in the Dante, and was scratched from the Derby picture. Ol’ Man River got beaten in the Guineas and in the Dante (won by new Derby favourite, the John Gosden-trained Golden Horn) and was similarly scratched. Sir Isaac Newton got beaten in a maiden at Chester, and even the genius that is Aidan O’Brien would struggle to win a Derby with a maiden.
A slight setback meant that Giovanni Canaletto missed his date with the Chester Vase, the race that his brother had used as a springboard to Derby glory two years ago. He did make it back to the racecourse in time to contest the Gallinule Stakes at the Curragh on Sunday, and he didn’t fare badly in that, given that it was his seasonal debut, finishing a running-on second to Curvy. That said, it would have been better if he had won.
On the plus side, Hans Holbein won the Chester Vase in his stable companion’s absence, and Kilimanjaro won the Lingfield Derby Trial. You wouldn’t have had either at the top of the Ballydoyle Derby list at the start of the season, but things change. (See ‘volatile creature’ reference above.) Kilimanjaro is by High Chaparral out of a half-sister to G1 Gran Criterium winner Nayarra, Hans Holbein is by Montjeu and is a three-parts brother to Irish St Leger winner Sans Frontieres. He will not lack for stamina, that’s for sure.
Team Ballydoyle have two more realistic Derby options. One is Gleneagles. The Galileo colt has run twice this season so far, in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, and in the Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh, and he has won both. All the vibes are that he is a specialist miler, however, and that the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot is his next logical target.
It is interesting that he was left in the Derby at the latest forfeit stage last Thursday but, in the winner’s enclosure after the Irish Guineas last Saturday, Aidan O’Brien did seem to think that he would stick to the original St James’s Palace Stakes plan. He went so far as to say that, in going through the forfeits, he had put a line through Gleneagles’ name, but that “the lads” (the way O'Brien often refers to the Coolmore ownership triumvirate of John Magnier, Michael Tabor, and Derrick Smith) had said that they should leave him in, just to keep options open. Like Giant’s Causeway, but with more speed, the champion trainer said.
The other option is Found, and she is an intriguing Derby option. The daughter of Galileo was impressive in winning the G1 Prix Marcel Boussac at Longchamp last October on her final run at 2, when she had this year’s French 1,000 Guineas winner Ervedya two and a half lengths behind her in second place, with high-class fillies Jack Naylor and Malabar further behind.
A stop-start preparation meant that she missed the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket, and you can easily forgive her defeat in a G3 at the Curragh the following day, when she showed her trademark turn of foot to go clear, but just got run down late on by the year-older Iveagh Gardens as she tired on the heavy ground.
She ran a cracker in the Irish 1,000 Guineas on Sunday, going down by just a half a length to a high-class filly in Pleascach in what will likely prove to be a really strong renewal of the fillies’ classic.
It is generally not Team Coolmore’s policy to run a filly in the Derby, but they already have the Oaks favourite in the David Wachman-trained Legatissimo, winner of the 1,000 Guineas, and there have been rumours that Found might be supplemented to the Derby. She would be a worthy contender too, a top class juvenile, a G1 winner, by Galileo out of a G1 Lockinge Stakes winner in Red Evie and a full-sister to Magical Dream, who stayed a mile and a half.
While fillies do not have a bad recent record in the Irish Derby – Salsabil and Balanchine have won it for the fair sex in the last 25 years – you have to go back to Fifinella in 1916 to find the last filly to win the Derby. But not many fillies try. Cape Verdi is the last filly to run in the Derby, and Cape Verdi was 17 years ago. In an open year, Found would have a real chance.
Whatever the make-up of the team that Aidan O’Brien ultimately sends to the Derby, you can be sure that each member will have been hand-picked, each one meticulously prepared. Four Epsom Derbies in a row would be an extraordinary feat, another one to add to O’Brien’s remarkable CV.
It is surely only a matter of time before Aidan O’Brien equals Vincent O’Brien’s tally of six Epsom Derby wins. It may only be a matter of weeks.