Whether the story is apocryphal or otherwise, it is recorded that in 1848 the distinguished statesman Benjamin Disraeli encountered Lord George Bentinck in the library of the House of Commons in London. Despite having bred the Derby winner of that year, Surplice (by Touchstone), Bentinck was downcast because a year or two earlier he had sold his home-bred (to Viscount Clifden), thereby "shooting himself in the foot" since leading in a Derby winner was his life's ambition.
When Bentinck lamented that Disraeli did not appreciate the significance of the race, the latter is believed to have replied: "Indeed I do. It is the Blue Riband of the Turf".
Saturday, June 2nd 2012, sees the 233rd renewal of the Blue Riband, an event so significant in the life of a thoroughbred that equivalent races are run in virtually every racing jurisdiction around the globe. It is the ultimate test of a racehorse and the stated aim for dozens of three-year-olds which are entered each year in an attempt to bring home the coveted prize. However, in 2012 the race has drawn a field of just 9 colts, which is the smallest since Orby obliged in 1907.
Somehow, despite (or because of) the presence of an unbeaten runner in the shape of the appropriately-named Camelot (by Montjeu), this year's Epsom Derby has lacked its usual "buzz", in stark contrast to, say, last month's Kentucky Derby. The Irish-trained colt is an inmate of the Ballydoyle yard of Aidan O'Brien, a canny handler of high-class horseflesh who has won close to 200 classics around Europe. It seems strange, then, that he has annexed the Epsom Derby only twice – through Galileo in 2001 and High Chaparral the following year. Could Camelot be the one to end the ten-year-long drought? Certainly the bookmakers think so, as the Qipco 2000 Guineas winner is quoted at odds-on (8 to 13). The colt's riding duties have been assigned to the trainer's son, Joseph O'Brien, who has a cool head but is light on experience at Epsom.
It's a maxim of racing that one should not back a horse at odds-on that is being asked a question. In this case there are as many as three for Camelot to answer: question # 1 is "will he stay" (probably), question # 2 is "can his rider cope with the tricky Epsom course" (possibly) and question # 3 is "is he good enough" (probably)? So while he ought to remain unbeaten, one cannot confidently assert that he will prevail.
After all, the Guineas form has not worked out so well: Coupe de Ville, who was fifth behind Camelot at Newmarket, ended only seventh in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, while Hermival and Trumpet Major, third and fourth respectively in the Guineas occupied the sixth and last places in the Abu Dhabi Irish 2000 Guineas last week even though both were well fancied. Finally, Camelot's current rating is some 3 to 4 points below that of the average Derby winner.
On the other hand, Camelot does not have to beat a rating, nor a clock – he has merely to beat 8 rivals. And if none of them are in the same league by way of ability, he can do it.
Accompanying him from Ireland is stablemate Astrology (by Galileo), a wide-margin winner of the Stobart Barristers Dee Stakes at Chester three weeks ago, and one supposes the elder O'Brien would not mind if victory in racing's jewel came through this runner, who is to be ridden by Ryan Moore. No doubt the younger O'Brien would take a different view! The current market price is 8 to 1.
The home defence is headed by Bonfire (by Manduro), trained at Kingsclere by Andrew Balding, and guided by that old India-hand, Jimmy Fortune. The Highclere-owned hope won the principal Derby trial, the Betfred Dante Stakes at York just 16 days ago in the manner of a good 'un. It takes a really talented horse to win the "Dante" and there is plenty of stable confidence that the 9 to 2 shot will light up Epsom.
Like O'Brien, Balding is double-handed. He also fields Minimise Risk (by Galileo), who has been perceived by the market – he is quoted at 100 to 1 – as being in the line-up for pacemaking purposes.
The third favourite, after Camelot and Bonfire, is the Niarchos homebred, the unbeaten Main Sequence (by Aldebaran), one of only two chestnuts in the field. A winner already over 12 furlongs – he is coming off a victory in the Betfred Lingfield Derby Trial – he is also well-bred, his fourth dam being that grand racemare Northern Trick. David Lanigan and Ted Durcan teamed up with Meeznah to go very close in last year's Investec Oaks, and are hoping, no doubt, to go one better in an Epsom classic this year. Certainly 10 to 1 about a runner that has won 4-from-4, and stays well, is an attractive price.
American owner George Strawbridge, Jr., part of whose fortune comes from a share in the Campbell Soup Company, is a great fan and supporter of British racing and has chosen to have his home-bred colt, Thought Worthy (by Dynaformer), trained in England with John Gosden. The colt has been brought along patiently and rewarded connections by annexing the Fairway Stakes when last seen. Stable jockey William Buick gets another chance for classic glory on the 16 to 1 hope.
Battle-hardened Mickdaam (by Dubawi), who has already run nine times, gives Yorkshire trainer Richard Fahey the opportunity to saddle his first-ever runner in the Blue Riband. He is one of 6 starters in the race who scored last time out, in his case victory coming in the MBNA Chester Vase 23 days ago. Champion jockey Paul Hanagan is at the controls on the 33 to 1 hope of the North.
That brings us to Rugged Cross (by Cape Cross), who finished third to Thought Worthy at Newmarket on May 19th. Hailing from Henry Candy's stable at Wantage, he has regular rider Dane O'Neill aboard for the big test. Should they win, backers would multiply their investment 50-fold.
Finally, lady rider Hayley Turner has been booked for Cavaleiro (by Sir Percy) who has plenty of racing experience, and who checked in third at Lingfield behind Main Sequence last time out. Marcus Tregoning's ward has quite some leeway to make up in the ratings and is offered at 66 to 1.
Following the dictum that unbeaten horses need to be followed till beaten, one's short list would have to consist of Camelot and Main Sequence, with Bonfire – whose only loss came when facing adverse circumstances – thrown in to complete the picture.