The first Pune Derby, run in 1984, was sponsored by Splendour Deluxe and won by the filly Prudential Champ. In the 27 runnings so far, the race has showcased five future winners Amorous Knight, Desert Warrior, Astonish, Indictment and Forest Fantasy of the Indian Derby/Invitation Cup. That's one more than what Deccan Derby (Nelston, Chaitanya Chakram, Delage and Starsky) or the Mysore Derby (Midnight Cowboy, Chaitanya Chakram, Delage and Elusive Pimpernel) have provided despite having been instituted a decade or so earlier.
The significant point is that the last such winner was Starsky in 2001. Racing trends, like fashion, are subject to constant changes. Unlike Mysore or Hyderabad, Pune has no Fillies' and Colts' Classics leading to the Derby. The stepping stones to the Pune Derby have been the traditional races F.D. Wadia Trophy (1400 m.), Gen. Rajendrasihnji Gold Cup (1800 m.) and the S.A. Poonawalla Million (1600 m.). In its first dozen renewals, the winner of the Pune Derby had won one of these three races nine times. In the next 15 runnings only three Pune Derby winners (Artois, Venus Arsing and Secret Memory) all in the last ten years have done so indicating that the trend has changed. Only the Dhunjibhoys their Nanoli Stud has sponsored the race since 1996 have led in more than one winner and they have done so through Tobler, Artois, Venus Arising and Aquilo. Six four Dhunjibhoy winners, Versaki and Ocean and Beyond of the ten favourites have been successful while seven of the winners had won their previous start over a mile or more.
The favourite this year, in all likelihood, will be the unbeaten Cardinal (Placerville - Haunting Beauty) owned by the Shirkes. This full-brother to Six Speed and Haunting Memories made his racing debut only during the current Pune season and has won both his races. He started off by winning the 21-runner Khushro K. Jalnawalla Million and followed up with a victory in the S.A. Poonawalla Million, beating Haunting Fantasy. Produce of his dam herself or her daughters has so far not thrown up a winner beyond a mile so Cardinal is venturing into uncharted waters. Placerville has sired more Indian St. Leger winners than any other stallion in India so there is the possibility and certainly hope that Cardinal has a bit more puff than his brilliant full-sisters. On the other hand, Placerville is yet to sire a winner of the Pune Derby so if Cardinal is to win, he has to accomplish two 'firsts'.
The highest rated horse in the field is the Dhunjibhoy owned Picasso (Black Cash - Allies Serenade). Rattling off four victories on the trot after his rather ordinary debut, Picasso tasted a rare defeat this year when taken to Hyderabad for the Colts' Championship Stakes, Gr.3. His foray to Malakpet was questioned by some not very aware of the history. Two Tobler and Aquilo of the four Dhunjibhoy Pune Derby winners had won that race as a lead-up and the owners were merely following an established trend. Some horses fail to act on the 'dead' Monsoon track at Hyderabad and Picasso needs to be given a benefit of doubt. If Cardinal's speedy dam-line sows some doubt about his ability to get the trip, it is Picasso's sire that causes apprehension. Black Cash is a useful winner producer but most of his produce tends to be comfortable upto a mile and he has only one Classic winner Vijayraaj to his credit so far. Both Cardinal and Picasso have been systematically tracked by Pesi Shroff though it is learnt that the former will be saddled by M.K. Jadhav and the latter by Shyam Habbu on Sunday while the trainer is on his enforced 'sabbatical', should his legal suit against his suspension be disallowed.
The last three Pune Derbys have been won by 'got-abroads' (Phenominale, Versaki and Ocean and Beyond, all ridden by C. Rajendra) and hoping to extend that trend will be Maddox (Holy Roman Emperor - Nojoom), the winner of this year's Threptin General Rajendrasinhji Million. Maddox's grandam is a half-sister to triple Gr.1 winner and successful sire Oratorio. He certainly has the pedigree to get the job done. Holy Roman Emperor is a successful sire and has to his credit that tough and ultra consistent Bolger-trained filly Banimpire this year. Incidentally, Banimpire's Rahy half-sister Aunt Dottie is in India at A.B. Stud.
In mid-September, after some of the Wadhwan horses had moved to him, Dallas Todywalla sent Lake Michigan (Mr. Mellon - Pacific Fleet) - then rated just 47 and Ocean and Beyond for a morning spin and the younger horse hacked Ocean and Beyond by a distance thus fostering the belief that Ocean and Beyond was "not the horse he was". Ocean and Beyond improved subsequently in his workouts and ran a fair second in the Indian St. Leger while Lake Michigan easily won a mile race his second on the trot that very day. Pacific Fleet, the dam of Lake Michigan, is a full-sister to Allied Forces (Bangalore St. Leger), Perceived Value (Golconda St. Leger) and Camacho who is going for the Golconda St. Leger shortly having won two 2400 m. races at Pune recently.
Also carrying the Wadhwan colours will be the filly Hills and Stars (Razeen - Altitude). The filly won her second start in Mumbai over 1800 m and is a last start winner in Pune over a mile. Her only defeat in just three starts came on her debut and that defeat was inflicted by ST Catz. St. Catz was short-headed by In The Spotlight effortless winner of Deccan Derby on Sunday in Bangalore. Hills and Stars is a full-sister to Bangalore Derby, Gr.1 winner Flashing Star and three-parts sister to Adamile. Trainer Vinayak has been patient with her and she has been pleasing the clockers in her morning work.
On ratings there isn't much to choose between Maddox, Lake Michigan, Hills and Stars and Haunting Fantasy (Diffident - Scenic Royale). The last named is trained by Karthik Ganapathy for Dr. M.A.M. Ramaswamy. Scenic Royale herself is a past winner of the Pune Derby but was essentially a miler. Diffident is not exactly prepotent for stamina though he has sired Secret Memory, the 2006 winner of the race so Haunting Fantasy comes across as more of a Guineas-type in the winter. Cardinal gave her 4 kgs. and a three-quarter length beating and as the terms give the filly only 1.5 kg. allowance, it is hard to see her turning the tables on her conqueror. In The Spotlight's three-parts brother Marauder (a course and distance winner), Attila's full-brother Saratoga Spring, Suryaveer (a full-brother to Deccan Derby winner Sparks) and Pronto Star are among the left-ins, much lower in ratings with Suryaveer still a maiden. Some of the horses discussed here are also entered in other races over the week-end so may prefer to take their chance in shallower waters.
Picasso and Cardinal have a healthy advantage in terms of current form but one cannot be absolutely certain about their stamina for the 2000 m. trip. Haunting Fantasy is also a doubtful stayer and worse off with Cardinal vis-a-vis their last meeting. Maddox, Hills and Stars and Lake Michigan will get the trip but need to step up in class. So it is an intriguing contest. Add to that the uncertain weather. During the last week, Pune has seen heavy downpours on some of afternoons. A cloudburst over the week-end could affect the going and bring another imponderable into the equation.