On paper, this looks like the strangest Derby in years. Strange because there is no Aidan O’Brien trained horse at a short price in the market. Strange because the market leader wasn’t even entered into the race until June. And yet it is not strange because this is horse racing and if it was always so straightforward, we wouldn’t love it and there would be no need for our excellent tipping services. So let’s look at the some of the main protagonists in turn, starting with the favourite, Golden Horn.
Golden Horn. Trainer: John Gosden. Supplemented for the Derby by his owner-breeder Anthony Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer says that: “If you were to build a horse for the Derby, you would build him – right height, right length, right type.” That is interesting in itself, because if you were to build a horse just like Golden Horn for the Derby, why would you not even enter him until the latest possible moment? That is because Oppenheimer acknowledges that Golden Horn might not have the stamina for the trip, but to his credit is willing to take the risk. The form is undeniable – a good win at Newmarket in April, with that form recently franked by Peacock, is coupled with an ultra-impressive performance in the Dante Stakes where he beat Jack Hobbs and Elm Park among others – and it makes Golden Horn a worthy favourite. The price, however, looks to be plenty short enough – at a general 7/4, he is only fractionally bigger than Australia was last year, and Australia was bred with the Derby in mind, which cannot be said for Golden Horn. There has also been no recent winner of the Dante Stakes who has gone on to win the Derby; last year’s winner, The Grey Gatsby, went to Chantilly instead, Libertarian finished fourth in 2013 and it was only Workforce, who was second in the 2010 Dante, that came from that race to win the Derby.
Zawraq. Trainer: Dermot Weld. Zawraq has only raced twice in his career, over 7 furlongs on yielding ground as a 2yo (beating Sir Isaac Newton) and 8 furlongs on soft/heavy ground in April (beating the strong-finishing Irish 2000 Guineas runner-up Endless Drama). Whilst winning both of those races impressively, this is one of the quirks of the market that if “D K Weld” didn’t appear next to Zawraq’s name, you can be sure his price would be a lot bigger. However, connections seem confident that the good ground and the extra distance will actually suit Zawraq, and the Smullen / Weld combination has proved exceptionally strong this season. For me, the combination of a step up in class, a step up in trip and the unknown ground make the price very short at this stage; talk of him not being sound after work this week is a worry.
Jack Hobbs. Trainer: John Gosden. On Christmas Day, to most people Jack Hobbs was either an historically-great English cricketer, or a permanently-injured Nottingham Forest centre-back. Following his maiden victory in his debut race at Wolverhampton on 27 December, where he missed the break and ran very green in the early stages before finishing like the proverbial train, and his equally impressive handicap victory at Sandown in April, the equine Jack Hobbs was fast replacing his human namesakes in the public’s consciousness. So much so, in fact, that he went off favourite for the Dante Stakes at York, ahead of Golden Horn. Whilst he was beaten by the better horse that day, there was much to like about the way Jack Hobbs finished the race, and the Dante represented a huge step-up in class for him which he handled with aplomb. He is a big-framed horse and may still be better-suited by the big races later in the season, but he is definitely still on an upward-curve and it may yet prove significant that Jack Hobbs will be running in the blue of Godolphin as he was the result of their search for this year’s Derby horse.
Elm Park. Trainer: Andrew Balding. A very strong 2yo campaign for Elm Park culminated in his excellent victory in the Racing Post Trophy, and hopes were high for this year. However, an expected appearance in the 2000 Guineas didn’t materialise due to the fast ground, and whilst he is entitled to come on for his strong third behind Golden Horn and Jack Hobbs in the Dante, the expected warm temperatures this week might not favour this colt for the Derby. However, those warm temperatures could be accompanied by thunderstorms, which would certainly play into his hands – or, rather, hooves – and so a close eye on the weather for the remainder of the week is the plan for Elm Park.
Giovanni Canaletto. Trainer: Aidan O’Brien. The money is flying in for this horse since Monday’s declaration stage and it’s easy to see why. Firstly, the absence of Gleneagles, who is heading to Royal Ascot, suggests “the lads” are happy with Giovanni Canaletto being at the head of the Ballydoyle team for this year’s Epsom renewal. He may not be the superstar colt that we all expected from the hugely disappointing John F Kennedy, or the much-vaunted Ol’ Man River, but he is a full brother to Derby winner Ruler Of The World, and there seem few doubts about his ability to stay. He is also sure to come on for his first run of the season, as all the O’Brien horses do. There remain question marks over his true ability and the time between his seasonal reappearance and the Derby, but he is certainly one to keep in mind. Perhaps the most interesting of all is that the big gamble, from 16s to 8s, happened before it was announced that Ryan Moore had chosen this as his preferred ride – was it the general market, or “the lads” making the price talk?
