Graham Cunningham looks ahead to the Derby in inimitable fashion
Graham Cunningham looks ahead to the Derby in inimitable fashion

Graham Cunningham on Cazoo Derby Festival including jockey shake-up


‘Sad, mad, Lads.’ It’s sorely tempting to re-work a famous old Racing Post Derby headline when digesting the bewildering build-up to this year’s Epsom Classic.

Coolmore went from six to one as the Ballydoyle boardroom blurred the picture on High Definition, while Frankie bumped Adam for John Leeper before Adam bumped Oisin on Adayer.

There’s still time for more drama before the Cazoo Derby field do battle at 4.30 on Saturday but, in the meantime, GC takes a stab at the key questions surrounding the most famous Classic of them all.


Does the Derby resonate like it used to?

Huge crowds watch the action at Epsom on Derby day
Huge crowds watch the action at Epsom on Derby day

Does the FA Cup resonate like it used to be before the Premier League and Champions League came along?

Nothing symbolises the ebb and flow of British racing like the Derby and it’s been more ebb than flow of late, with the ruthlessly efficient Coolmore team exerting an increasingly tight grip and assorted media mouthpieces pining for days long gone.

The Downs will be quiet again for a second Covid-hit Classic weekend but those Downs are the essence of what makes Derby day irresistible for most Flat racing lovers.

Epsom remains a brutal forum for colts with physical or mental flaws but a perfect stage for those with the requisite blend of balance, speed and stamina. And, at the risk of reprising long-forgotten images of Gazza and co belting out a cheesy old Spurs mantra, the old race is due to produce something special again.

Whether it be the brilliance of Mill Reef, Shergar, Generous and Galileo or the drama of Mickael Barzalona’s triumphant Pour Moi victory salute, Epsom tends to deliver in style when the year ends in one.

And, twenty years on from Galileo giving Aidan O’Brien his first Derby win, a son with a strikingly similar profile is dominating the market.

Mick Kinane galloping the mighty Galileo
Mick Kinane galloping the mighty Galileo

And what of Wednesday's plot twists?

If you think you have six Derby colts you probably have none. Or one. Or maybe two but you want to keep one of them for the Irish Derby.

It’s easy to think what the reaction was at RP Towers when a Wednesday morning front page that read ‘O’Brien crystal clear on High Definition’ gave way to an afternoon bulletin revealing the leading Derby hope would miss his Epsom date.

It’s harder to know exactly what went into the Ballydoyle decision to reduce Aidan’s Epsom team from six to one but news of the imminent defection of High Definition et al must have pleased some and perplexed others.

Ryan Moore won’t be dismayed to see potentially dangerous rivals to Bolshoi Ballet put on layaway. Frankie’s frustration at missing out on a Coolmore mount was swiftly alleviated as he replaced the hapless Adam Kirby on John Leeper, while ante post punters hoping to see the Derby in glorious HD were left gazing at a distinctly fuzzy picture.

Graham Cunningham

But perhaps the most revealing aspect of the Aidan exodus was the latest collective predictable and deflating collective shrug of resignation that accompanied it.

Coolmore are in the business of winning the Derby – not promoting it – and do so with formidable precision. It’s their prerogative to shuffle the pack and the fact that Aidan said “it’s the lads’ choice and they obviously can make the choice” gave a broad hint his bosses took this call out of his hands.

But how in the world have we arrived at a place where a fit and healthy second favourite for the Derby departs with barely a raised eyebrow from media and fans alike?

Sir Mark Prescott summed up the modern Derby dilemma neatly in an engaging Racing Post interview recently by saying “what happens these days is that horses don’t run often enough at two for people to get to know them. They have no allegiances and I believe too many are in one kennel."

Wednesday's news suggests Bolshoi Ballet is the clear top dog in the Coolmore kennel this year. But the absence of High Definition seems no more and less than a pure business decision. And no sport thrives when commercial pressures take priority over the primal aim of seeing the best of the best do battle on the day that matters most.

ALL UK & Ireland replays - watch for free
ALL UK & Ireland replays - watch for free

How strong is this year’s race?

We’ve been here before but the signs look promising, with a combination of trial winners along with a Classic hero in Mac Swiney and a trio of highly promising Frankel colts to take on Bolshoi Ballet.

As ever, time will tell whether this is a Derby with depth but Timeform’s analysts feel that nearly all the main contenders head to Epsom firmly on the up.

John Leeper and Youth Spirit are rated 113p, while Third Realm is 114p and Mohaafeth 118p. The unbeaten Hurricane Lane is on 119p, while ratings of 122 and 123p mean Irish Guineas hero Mac Swiney and Derrinstown winner Bolshoi Ballet are already within spitting distance of the level required to win an average Derby.

Is the draw really a big a deal?

Frankie Dettori rode John Leeper's dam Snow Fairy on four occasions
Frankie Dettori rode John Leeper's dam Snow Fairy on four occasions

Logic suggests it shouldn’t be a major issue with a mile and a half to cover and you have to look very hard to compile a list of star colts who were thwarted by the draw on Derby day.

