Epsom Derby 2015 Preview, Trends, Tips
First run in 1780, The Investec Derby is the pre-eminent flat race in Britain. Run over a helter-skelter piste snaking around just further than a mile and a half of Epsom's Downs, The Derby is arguably the ultimate test of a horse. Combining stamina, speed, balance and no little precocity, it takes a complete animal to triumph in Britain's "blue riband".
This year promises to be one of the most open-looking renewals since Sir Percy had just a head and two short heads to spare over the fourth placed Hala Bek. Indeed, with less than four weeks to go until Derby Day, the market bets 5/1 the field, and 8/1 bar one. That sort of a book demands a scan for a value play, or possibly two. Let's start, as always, with the trends...
Investec Derby 2015 Trends
Most of these trends have been sourced using the excellent horseracebase.com, and cover the last eighteen Derby's, going back to Benny The Dip's narrow defeat of Silver Patriarch in 1997.
14 of the last 18 (78%) Derby winners also won last time out, from 51% of the runners in that time. But, being the most obvious winners, they were wildly unprofitable to follow... unless of course you backed them ante post before their final prep!
16 of the last 18 winners (89%) had run in the previous month, from 71% of the runners. Most horses will qualify on this score, but not all will.
The last 13 winners had raced once or twice that season.
The 62 horses with an official rating below 108 this century have all been beaten.
And that's pretty much as good as it gets...
Epsom Derby Draw Stats
A fair bit is made of the Derby draw, with big fields commonplace. But, with the nature of the course meaning horses drawn high are initially favoured before the sweeping turn that favours low, most good animals have a chance to navigate to a preferred in-running position, when piloted by good riders!
The data bears this contention out.
As can be seen from the above graphic, displaying draw positions for win and placed horses since 1997, winners have come from all but the highest five stalls. However, it should be noted that only two of the 19 horses drawn that wide - 7/1 Beat All and 9/1 Linda's Lad - started the race at shorter than 12/1. Indeed, of the 16 horses drawn 16+ this century, only Linda's Lad was shorter than 16/1.
Now it's perfectly plausible to suggest that there's a causal correlation between starting price and draw - after all, if the received wisdom is that high draws are unfavoured, then that would push the odds out, right?
Well, the balance of Linda's Lad's and Beat All's subsequent form - no wins from twelve collective starts - strongly implies that it wasn't the draw that beat them.
Indeed, taking the draw as three roughly equal thirds, 1-7, 8-14, 15+ reveals the following:
Low (1 to 7) stalls won 44% of the Derby's since 1997, and accommodated 44% of the placed horses as well, from 48% of the runners.
Middle (8 to 14) stalls were responsible for 50% of the winners in that time, and 48% of the placed horses, from 42% of the runners.
And high (15+) stalls claimed 6% winners and 8% places from 11% of the runners. Again, keep in mind the average SP of the high drawn horses was 35.84/1, so they arguably outperformed market expectations despite under-performing in terms of the size of their subset of runners.
The long and short of it is this: don't worry too much about the draw.
Epsom Derby Key Trials
As well as the trends, there are some key trials on which to keep an eye. Most have now been run, and the last major prep, the Dante, is run this week.
Since 1992, in order of subsequent Derby winners, here are the same season prep runs [N.B. some horses ran in multiple preps] that contained at least two Epsom winners:
Dante Stakes: six (five won the Dante, one was second)
2000 Guineas: five (two winners, two second and one third)
Ballysax Stakes: three (two winners, one second)
Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial: three (all won)
Dee Stakes: two (both won)
Unraced at three: two (but none since 1996)
The Derby 2015 Form Preview
We've not made a huge amount of progress with the trends, draw or key races, so let's tie them all together, as well as looking between the lines in search of a soupçon of value in what might be a more competitive than usual renewal.
The ante post favourite ahead of the Dante Stakes this Thursday is Jack Hobbs, John Gosden's facile Sandown handicap winner. He won that race, only his second career start, off a mark of 85 and has jettisoned up the ratings to 109 as a consequence. With just two runs on the board thus far, both ready wins, it is not hard to see why he's favoured.