Hans Holbein. Trainer: Aidan O’Brien. Hans Holbein has already proved himself over the distance, winning the Chester Vase in dour style. The Chester Vase was the race Ruler Of The World won en route to his 2013 Derby success, and was also the race connections had in mind for Giovanni Canaletto before that colt’s setback in his preparation. The Derby will represent his fourth start of the season, having only raced once as a 2yo, and so there may be a question over how much improvement is left to make in such a short time. Storm The Stars was second to Hans Holbein at Chester, and he most recently won the Cocked Hat Stakes at Goodwood, boosting that form. Ryan Moore rode this horse at Chester, but as above, has gone for Giovanni Canaletto; Seamie Heffernan partners this colt, which is interesting – does Joseph get second choice these days or not?
Kilimanjaro. Trainer: Aidan O’Brien. It must be said that Kilimanjaro is the relative unknown of the Ballydoyle trio. What can only be described as a quite frankly woeful 2yo campaign (9th of 9 on his debut, and 6th of 16 second time out, with a maximum RPR of 67) has been replaced by a very strong start to his 3yo campaign, with the step up in distance proving to be helpful. He won at Dundalk in April and followed that up with victory in the Lingfield Derby Trial. However, odds of around 20/1, having previously been available at 66s, are probably reflective of him being a Ballydoyle colt in the Derby rather than a true indication of his chances. The “relative unknown” dimension is made all the more fun by Joseph O’Brien being declared on board – given Joseph won the Derby on both Camelot and Australia, in spite of the criticism he receives as a jockey, he knows how to win this race.
Success Days. Trainer: Ken Condon. An intriguing entry, and the inverse of the logic we discussed with Zawraq’s chances; if “K J Condon” was replaced by a Weld or an O’Brien, you can be sure this horse would be shorter in the betting. His victory in the Ballysax Stakes over Zafilani and John F Kennedy could originally be attributed, probably fairly, to superior race fitness. His slamming follow-up victory in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial could be attributed to the absence of Order Of St. George. However, both of those reasons could also be attributed to the distinct lack of hype about the horse, who was supplemented for this race at the same stage as Golden Horn. There are obvious concerns about the fact his victories – indeed, all his races – have come on no better than soft ground, but as his trainer points out, what trials in early spring in Ireland aren’t run on that type of ground?
Epicuris. Trainer: Criquette Head-Maarek. If Success Days ranks as intriguing, then Epicuris adds a whole new dimension. Firstly, we have the genius of the trainer. After nursing Treve back to health and a stunning second Arc victory last year, it was announced that Treve would be retired. Yet Sheikh Joaan Al-Thani was convinced by Criquette’s ability and passion for the horse to keep her in training. What does this have to do with the Derby? Epicuris was a brilliant unbeaten juvenile, but has shown himself to be extremely temperamental – read naughty – in his classic season. So it is deemed that Epicuris would like to have a specialist walk with him to the stalls and ease him in; France Galop won’t allow this, and therefore Epicuris is being directed to Epsom instead. There will be over 100,000 people on the Downs on Saturday. The noise and atmosphere will be immense. There are no shortcuts to the start of the Derby. All of this could make it a miserable day for Epicuris, but if he overcomes them on the day, it could make for spectacular value.
The best of the rest: Storm The Stars, as you would guess even if you hadn’t seen his breeding, is a son of Sea The Stars, and was a fine winner of the Cocked Hat Stakes at Goodwood. However, he has a huge turnaround in form to overcome with just Hans Holbein, let alone the rest of the field. Best Of Times finished behind Storm The Stars at Goodwood, and Jack Hobbs surely wouldn’t be running for the boys in blue if they thought he had a genuine chance. Moheet didn’t do much in the 2000 Guineas, finishing well down the field, and would have to find a lot more to produce here. Rogue Runner and Rocky Rider appear to be in the race as back up for Qatar Racing if the ground doesn’t suit Elm Park; although Rogue Runner is of interest if only because Oisin Murphy steered the 100/1 shot Red Galileo to a creditable fifth in last year’s race. And finally, Carbon Dating? No, me neither.