Sometimes the answer is staring you right in the face. With little under four weeks until the Cazoo Derby on Epsom Downs, and only one major trial remaining – the Dante Stakes at York on Thursday – the blue riband of the Flat season is already looking a done deal.
In Bolshoi Ballet, Aidan O’Brien has a colt ticking every conceivable box with the Derby in mind and quotes as short as 7/4 for Epsom are entirely justified on what he has achieved so far this season: a commanding victory in the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown followed by his demolition of Mac Swiney and company in Sunday’s Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at the same track – the eventual winning distance of six lengths in no way flattering the quality of the performance.
In so many ways, Bolshoi Ballet has the perfect profile for a Derby winner. To win a one-mile maiden at Leopardstown as a two-year-old usually requires a high calibre of horse, while either side of that success, trips to Newmarket and France helped get experience into an initially raw, unfurnished animal who has clearly taken time to become something close to the finished article. With another winter on his back, what we have seen from him so far this year has been flawless, bordering on spectacular.
Furthermore, he is in the care of Aidan O’Brien, winning trainer of the Derby on no less than eight occasions, including the last three renewals. Just like the last two winners – Anthony Van Dyck and Serpentine – Bolshoi Ballet is sired by Galileo who himself is responsible for five Derby winners and counting.
If what Bolshoi Ballet has produced on the track warrants his place at the head of the betting, it is also the inability to find any cast-iron weaknesses in his armoury that suggests taking him on will prove a futile exercise. Tactically, he would appear to be a dream ride for Ryan Moore: a powerful traveller who was sharp enough to quicken up and win off a slow pace in the Ballysax, yet clearly boasting such stamina reserves that Moore sent him for home a long way out in the Derrinstown. The results on both occasions were emphatic.
It was Lester Piggott who argued that you need a mile and a quarter horse to win the Derby; a horse blessed with a high enough cruising speed to navigate the perils of such a demanding racecourse, one which becomes impossible to conquer if your horse doesn’t travel. Bolshoi Ballet will travel, just as there is every indication that this seemingly well-balanced, fluent mover will handle the Epsom undulations. From there, we can expect his last two furlongs to be his best and if there is a horse who hits the line harder on June 5, I’ve had my eyes closed for the last month or so.
And that’s the truly exciting thing about this horse: while Bolshoi Ballet will highly likely be the shortest priced Derby favourite since Saxon Warrior in 2018 – owing to his standout form claims and his position at the head of O’Brien’s three-year-old pack – there is every reason to think he will improve again over a mile and a half. Galileo is always such a strong stamina influence and Bolshoi Ballet is a full brother to Southern France whose best performance came when landing the 2019 Irish St Leger over a mile and six furlongs. Add to the fact that Epsom will represent only the sixth start of his career and we must believe there is even better to come.
A scary thought, indeed, but what about the opposition? Well, stablemate High Definition had spent the winter heading most Derby lists, but he missed his intended reappearance at Lingfield on Saturday due to a poor blood count and remains a doubtful starter in this week’s Dante. O’Brien reported on Sunday that his "blood count is still coming down. It's not 100 per cent yet, but it’s a lot better than it was. It’s nearly there", before adding that High Definition wouldn’t be able to go to Epsom without a run beforehand.
A taking winner of last season’s Beresford Stakes, there is no doubting he is a high-class prospect, but even if he makes Epsom, his preparation has been far from ideal, similarly the aforementioned Mac Swiney who was a Group One winner last year but couldn’t lay a glove on Bolshoi Ballet this weekend and has a bit to prove now.
Returning to Ballydoyle for a moment, Van Gogh didn’t shape without promise on his comeback in the 2000 Guineas and looked so good when successful at the top table in France last autumn that he remains a live player. Still, his Newmarket run hardly had punters clambering for the 12/1 currently available for Epsom, while if we are talking about boxes, maiden winner Wordsworth doesn't tick too many yet, for all he looks capable of a good deal better.
