03.06.2023, Epsom Downs, Auguste Rodin with Ryan Moore and connections (Michael Tabor 2nd right from the horse) after winning the Derby at Epsom Downs. Photo GALOPPFOTO/ Racingfotos.com

Monday Musings: The Derby’s Record-Breaking Connections

For the past three years, observers of the British Turf have been all agog awaiting the equalling of the best-known of all Classic records – the late Lester Piggott’s nine Derby wins as a jockey, writes Tony Stafford.

He was kept in suspended animation as Aidan O’Brien was poised on eight as a trainer when outsider Serpentine collected in 2020, just 19 years after Galileo gave him the first victory. When Piggott died on May 29 last year, the record, to his still very active mind, remained intact.

Well, it isn’t any longer and, while Saturday’s extraordinary victory by winter favourite but 2000 Guineas flop Auguste Rodin has prompted the record-compilers to regard Aidan as the joint record-holder, two men actually share the honours with ten.

The first Derby was won by Diomed in 1780. His owner, Sir Charles Bunbury, famously the man who lost the toss with the then Earl of Derby to have the destined-to-be great race named after him, won it again 33 years later.

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Others in between enjoyed a quicker repeat win, and sometimes as the decades and centuries wore on, with more than two. Among its winners were kings, princes, noblemen of all levels and Prime Ministers, mostly past. Never would any of those great gentlemen of the realm have considered that a young man born and bred in East Ham, East London would – with his partner – eclipse them all, and within a remarkable 22-year span. Aidan does have nine, but in between, Pour Moi, trained by Andre Fabre, makes ten.

When the first Coolmore triumvirate, instigated more than half a century ago, and founded on Robert Sangster’s Vernon’s Pools money, Vincent O’Brien’s training brilliance, and Vincent’s son-in-law John Magnier’s all-round knowledge of horses and business acumen, was beginning to wane – Royal Academy’s 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile win under Lester was the final positive - it fell on Magnier to take charge.

Robert had the expense of Manton to take precedence; Vincent was about to retire and son David, who won the Derby with Secreto six years earlier when El Gran Senor was supposed to win for the team – he got the show back on the road in Secreto’s absence at The Curragh, was out of love with training and went to be a wine grower in Europe.

With Vincent leaving, it needed somebody special to take his place at Ballydoyle. Many were surprised at Magnier’s selection, which fell on a young man who had only recently taken out a licence.

A former amateur rider with Jim Bolger, Aidan O’Brien (no relation to Vincent) had joined his wife Anne-Marie (nee Crowley) in her training base where she had followed her father Joe and instantly become champion jumps trainer in Ireland.

Still in her early 20’s, she promptly retired to have their first child Joseph, and Aidan took up the reins, following her as champion over jumps and attracting Magnier’s shrewd notice. Aidan had started with Bolger when Tony McCoy was a young apprentice and Willie Mullins was also in the team.

Even earlier, at least 45 years ago when he was based in White’s Gate, Phoenix Park, Bolger told me that his ambition was to train a stable entirely of his own home-bred horses. How remarkable that he has pretty much achieved that aim and at the same time has been responsible for putting the three most influential individuals (himself and Magnier apart) in UK and Irish racing – the best flat trainer, the outstanding jumps trainer, and the best jump jockey of all time – on the righteous, unwavering path.

Bolger’s wish came so close to happening over the years, brought closer when he sent out homebred Teofilo, then acquired at auction New Approach, both unbeaten champion two-year-old winners of the Dewhurst from the early crops of Galileo, the latter winning the Derby in 2008. These two came at the start of a remarkable spell of five wins in six years. O’Brien has a total of eight, six coming from the next nine years.

It was only the astounding prices commanded that compelled the former accountant to swerve (slightly) from that ambition and accommodate Sheikh Mohammed’s interest. It has ensured that his family’s Redmondstown stud in his home Co Wexford, run by granddaughter Clare Manning (daughter of Una and Kevin Manning) has the resources to continue to thrive.

If identifying the training talent was important to John Magnier, it was even more fundamental to ensure a stream of investment to maintain and, as it proved, improve on what had gone before. Michael Tabor was already owning horses with Neville Callaghan, enjoying big-race success with the likes of Danehill Dancer and Danetime, both sons of Danehill.

Danehill Dancer eventually became a successful stallion at Coolmore and was a great producer and broodmare sire.  Meanwhile Tabor was minded to invest with the great US handler and former college basketball coach, D Wayne Lukas, king of the Breeders’ Cup. They promptly won the 1995 Kentucky Derby with Thunder Gulch.