The flip side is that he's not really been tested against top class yet; and 5/1 in that context is unappetizing. Put it like this: I'd rather take 2/1 or 7/4 if he won the Dante nicely than 5/1 after he's won a handicap. There's also the matter of the course constitution to consider: Wolverhampton and to a lesser degree Sandown are reasonably regulation in their make up. Neither has the undulations or camber of Epsom's slopes.
That's not to say Jack Hobbs won't readily cope with them, but rather to highlight an element of the unknown which needs factoring into the price. Regardless of the Dante result, we'll still not know whether he acts on the track until the day. Plenty don't though, in fairness, we usually have to guess at course suitability for Derby fancies.
Getting back to the Sandown run, it was an absolutely bloodless win, but it's worth noting that the second favourite, Stravagante, had a luckless run having been held up in rear (such tactics often come up short in the luck stakes) and may have only been beaten by three or four lengths, granted a similar starting point and no interference.
Stravagante is now rated 86, up a pound for the Sandown exertion, which could make him a penalty kick next time out. I suspect he might be pitched at a Royal Ascot handicap off that mark, and he'd have to be of keen interest wherever he goes.
Second in the betting, and another intended runner in the Dante, is the clear form choice in the race (so far), Elm Park. His Racing Post Trophy win last backend earned him an official rating of 117 and, having been 14/1 a month ago, he's now a well nibbled 8/1 top without leaving his box.
As well as that comfortable Racing Post Trophy win on soft ground, he was much too good for Nafaqa in the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes on good to firm. Whilst connections wouldn't be delighted with fast ground, the horse has shown that if it came to it, he can cope. Nafaqa, for his part, has since run a decent second in the Craven Stakes, and may re-oppose in the Dante (without being expected to trouble the leading contenders).
While the jury is out on the merit of the RP Trophy form - only two placed efforts from six subsequent runs from the horses in that race - that needs to be balanced against the fact that neither the winner nor the second has run since; and the third, Celestial Path, ran an eye-catching race to be a never nearer fifth in the 2000 Guineas, having been held up some way off the pace.
Celestial Path was 3 1/4 lengths behind Elm Park, with five lengths to the fourth and six-plus back to the rest. So it's hardly Elm Park's fault if those runners have failed to frank the form. There does remain a question about Andrew Balding's son of Phoenix Reach seeing out the mile and a half trip. He's clearly a precocious and robust miler, as shown by his two year old form, but he'll need to go a lot further in The Derby, and the Dante will tell us plenty.
The price has gone somewhat about his chance - savvy geegeez readers will have snaffled the 14's after reading this post earlier in the season - and 8/1 is no more than 'the right price' ahead of the Dante. Again, though, if he proves his stamina by winning that content nicely, he could be value at around 5/2 subsequently.
Aidan O'Brien, who has endured a largely disappointing Derby trials period, is mob-handed in the Dante with - at time of writing - seven of the fifteen declarations. He's likely to run at least two, and maybe as many as four, with the primary candidates expected to be Ol' Man River and John F Kennedy. Both flunked their lines in a big way in an earlier trial, and both have a lot to prove to remain serious contenders for The Derby.
John F Kennedy was Derby favourite prior to a deeply disappointing third of three in the Ballysax Stakes on deeply testing going. He didn't pick up there, but his previous high class form (which includes a facile win in a Group 3 on Irish Champions Weekend) was all on quick surfaces. Moreover, the form of that race has worked out surprisingly well: the shock winner there, Success Days, has gone on to rout the Derrinstown Derby Trial field by ten lengths; and the second, Zafilani, won his only subsequent run in a conditions event at Gowran Park.
If there's one to take a flyer with ahead of the Dante, it might be JFK, as it's unlikely to be quaggy at either York or Epsom. He's 9/2 for the Dante and 9/1 for the Derby, but expect him to be 9/4 for the Derby if winning at York, and 9/2 if running a close second.