The Mediterranean might have booked himself a ticket to England with his doughty victory in Sunday’s finale at Leopardstown, but he is all stamina and looks more of a Doncaster horse already, while Sir Lamorak would need to be every inch as good as he looked when bounding away to land a handicap last time. As stylish as that Leopardstown success was, it came from a mark of only 85 and still leaves him with much to find.
And with that, the Irish challenge has quickly worked its way back to Bolshoi Ballet who will probably have most to fear from the home guard, and in particular, Roger Varian. The Newmarket handler sent out El Drama to win the Dee Stakes at Chester on Thursday before Third Realm earnt Derby quotes as short as 8/1 following his convincing victory at Lingfield a couple of days later.
Third Realm would appear to be the pick that pair, but Varian might have one final ace up his sleeve with Royal Champion heading for the Dante next week, bidding to atone for a costly defeat in the Feilden Stakes. Despite the recent exploits of his stablemates, Varian continues to make all the right noises about this one and should High Definition fail to make it to York, the son of Shamardal will be one of a few who could throw one final hat into the Derby ring.
Another is the Mark Johnston-trained Gear Up, winner of the Criterium de Saint-Cloud last season when having an inexperienced Bolshoi Ballet in behind. He was a shock winner that day and needs to prove it to be no fluke, but there is no reason why he won't, while Classic Trial hero Alenquer didn't scream Derby winner with the grinding display he turned in at Sandown.
O’Brien still has the option of getting more experience into Sir Lamorak and Wordsworth at York, should High Definition not make it, and either could challenge unbeaten Frankel colt Hurricane Lane for favouritism on the Knavesmire. Hurricane Lane is currently priced between 20/1 and 12/1 for Epsom having looked a very smart prospect at Newbury, and he rates one of the more likely types from these shores, with Charlie Appleby sure to throw whatever he can at the Ballydoyle challenge.
Still, he only beat Maximal the same distance as El Drama did at Chester and has yet to produce the wow factor that Bolshoi Ballet has. You might argue the same about Youth Spirit, just behind Royal Champion in the Feilden but markedly improved when upped in trip and running out a cosy winner of the Chester Vase. Like so many, Andrew Balding’s charge has plenty to find with the favourite on the book, but he is a neat, improving horse who handled Chester well and could make an impact if the ground turns up soft.
He might yet prove the best of the Brits for a trainer who won the Oaks in 2003, but if we are wanting a little bit of wow factor to put it up to the best of Ballydoyle, look no further than Mohaafeth who is three from three this season and oozed class when claiming Listed spoils in nothing more than a canter at Newmarket last week. Substance? He left Secret Protector trailing in his wake that day – that colt having finished ahead of Royal Champion and Youth Spirit in the Feilden.
Mohaafeth, on the face of it, looks the chief threat to Bolshoi Ballet but his official rating of 111 will still leave him some way short of Bolshoi Ballet after the latter is reassessed following his Derrinstown blitz. Sure, Mohaafeth remains open to considerable improvement, but the Derby will represent a much sterner test of his credentials and does he really deserve to be as short as 4/1 when Bolshoi Ballet can still be backed at 2/1? With the best will in the world, I find that hard to justify.
The truth is – even in a year when O’Brien’s three-year-olds have suffered more early setbacks than usual – Ballydoyle once again hold the key to the Derby, and that magnificent sire of theirs, the mighty Galileo, is set to further underline his status as the greatest stallion of them all.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but Galileo won the Ballysax and Derrinstown before going on to claim Derby glory at Epsom in 2001, High Chaparral following the same route 12 months later. When O’Brien mapped out that very path for Bolshoi Ballet this year, perhaps we should have all taken notice.
Maybe it’s too late for some, but with only one major trial remaining, and a host of Derby rivals heading to Epsom with chinks in their armour and question marks to answer in equal measure, it seems folly to look past the incredibly exciting Bolshoi Ballet; a potential superstar who would seem to have just about every angle covered.
Ladies and gentleman, I think we've found our Derby winner.
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