I remember a call the following morning from his then close associate Victor Chandler saying: “Unbelievable. It could only have happened to Michael.” Previously one of the leading figures in racecourse betting activity, and about to cash in his off-course Arthur Prince betting shop empire, this was success right out of left field.

As with all successful men, he didn’t marvel at it, unbelievable as it clearly was to those who knew him best, but he made it a starting point, and while finding his ally in racing with Magnier and Coolmore, his business interests also burgeoned.

His greatest pride is in his family. Son Ashley Tabor-King is founder and boss of the massive and ever-expanding Global broadcasting company which has an on-going programme of projects aimed at giving a helping hand to young people, many from under-privileged backgrounds.

Meanwhile, within the Coolmore family, it wasn’t long before the dividends started. Michael timed his membership with the first Derby success for the trainer and for Galileo, by Sadler’s Wells, son of Northern Dancer, the stallion John Magnier and O’Brien senior convinced Robert Sangster that they had to invest in from US auctions if they wanted to compete on the world stage. Nijinsky and Sadler’s Wells were among the first.

Two equine generations on, recently deceased Galileo is having a similar overwhelming influence on the breed. His son Frankel has developed into the leading stallion for providing Classic horses although, as ever, breeding needs to outcross, and Auguste Rodin is the product of the fantastic multiple Group 1 mare Rhododendron (Galileo – Pivotal mare cross) by the multiple Japanese champion, Deep Impact. Now the Tabor ownership figure stands after Saturday at a mind-boggling ten – from just 23 renewals of the great race.

All through that time, the measured way Michael, John and their long-term associate Derrick Smith – in for the last eight – have modestly taken the success – and respected the unique nature of a race founded 243 years ago and which is yet to have been stopped by Wars, Covid and even would-be horse-racing-ending Animal Rising protesters.

Rightly, the Derby Roll of Honour is a short-cut to an understanding of the history of the sport from its days when a few dozen rich men matched their charges against each other up to the business where massive pots of country wealth have been grafted, with the aim of making their rulers pre-eminent in the annals of turf.

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The winner of the Derby is a unique beast. He needs the speed to stay in touch with the pace and again to settle any lingering doubts as they go for home. He requires the adaptability to cope with the bends, cambers, rises and descents over these 12 furlongs of historic Surrey downland, and the resolution and temperament to handle the extraneous demands of a massive crowd that challenges their still only part-developed strength and character.

Derby horses are far from the finished article, but the race has proven to be the perfect test over time. Aidan O’Brien knows what’s needed so, while everyone was cogitating as to whether he was crazy or not after the unexpected flop of Auguste Rodin in the 2000 Guineas, the trainer himself was adamant that he was special; and his word is his bond for Messrs Magnier, Tabor, Smith, their sons and the other members of the ownership team such as Westerberg, the racing operation of auto magnate, Georg von Opel.

I had a fabulous trip with Harry Taylor and Alan Newman to Ballydoyle/Coolmore, I think four years ago now, met Galileo at Coolmore and had a nice look at the O’Brien team on the gallops. The lot we saw – second I think – consisted of 70 and all the jockeys, which included Adrian Maguire and Dean Gallagher to name but two – were instantly identified by name by the trainer.

Likewise, the horses. Afterwards in a quiet moment, I asked Aidan if he ever betted. Now excuse me if I have the number wrong but I’m pretty sure what he said was: “I did at one time when I was with Jim Bolger. My first 15 bets all won. The next one lost and I’ve never had another one since!”

I truly believe no other trainer would have dared run the horse that finished so far back at Newmarket, and Roger Varian for one is wishing he didn’t. Roger was described as looking “gutted” when visiting the boys in the box on Saturday; no wonder, for otherwise his King Of Steel, a 66/1 half-length runner-up on stable and seasonal debut, would have been a near five-length Derby hero.

Varian, who won the St Leger for Derrick Smith’s son Paul with Kingston Hill, is sure to gain further attention for, like O’Brien, he was fulsome in the constant encouragement of his colt’s chances, despite the massive odds.

Aidan might not be a betting man nowadays. The three main Coolmore owners certainly have been. In each case, though, they have transcended their earlier status to the extent that, thanks to Aidan O’Brien, their place in the fabric of the English Turf will be forever as the most important players in the history of the Derby. Nothing more, nothing less!

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