Ten lessons we learned from Europe’s classic weekend

Harzand (right) holds off U.S. Army Ranger (dark blue) and Idaho to win the Derby at Epsom on Saturday. Photo: Frank Sorge/Racingfotos.com

The Derby and the Oaks at Epsom and the Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly - three season-shaping classics were run over the weekend in Europe. But what did they tell us?

A solid but unspectacular renewal

Before the Investec Derby at Epsom, the quality of competition was perceived as below average. After the race, the consensus seemed to be the opposite. The truth, as often, is somewhere in between. Harzand, U.S. Army Ranger and Idaho are improving colts who came clear of the rest, but the ground will not always be on the easy side and they won’t always encounter such a strong pace.

Strong pace made for Demolition Derby

The strength of the pace can be neatly gauged thus: Harzand crossed the path at the top of the hill only 0.8sec slower than the brilliant Golden Horn on much faster ground the previous year. But the 2016 field really paid the price for their exuberance from then on, and Harzand took nearly seven seconds longer than the previous winner to run the straight. The straight was therefore the easiest place to make ground in this year’s Derby because the energy cost of gaining a length is proportional to the speed of the race.

Port Douglas made it a very stern test and it surely wasn’t a coincidence that stablemate U.S. Army Ranger, the favourite, was positioned in rear initially.

'Leger' is not a dirty word

Dermot Weld, Harzand’s trainer, broke a taboo of many years when referring to the horse as possibly “an ideal English Leger horse”. This has been seen previously as the death knell for a Derby winner’s subsequent stallion career. In this case, however, the fact the colt is owned by the Aga Khan, who is not hamstrung by the same commercial imperatives as some, probably left Weld free to speak. Either way, it is refreshing to hear.

At stages during the run of the Derby, Harzand seemed to be racing near his maximum speed and he could be vulnerable if the ground came up faster than at Epsom, or if the pace was more undulating. As his trainer indicates, he is essentially a stayer.

Pace dominates position in rider evaluation

Some felt that U.S. Army Ranger’s rider Ryan Moore had given his mount too much to do. This is a hopelessly simplistic argument based solely on position, exclusive of the influence of pace. The early pace was much too strong and being back in the run was an advantage – not a disadvantage. U.S. Army Ranger produced a long, steady run over the closing furlongs which was readily repelled by the winner. The runner-up did not wilt in the slightest close home, maintaining his advantage over the third, Idaho, who himself held the fourth, Wings Of Desire, at bay by five lengths.

There is no solid evidence that the runner-up should have won. He had a long time to close little real ground on the winner (in the context of the last few furlongs being really slow) with both horses being ridden.

Forcing tactics could suit Idaho

There was interesting debate regarding the future of Derby third Idaho, trained, like U.S. Army Ranger, by Aidan O’Brien. He is a free-going horse who travelled as strongly as anything and looked as if he might win when moving to lead over two furlongs out. This display of relative speed, coupled with his defeat, led some to wonder – not unreasonably – if he could be a 10-furlong horse in disguise. Others, such as his rider, Seamie Heffernan, see him as a colt who could stay even further than a mile and half.

The key to him could be less the trip and more the application of forcing tactics. He is the type of horse best allowed to stride on, and, ridden this way, could prove versatile over a range of trips. Earlier in his career, the O’Brien camp had him ridden ‘cold’ towards the rear of the field, but this isn’t helping him. Should connections send him for the G1 Coral-Eclipse at Sandown – a track that can suit the well-ridden front-runner – on July 2, he could go extremely well. He clearly stays a mile and a half well enough to finish close up in a well-run Derby, also.

Minding we don't get carried away

Investec Oaks winner Minding overcame considerable trouble to prevail in her classic, but there were some outlandish statements afterwards about her ability.

First, the performance of every horse must be viewed in context of the run of the race. This was one of the strongest-run Oaks in history (relative to the conditions) and the action in the straight was slow-motion stuff. When a horse is the superior runner, most times it will overcome trouble, and, in effect, Minding had loads of time to get back into the race.

There is no doubt that the daughter of Galileo showed guts and tenacity to overcome the trouble, and she is without doubt a top-class runner, but bettors should beware that, while she took her reputation to a new level, the same isn’t true of her form.

Skiffle needs retuning for shorter trip

The Oaks runners were strung out like finishers in the Grand National - a joint-function of the strength of the gallop and the lack of strength in depth.

Any filly close to the pace early was at a big disadvantage, while the performance of fifth-placed Skiffle deserves a huge upgrade. In the last trio early, she did more running than any other during the middle of the race and was second turning in. This was far too much to ask of her, given the way the race was run, and she understandably weakened.

Given enough time to recover from this, the Godolphin filly could make huge improvement later in the season, particularly when dropped in trip to a mile and a quarter.

It doesn't deserve to be a Derby

The Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly – which no longer deserves to be referred to as ‘the French Derby’ since the distance was dropped to 10 and a half furlongs from a mile and a half – yet again produced an affair not really even deserving G1 status.

The winner, Almanzor, benefitted from a strong pace to beat Zarak and Dicton, reversing the form with the last-named colt, who had beaten him in a G3 at the same track in April. The first three came from well off the early gallop, unlike fourth-placed Talismanic. It looks a muddling picture among the French colts this season.

Will the G1 form be subject to revision?

It may pay to remember that the Derby and Oaks at Epsom, plus the Jockey Club, were all run on an easy surface. In each case, the riders on many contenders misjudged the pace early and the principals came from off the pace. This runs counter to the normal pattern of things on fast ground in the summer, when races generally follow a trend of favouring runners positioned prominently early on. For this reason, it will be interesting to see how the form stands up.

Mitchell's ability already proven

The Coronation Cup at Epsom saw a masterclass of strategy by trainer Roger Varian and the jockeys of his two horses, Andrea Atzeni on Postponed and, particularly, Jack Mitchell on the pacemaker Roseburg. Having established an early lead, Mitchell steadied things mid-race, with the result that odds-on Postponed earned a break over the rest of the field cheaply.

Of course, Postponed was the best horse anyway, and his sharp turn of foot was way too much for Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Found, but the fact that Roseburg also clung on for third showed exactly how well Mitchell had judged things.

One ride is woefully insufficient to judge a rider, but Mitchell has long caught the attention of professional punters who use jockey ratings that take into account the supply of mounts in evaluating riders.

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