Ol' Man River looked a serious animal ahead of the 2000 Guineas ten days ago. In two juvenile runs he'd won a huge field maiden and then a mile Group 2, both on the Curragh. For whatever reason, he failed to fire completely at Newmarket (when my main selection - ouch all round), and it's hard to overlook that pathetic effort.
Of course, we know he's hugely talented, but he's only 16/1 for Epsom glory, and he needs to show a big step forward in temperament as much as talent after the Guineas.
Dermot Weld's Zawraq rounds out the top of the Derby betting, as an unbeaten 9/1 shot. There was style about his debut maiden win last backend, and substance to his authoritative Listed Guineas Trial win last time out, but whether he deserves to be the price he is I'm not sure. As the name implies, that Guineas Trial was over a mile so, while there's hope from a bloodline that has Shamardal as daddy and Saddler's Wells as maternal granddad, it's still a punt that he'll get the extra half a mile.
It's not entirely clear what Zawraq's next race will be: he remains in the Irish 2000 Guineas on Saturday week, a race that would leave him just a fortnight to recover prior to the Derby. Nope, he'd not be for me at 9/1. Too much more to prove and too many other imponderables.
Of more interest at the current prices is Giovanni Canaletto, a further string to the Ballydoyle/Coolmore bow. Beaten at odds on when making his debut at Navan last October, he showed what he could really do when hacking up by more than six lengths in a field of sixteen at Leopardstown a couple of weeks later.
Not seen since, he remains open to plenty of improvement, a comment which applies to most at this stage, and which is more necessary in Gio Can's case than others with a lot more in the book already. I'm struggling to countenance his inclusion on an ante post ticket mainly because he missed his intended engagement at Chester, and it might just be too close to Derby day for that to be overlooked.
That said, being a full brother to 2013 Derby winner, Ruler Of The World, he's bred to win a blue riband; and he's likely to get a run somewhere before Epsom, perhaps in the Irish 2000 Guineas a fortnight prior.
Reverting to those with Pattern race form in the book, Hans Holbein was a taking enough winner of the Chester Vase. But that was on soft, as was the rest of his good form, something which is hardly surprising given a pedigree that comes with a set of armbands (by Montjeu out of a Shirley Heights mare). Although he hasn't shown he can't act on quicker, I wouldn't be betting that he can either.
Johnny G runs yet another towards the top of the Derby market in the Dante, and that one is Golden Horn. Like stablemate Jack Hobbs, he too is unbeaten in two runs, and he too straddled the seasonal break with that brace of victories. Unlike his barnmate, he won in Pattern company last time - the Listed Feilden Stakes over nine furlongs at Newmarket - and though he did it well enough, he did seem to get unbalanced coming out of the dip.
That would be a small worry going to Epsom, though it might just have been an isolated quirk that day. He's another for whom twelve furlongs is far from a gimme in terms of optimal racing range (bred for ten, time will tell if he gets another quarter mile), and he'll need to be supplemented at this stage in any case. If he wins the Dante, that will happen. If he runs close, it might. Otherwise, it won't. 20/1 is not enough to tempt me.
Thumbing through the French contenders, Andre Fabre trains the unbeaten Grey Lion, a horse unquestionably bred for a Derby. He's by Galileo out of a Danehill mare. Indeed, not just any old Danehill mare, but Grey Lilas, mum of Golden Lilac, the triple Group 1-winning mare. Grey Lion is a full brother to that one, and a half brother to Listed winner, Golden Guepard.
At 20/1 though, Grey Lion has plenty to find on the book and may not run again before Epsom, if he even shows up there. Fabre trained Pour Moi to win the 2011 Derby, but this lad has an option at home in the Prix du Jockey Club as well as The Derby. His price is insufficient to integrate those imponderables to my satisfaction.
We then arrive at the Prix Greffulhe, a Group 2 which has thrown up a Derby winner (Pour Moi) and a Prix du Jockey Club winner (Saonois) in recent times. It was set to be the appointment of a Derby dauphin in the shape of Epicuris, but Criquette Head-Maarek's Group 1-winning juvenile refused to enter the starting stalls, leaving his next target up in the air.
There was talk of Epicuris returning directly in the Prix Hocquart but that didn't happen, mainly because he needs a stalls test. He had a try at that this morning (Monday), but was less than convincing and will try again this Thursday at Chantilly. 33/1 about a horse who could very well decide not to go in the gate is a murderous way to bet and, despite his proven talent and stamina, I'd wait until the day. At least then, further recalcitrance would result in stakes returned.
No, the left field pari from, er, Paris is Sumbal. He's actually very left field, so let me explain. Firstly, he's not quoted in any Derby lists (well, not Epsom versions anyway). And secondly, he's not an intended supplementary entry. And thirdly, he might not act on quicker ground. Despite all that, I've had a throwaway tenner on him on the exchange at an average of 158.7 - here's why:
In the absence of Epicuris, Sumbal was a striking winner of the Gruffelhe, beating Untold Secret by six lengths. We know from the above that the Gruffelhe is the best French trial, and the manner and margin of victory suggest Epicuris would have struggled to beat him even if he'd consented to race.
Here's the next bit of my master plan (such as it is). Sumbal is owned by Qatar Racing, the same firm that own Elm Park. All other things being equal, they'd look to keep their pair apart. But all other things are rarely equal in racing and, if Elm Park fails to perform to expectations at York, the plan may get rethought.
If Sumbal was a certain runner, he'd be something like a 20/1, maybe 25/1, shot. At a monster price, and for a couple of pints (in this heavily bearded part of Hackney at any rate), I'm happy to tilt at moulins.
The Derby Dosage Trends
In races where stamina is often taken on trust more than on racecourse evidence, it can pay to look at dosage figures. I'll not go into detail about what dosage is - you can read that here - except to say that it's a means of measuring certain "aptitudinal" attributes of a racehorse.
What I can tell you is that nine of the last ten Derby winners had at least 16 Dosage points, and no more than 38 (Sir Percy, the worst Derby winner in a generation, had just 10).
I can also share that all bar two of the last ten Derby winners had a Dosage Index (DI) of between 0.78 and 1.44. The exceptions were, again, Sir Percy - on the low side - and Sea The Stars on the high side.
And finally the Centre of Distribution, the third Dosage measurement, range of -0.04 to 0.5 accounted for all bar the same two horse. Again, Sir Percy was on the low side and the incomparable Sea The Stars on the high side.
In terms of Dosage points, Jack Hobbs and Elm Park both sit outside the ten year range, with twelve points apiece. Ol' Man River and Hans Holbein have 44 and 46 respectively, which is the other side of the recent history range.
Dosage Index has John F Kennedy and Golden Horn on the high side, and Hans Holbein on the low side; and Hans is also an outlier in centre of distribution terms.
Those with plum Dosage fits are Zawraq, Giovanni Canaletto, and Grey Lion.
Investec Derby Tips
It's a wide open race, and it is possible that the front two in the betting at the end of this week will be the first two home in the Dante. It's almost certain that the Dante winner will be the Derby favourite heading up to the race. And, in lieu of any standout performances thus far, that is probably right enough.
As such, I'll likely be making a further bet after that race - probably as a saver only - if Elm Park doesn't win. As mentioned, I - and plenty of other geegeez readers - have backed him already at 14's, and we'd be delighted if he took down the Dante spoils.
Outside of that kingmaker race, I'm prepared to take a bit of a chance on Giovanni Caneletto. He was impressive last term when flying home in a maiden that is working out quite well. Obviously, that's a quantum step from what's needed to win a Derby but the manner of his win, with him being pretty green and unfurnished (to my eye), means he's worth a small chance at 14/1, though I'd want to see him getting a prep before the first Saturday in June.
Ante post 2015 Investec Derby selection: Giovanni Canaletto 14/1 Boylesports, Paddy
Already advised (26th March): Elm Park 14/1