Our columnist reflects on a seventh Derby win for Aidan O'Brien and the strengthening case that he's the greatest trainer of all time.
Derby lacking star quality
AN exceptionally exciting horse race fought out by far from exceptional horses.
That has to be the verdict of the 2019 Investec Derby, which was once again dominated by Aidan O’Brien and Ballydoyle.
You can’t help but be in awe at what Aidan and his team keep on achieving. Only Madhmoon stopped him training the first five home here – an incredible achievement but one that we have almost come to expect as the norm.
Anyway, that’s seven Derby wins now and 35 British Classics.
For the Derby, the odds must be short about his going into double figures anytime in the near future and, surely, at least 50 British Classics is by no means out of the question.
I was a huge fan of Sir Henry Cecil – who wasn’t? – and was always impressed by what Vincent O’Brien achieved under both codes (although he was largely before my era), but there is an overwhelming argument building fast enough now to regard Aidan as the greatest trainer of all time.
In spite of recognising this and feeling the admiration, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed by the result of the Derby. Both Bangkok and Telecaster, more than reasonable hopes for Britain, were bitterly disappointing. The track was blamed for Bangkok, who never looked like getting involved, while the fourth race in a short time for Telecaster looked like one too many.
Then, crucially, with only three quarters of a length separating the first five home, there is likely to be no outstanding colt among them. Who knows what will happen the next time they all meet?
One thing is for sure, though, Anthony Van Dyck was a deserving and very gutsy winner.
Coming down the hill towards Tattenham Corner, he was one of the first off the bridle and looked to be struggling when they straightened up. Both Broome and Madhmoon quickened past him with around three furlongs to run and his chances looked gone.
But what an attitude he showed to claw his way back into it and, once switched inside by Seamie Heffernan approaching the furlong marker, he saw the race out best of all. Fair play to him.
This was a horse who had put up a thoroughly professional performance at Lingfield but I truly believed that his two-year-old form, when he had run well but had been beaten in three Group One’s, suggested he would not be quite good enough. Yes, the laugh’s on me.
Some have already written about Japan and Broome, third and fourth, putting up the best St Leger trials but maybe Anthony Van Dyck, the late foal who just keeps on giving, may also be the one for Doncaster?
There were many things I got wrong about this Derby, and Madhmoon’s chance was another.
I just couldn’t see him getting the trip (interestingly, neither could Angus Gold, Sheikh Hamdan’s racing manager) but he dismissed that idea with a personal best, coming out on top in a four-way photo for second.
Madhmoon did so well to get himself reorganised after he clipped heels turning into the straight but he still couldn’t quite pull it off.
Please don’t say this was the last chance for a Prendergast to win the Derby? The one British Classic that had eluded Kevin’s father, the late great Paddy “Darkie” Prendergast, may finally have slipped through the clutches too of his son, who celebrates his 87th birthday next month.
The hope is that Sheikh Hamdan will continue to supply Prendergast with enough raw material for this extraordinary pensioner to come back and have another go.
Madhmoon could gain a famous consolation in the Irish Derby, a race Darkie won four times, but it might be that he drops back in trip for something like the Eclipse Stakes, the Juddmonte and Irish Champion Stakes etc. I sincerely hope he wins a big one somewhere.
Meanwhile, Japan, Broome and Sir Dragonet will surely pitch up at the Curragh on June 29 for the rematch with their Derby-winning stablemate. However, in Sir Dragonet’s favour is the fact that he might have the more improvement in him as he was the least experienced runner on Saturday.
SO, WHO CAN STOP BALLYDOYLE AND COOLMORE?
Looking ahead, however, who is going to challenge the runaway Coolmore/Ballydoyle Derby steamroller as it careers around the rails, cambers and hills of the famous Downs, flattening anything in its way?
Coolmore, the home of the incomparable Galileo, has almost a monopoly of the top middle distance stallions. Almost.