Saxon Warrior, only fourth at 4/5 from stall 1 behind Masar in 2018, is perhaps the main recent candidate, though stamina and Epsom’s undulations seemed influential that year.

Kingston Hill ran a screamer from stall 2 to chase home Australia in 2014 - and yet there are sound reasons for hoping your Derby fancy doesn’t end up drawn on the inside in gates one or two.

Look back on replays and you will see the Derby field bears quite sharply right soon after the start to negotiate an elbow, meaning those drawn low must burn energy to race close up or take back and risk ending up with a lot to do.

A bundle of longstanding data lends weight to the visual impression that middle to high numbers are favoured on Derby day and Adayer and Third Realm face some tricky early questions as they take the low road this year.

What does this year’s pace map look like?

You don’t have to come mob handed to shape the way the Derby develops – but it certainly helps.

Ballydoyle horses have forced or pressed the pace in every Derby for over a decade and the fact that Bolshoi Ballet is their sole trader this year raises key questions.

Ryan Moore could lead if he wants to as BB breaks smartly but it’s likely he will prefer a handy pitch with Gear Up and Hurricane Lane set to go forward.

Mac Swiney is another likely to attend the pace, while Mohaafeth, One Ruler and Youth Spirit will probably settle midfield.

Third Realm seemed comfortable being held up at Lingfield, while Adayar’s tendency to miss a beat maps him in the rearguard early along with the free-going John Leeper.

It’s hard to envisage a severe gallop but stamina is always tested in the Derby and the key moment will arrive when Moore asks Bolshoi Ballet to spring forward early in the straight.

Mick Kinane on Bolshoi Ballet

And what happens then?

I think BB might well do what his old man did and dance his way clear.

The similarities between Saturday’s favourite and his sire are hard to ignore. It’s there in the elegant, daisy-cutting action that helped Galileo trounce his rivals 20 years ago; it’s there in the way Bolshoi Ballet has used the same two Leopardstown trials to state his Derby claim; and it’s there in a running style which blends a high cruising speed with an ability to surge hard on demand.

It’s true that his latest Derrinstown win has taken a couple of knocks, with runner-up Lough Derg looking ordinary enough in Listed company at the Curragh on Wednesday, but the clock doesn’t lie and Bolshoi Ballet’s Leopardstown timefigure marks him out as a G1 colt waiting to happen.

So how do we play the 2021 Derby?

A little imagination goes a long way in helping crack any major puzzle and this one is no exception.

I’m less confident about Mac Swiney’s stamina than some and, for all that he’s an exciting colt with romance and late jockey drama attached to his story, John Leeper’s keen nature and immaturity could pose problems in this hard school.

It’s hard to get any sort of firm handle on Mohaafeth, who didn’t have to come off the bridle in a four-runner Newmarket trial that seemed to collapse around him, while One Ruler doesn’t look a guaranteed stayer and Youth Spirit might lack the necessary acceleration.

We aren’t going to get rich backing the jolly win only at a shade of odds against but there will be around £25m bet into the World Pool this weekend. And taking Bolshoi Ballet on top with the likeable Hurricane Lane and the fast-improving Mohaafeth as forecast options looks a solid way to go for the 2021 Derby.

Some of the big racing winners in May from our flagship columns
Some of the big racing winners in May from our flagship columns

How about the rest of the Derby day card?

It’s strong and offers plenty of appealing punting angles.

Patient Dream and King Frankel have plenty to recommend them in the opener at 2.00, while Maamora will be tough to peg back in the Princess Elizabeth Stakes at 2.45 if she’s back to the form she showed to beat some good fillies in the Atalanta Stakes at Sandown last summer.

The fact that no three-year-old has won the race since 1994 means trends followers won’t entertain Maximal in the Cazoo Diomed Stakes at 3.10.

But look a little closer and it’s clear that the Classic crop seldom tackle this G3 nowadays. Sir Michael Stoute didn’t become one of the modern training greats by being a slave to trends and the way that Maximal has travelled against Classic colts over ten furlongs this spring hints that this return to a stretched mile could suit him very well indeed.

Now to the World Pool Dash at 3.45, which is a brain-burning sprint even before you start to factor in the draw and luck in running.

That said, the smooth-travelling Mondammej is just the sort of northern raider who could fly nicely under the World Pool radar from gate 18, while the way that Stone of Destiny went whoosh to win the Portland at Donny last September makes him another big player with Oisin Murphy aboard from stall 17.

Last but not least, keep a close eye on Group One Power and Soto Sizzler in the Northern Dancer Handicap at 5.15. Soto Sizzler won this race in 2019 and has form figures of 112 over the Derby course and distance.

The 2 came behind Group One Power last month – and the way that Andrew Balding’s lightly-raced gelding went clear prior to getting weary in soft ground at Ascot four weeks ago suggests that he could still be a very interesting horse from a mark of just 88.


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