With just over a fortnight to go, I’m not sure I can remember a more fluid look to the Epsom Derby.
With each passing day, yet another contender is set to be parachuted in, whilst another looks set to miss the event in favour of Royal Ascot, France or Ireland. With so many arrows to shoot at the target it’s always going to be tricky to second guess Aidan O’Brien and the ‘Ballydoyle Boys’. But that’s a conundrum we’ve become used to over the years.
The lead up to this season’s Epsom Derby has become that much more bewildering thanks to a combination of factors, including; injuries, surprise results, rapid improvement from late-comers, and even a state of the art Equinome Speed Gene Test.
The case of Wings Of Desire typifies this year’s road to Epsom. John Gosden’s colt was in the Derby, then he was out, but after the Dante at York he’s likely to be supplemented back in again. The trainer made his original decision due to the colt’s delayed introduction to the racetrack. The son of Pivotal, made his debut in April with a satisfactory if not sparkling third place in a maiden at Newmarket. However, just 10 days later he ran a race full of promise at Wolverhampton, before the huge step-forward at York when winning the Group 2 Betfred Dante Stakes.
In a year with few standout contenders Gosden anticipates plenty to oppose his Dante winner. Reflecting on his 2007 Derby fourth Lucarno, when no fewer than eight represented O’Brien, he said: “I expect Aidan to turn up with six colts at least. US Army Ranger is a bloody good horse, as are Port Douglas and Deauville. I was at Deauville on Sunday and The Gurkha was impressive, but I think he beat Group 3 horses.”
The Gurkha’s progression has mirrored that of Gosden’s Derby hope. He also made his debut in April, finishing third, before a much improved performance 11 days later when running away with a maiden at Navan. His eye-catching victory in the French Guineas thrust him into the picture for Epsom, though he is by no means a certainty for the race. ‘The Boys’ will weigh up the options, though many believe his participation to be assured.
One that will not be supplemented for the Classic is the Dee Stakes winner Viren’s Army. Trained by Richard Hannon and owned by Middelham Park Racing, the colt could well head for the Irish Derby, where the cost to supplement is much less. Spokesman for the owners, Tim Palin said: “It took us more than a week to weigh up the pros and cons, see the rest of the trials, and get all the votes in. We fully appreciate there's only one Epsom Derby, but the £75,000 just proved too prohibitive considering our market position - we were 6-1 a place.”
Hannon had better news of his Lingfield Derby trial winner Humphrey Bogart, whose owners look set to stump up the dosh to supplement. Hannon said: “He's been in good form and the plan still is to supplement him. He didn't do much between Epsom and Lingfield, and he's only cantered since then, but I'm very happy with him.”
Though Chester’s Dee Stakes winner is giving Epsom a swerve, the runner-up, Linguistic, is set to make his case for the Derby in either the Fairway Stakes at Newmarket on Saturday, or a day earlier at Goodwood in the Cocked Hat Stakes. Gosden said of the Godolphin owned colt: “He could go to Epsom and could well be supplemented, depending on weather forecasts.” Yet another talented horse by Lope De Vega, Linguistic is out of a Montjeu mare, and though still to go beyond 10 furlongs, he has looked a strong stayer. It would not surprise me if he progressed into a St Leger contender.
From one possibly in, to another definitely out. Foundation will dodge Epsom despite his strong finishing third in York’s Dante. Harry Herbert, chairman of the owning syndicate, confirmed the colt would head for the French Derby on 5 June. “William [Buick] wasn’t able to extricate himself when he needed to, but he ran very well and was only beaten a length and three-quarters by the winner,” said Herbert of that York defeat. “William felt we should stick to a mile and a quarter for the time being. It will be very exciting for everyone involved to have a runner in the French Derby. I don’t think Highclere have ever had a runner in the race before.”
Another to suddenly arrive on the Derby scene is the Sir Michael Stoute trained Ulysses, a general 16-1 shot for the race, after breaking the maiden tag at the third attempt when storming to victory at Newbury last week. Another son of Galileo, he is out of Light Shift who won the Oaks in 2007, giving him an eye-catching pedigree for the Epsom showpiece.
“He won very nicely and has taken the race very well,” said Alan Cooper, racing manager for the Niarchos family, owners of Ulysses. “As for plans, we will regroup with Sir Michael, Ryan and the racing team and see what Sir Michael thinks we should do next. He’s in the Derby, but he’s just won his maiden. We are going to give his programme good thought and when we know, all will become clear.”
Should the team feel Epsom comes too soon, then an outing at Royal Ascot may well be his next step as he holds an entry in the King Edward VII Stakes. Prior to his maiden victory at Newbury, he had been narrowly beaten by Imperial Aviator at Leicester over nine furlongs. Roger Charlton’s impressive colt won the London Gold Cup at Newbury last week. The trainer has said that the horse should avoid an undulating track, and so rather than Epsom his next target could be the Tercentenary Stakes at Royal Ascot over 10 furlongs.
Another who’s Epsom participation remains in the balance is former favourite Midterm. An injury came to light after the disappointing performance in the Dante. Teddy Grimthorpe spoke of the beautifully bred colt, saying: At least it gives us some explanation of why he was so disappointing. We have to wait quite a few days and like everything we have got to be sure, so it will be a last-minute decision. Firstly, he has to be sound and secondly he has got to please - which is slightly difficult as he is not a great worker so it is hard to gauge on how he is going.”
Should Midterm be forced to miss Epsom then he too could head to Royal Ascot for the King Edward VII Stakes.
Finally, to Galileo Gold, who’s DNA suggests a trip to Epsom is out of the question. He runs in the Irish Guineas at the Curragh on Saturday, and depending on his run there, is likely to head to Royal Ascot. His plans are not set in stone, and in this of all years, it would come as no surprise should decisions suddenly change. Hold on to those antepost Derby bets - just for now.