The notable exceptions are Dubawi, the only British sire to produce 100 Group winners, New Approach who stands alongside him at Dalham Hall Stud and sired the Derby winner Masar last year (and the disappointing Telecaster, this), Frankel, who notched up his first domestic Classic winner when Anapurna took Friday’s Oaks (he also had two other runners), and Nathaniel, sire of 2017 Oaks winner Enable but who, oddly, had no representative in the Epsom Classics this year.
These four stallions, two owned by Sheikh Mohammed, the other by Khalid Abdulla, and the other by Newsells Park, probably lead the hopes of “the rest of the world”, if you like, backed up by former French Derby winners and Irish-based Lope De Vega (Ballylinch Stud) and Shamardal (Kildangan Stud).
For all of his success, Dubawi’s only Classic winner to date has been Night Of Thunder in the 2,000 Guineas but bad luck denied him a serious Derby contender this year in Quorto (beat Anthony Van Dyck in the National Stakes at two) who has been sidelined.
In fact, Dubawi has been unlucky not to sire an Oaks winner or two as well as he is also the sire of both So Mi Dar and Lah Ti Dar who would have been very strongly fancied if they had made it to the gig in their year.
Dubawi stands at £250,000 nowadays, Frankel at £175,000 with New Approach and Nathaniel looking bargains at just £30,000 and £25,000 respectively.
Unless one of these four or the two others can come up with something, the likelihood is that the Derby will be going nowhere for a while yet.
A lot of owners and breeders might want to reconsider the obsession with speed and start focusing on the more stoutly-bred types if they are to have any hope of landing a blow in the world’s greatest Flat race.
DERBY IS NO LONGER THE ATTRACTION IT WAS
The photos in the Racing Post, which showed Derby Day in 2011 and 2019 were quite shocking in showing how the attendance on the hill in the middle of the course has melted away.
The Derby certainly doesn’t get the attention it once received. Perhaps families have got better things to do these days than have a picnic while a few horse races go on around them.
That said, bookmaker Andy Smith of Festival Racing, told me: “The atmosphere up there was great and there was not one dispute.”
He added: “The business was brilliant and I had non-stop queues there all day. I paid £600 to bet and it was worth every penny. The William Hill betting area there didn’t affect business at all.”
Good to know. Yet the Derby seems to be losing its grip as the “people’s race”.
I was disappointed when it was moved from its traditional Wednesday slot back in 1995 (yes, that long ago).
The first Wednesday in June was always Derby Day to me and that ethos is still carried out spectacularly successfully in Australia when the first Tuesday in November always stops the nation for the Melbourne Cup.
The Derby is unlikely ever to be moved back, of course. But maybe we could all do a better job in promoting the event, rather than taking it for granted. “Breakfast with the Stars” was a bit of a damp squib this year when not one Derby runner showed up.
Elsewhere, for example on the London Underground, there are always plenty of adverts for the Cheltenham Festival but I can’t recall ever seeing one recently for the Derby.
If they can drum up enthusiasm for a mere handicap Down Under run on a very boring, flat, oval track, there must be some scope still to get the juices flowing for an historic race run on the world’s craziest and most charismatic racecourse.
Frankie was brilliant again on Anapurna. On the big day, he is still the man, still the one who makes it look easy.
Contrast the run Frankie had compared to Rab Havlin on stablemate Mehdaayih who was badly messed about in the early stages of the race and was never able to get into a rhythm.
Even when she tried to get in a late blow, it all went wrong again and poor Rab, who must have had high hopes of a first Group One, will be having nightmares about this nightmare.
To compound his woe, Manuela De Vega, the filly who chased Mehdaayih home at Chester, wasn’t beaten far in fourth. There will be another day for them both but the chance to win a Classic might have gone for Rab.
Meanwhile, John and Rachel Gosden rightly received praise on social media for making sure that Anapurna’s groom, Taufique Alam, wasn’t overlooked after he was made to give way to the owners when the filly was being led in.
When a groom, who has a unique bond with a horse he or she is looking after, is nudged aside and denied the chance to lead them in after a famous win, it always rankles with me.
The Gosdens saw this happening, quickly called Alam over and then the master trainer proceeded to walk into the winner’s enclosure with his arm around the groom’s shoulder.