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By Major Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)
Sunday 09 Feb 2014
Major Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)

" When most military campaigns and battles are analysed, there is an over-emphasis on what the winning side did right. Victory often owes much more to the mistakes committed by the vanquished." Carl von Clausewitz.

In the 72 year-old history of the Indian Derby, there are only four occasions  when the odds of each of the first three finishers were in double figures. All the instances have been in this millennium with the latest one coming just last week. As expected, it has led to an intense debate and hastily formed opinions have been bandied about. Now that the dust has settled, it is perhaps time to take a closer look at Alaindair's Derby.


The decision to go straight to the Derby after the 2000, missing the customary lead-up race, shifted the spotlight entirely on Murioi and Jeremiah. That would have lifted a tremendous amount of pressure from the trainer. Pressure is contagious and animals perceive it instinctively.

Alaindair had won his two races in Bangalore going start to finish. On his re-appearance in Mumbai, he was brought from behind but he ran an aggressive race in the 2000 and was well beaten by Murioi. Once the tactic of coming off the pace was decided on for the Derby, the choice of Srinath, a more experienced jockey than Sandesh, was appropriate.

When Murioi made his move, Srinath angled Alaindair away from the rails and came through the middle. That was a crucial decision because had he waited for an opening on the inside, he may never have got one as Starry Eyes galloped on and never left the rails. 


The whole town said that the Murioi was the horse to beat and Jeremiah was the one who had the best chance of doing it. Put yourself in the shoes of Jeremiah's trainer and come up with a plan to humble the favourite. The plan (and this is pure hypothesis) conjured up was a brilliant one. It was anticipated that the Oaks winner would go to the front and that suited the Shroff camp to a T. Just as an insurance, Archie was left in. His job was to sit just behind Isn't She Special to ensure that she stuck to her task. They also knew that Murioi would never leave Jeremiah out of his sight and would not permit the grey to steal march. They were also aware that Murioi had never essayed the distance previously and any chink in his stamina could be exploited by making him come too soon. To do that they would have to sacrifice Jeremiah and they were prepared to do so. After all, they still had Circle of Life up their sleeve !

Except in the Pune Derby, Jeremiah had always been ridden well off the pace. Here he took a handy position just behind Archie. As they swung around the final corner, