Almost a month in from the resumption of racing, today we await the publication of the names of the horses that will comprise the first-ever five-day entry for the Derby, writes Tony Stafford.
Historically a race which closed long before any of its eventual protagonists had even flexed their muscles on a racecourse, this year owing to Covid-19 the original entry stage structure had to be scrapped.
Many years ago, changes of ownership after entry meant horses were barred from running in the race and, famously, the death of one giant of the industry, owner-breeder Major Lionel B Holliday, meant that his colt Vaguely Noble was ineligible for the 1968 Epsom Classic.
The seven-length winner of the Observer Gold Cup (now Vertem Futurity), a month earlier Holliday’s son Brook, realising this issue, had entered him for auction at Tattersalls where he was sold for a record 136,000gns. Switched to race in France as a three-year-old, eventually running in the colours of Nelson Bunker Hunt, in the care of the great Etienne Pollet, Vaguely Noble proved himself the undisputed champion of his generation.
Sir Ivor had been favourite for the 1968 Derby and the Vincent O’Brien-trained and Raymond Guest-owned colt exuded class and speed when he easily cut down the raw Connaught, trained by Noel Murless in the last furlong at Epsom. Sir Ivor went on to Longchamp but was no match for Vaguely Noble who was his equal him for speed but had much the greater stamina.
Less than a generation after Vaguely Noble, buying Epsom contenders after they had shown their mettle in the trials had become commonplace, and one man constantly on the look-out for potential Classic horses was the Italian industrialist Antonio Balzarini. In May 1988 he bought Carroll House from his original owner-breeder, Gerald Carroll, after he had finished a close second in the 1988 Italian Derby.
Balzarini wisely left the colt with Michael Jarvis, his original trainer, and was rewarded in November the following year when Carroll House won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. A sale to stand in the Yoshida family’s Shadai Farm in Hokkaido, Japan, soon followed.
Jarvis had also trained the owner’s Prorutori to win the Italian Derby the same year. Balzarini, through my Daily Telegraph colleague and long-time friend George Hill during that period did the deal, acquiring the filly Atoll from Robert Sangster. She won the 1990 Italian Oaks and was the neck runner-up to Knight’s Baroness in that year’s Irish Oaks.
Two years later, Balzarini was impressed by the Lingfield Derby Trial victory of Assessor, a staying-bred colt trained by Richard Hannon for Bjorn Nielsen who 28 years further down the road, will be hoping that his own life-long love affair with the Derby might be finally realised on Saturday through the favourite English King, also the Lingfield Derby Trial winner.
I had got to know Bjorn Nielsen as a racecourse acquaintance a few years before that, and I am indebted to Alastair Down for today’s Racing Post profile of the owner to fill in some forgotten details. As Down relates, Nielsen was born and raised in South Africa – to Swedish parents. The family moved to Australia where he developed his love of racing and pedigrees, before they came to live in Epsom in Bjorn’s teenage years. Talent on the tennis court brought a sports scholarship to the United States, excelling on the highly-competitive college circuit. A lucrative career as a trader in the metal exchanges followed, eventually founding his own company, which funded his racing and breeding exploits.
George Hill knew I often saw Bjorn on the racecourse and, seconds after Assessor won, he called me and passed on a bid from Mr Balzarini. At the time I did not believe he could win what was going to be a good Derby, so fully expected the offer of £1 million to be enough to sway the colt’s owner. After a short period of balancing the pros and cons, he told me: “No, thank him for the offer, but I grew up in Epsom and I can’t pass up the chance of winning the Derby”.
I remember seeing Bjorn and his family in the owners’ dining room before the race. I was there, obviously in my journalistic role, but also as a friend and supporter of Mrs Virgina Kraft Payson, owner of St Jovite, trained by Jim Bolger to whom I had introduced her. He ran a great race finishing second to Dr Devious, trained at Robert Sangster’s Manton stables by the young Peter Chapple-Hyam.
St Jovite turned the form around in the Irish Derby, winning by 12 lengths in record time at The Curragh, but then, having won the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes by an unchallenged six lengths, was pipped by Dr Devious in the Irish Champion.
Over the next few years I made numerous calls to the New York office of Mr Nielsen, always being reminded by his secretary that my voice was uncannily like that of the English-born journalist Robin Leach, who had made his fame and fortune in Las Vegas fronting and producing the television programme, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Then in October 1995 I stayed for a few days at Mrs Payson’s house on Long Island, and arranged to meet Bjorn at his office on Wall Street. After making my acquaintance with his secretary who repeated my inner-London vocal exactness with the Perivale-born Mr Leach, we went out to a deli for a six-inch thick beef sandwich after which I was advised to catch the race special to Belmont Park.
Arriving at Grand Central station, I found I was too late for that service, having to abort at Jamaica station where I was told a taxi could be found. Apparently my driver, the only one available, had recently arrived in the City and his lack of local knowledge, and the general direction of Belmont Park was only exceeded by his non-grasp of the English language.
After asking “Balma?” a couple of times; on seeing a green expanse on the left side he pointed and said “park!” Luckily we soon arrived at a bus stop where a queue of around 15 women waited. I asked him to stop, rolled down the window and called out: “Does anyone know the way to Belmont Park?” One lady said she did and offered to join me to help direct the driver towards the destination.
She said that her son Joe was in the racing business: “He works for Godolphin in Dubai”. I apologise to the kind lady who did indeed put us right for Belmont for not remembering her surname. She had been among a crowd of 75,000 people attending a blessing by Pope John Paul II at Acqueduct racecourse that morning.
I told her that my son had been based in Dubai the previous winter and I can exactly pinpoint the date of his departure for a six-month stint in Sheikh Mohammed’s sports club coaching his young kids in various sports. It was Saturday November 19th 1994, the date when the National Lottery was launched. He was based in the same apartment complex with Vince (now Victoria) Smith and Johnny Murtagh and the trio played plenty of cricket together while he was over there. Joe, I discovered when I checked later with my son, had also been staying in the same block. Papal intervention indeed!
Bjorn Nielsen’s study of pedigrees has famously produced one of the greatest stayers of any generation, one to stand comparison with Ardross, Le Moss, Sagaro and Yeats. If there’s ever been a better example of the speed that is still required for a champion stayer, you would struggle to improve on the latest of his three Gold Cup wins at Ascot.
Now Nielsen is relying on his €210,000 Arqana sales purchase to fulfil that Epsom ambition. By a Derby winner, Camelot, who just missed out on the Triple Crown, himself a son of French and Irish Derby winner Montjeu, he has more than enough genetic quality for the job. His Derby Trial triumph was much more obviously compelling than Assessor’s all those years ago. Assessor, for his part, raced on until six years of age, winning good staying races, later becoming a successful jumping stallion.
It must have been more than a little disconcerting for the English King team and the rest when Aidan O’Brien suggested after Santiago’s Irish Derby win on Saturday that it was not impossible that one or more of his runners, which included the first four home in that race, might be joining his already formidable Derby squad, headed by Russian Emperor, if they make the right signals on the gallops this morning.
I would be especially wary if he comes across with the neck runner-up, Tiger Moth. In only the third race of his life he stayed on so well in the last furlong that it momentarily looked as though Emmet McNamara might be following Padraig Beggy as a second consecutive unlikely winner of the Irish Classic. By the inevitable Galileo, he would seem an ideal candidate for Epsom Downs.
Beggy’s win on Sovereign last year was questioned in many parts after the apparent pacemaker capably fulfilled the first part of his task but palpably failed in the main objective, to usher home the Epsom hero Anthony Van Dyck, who never got nearer than his six- length second place at the line.
Sovereign had been off the track from one Derby Day to the next and put in a totally different type of display. He showed clear signs that, like the recently-retired Kew Gardens, who got the better of the Gosden champion on Champions Day at Ascot last October, he could become a challenger for the important staying prizes.
Seamie Heffernan held him up at the back of the field, and his strong run into a closing third behind smart stayer Twilight Payment in the Group 3 Vintage Crop Stakes was one of many highlights on a great Curragh weekend graced in magisterial style by Magical. Her Pretty Polly exhibition was a fourth Group 1 success among ten wins from 22 starts.
Meanwhile, back at Epsom, The Oaks is also up for grabs on Saturday and it will not be easy to wrest the initiative from the two Ballydoyle 1000 Guineas winners from either side of the Irish Sea, Love and Peaceful.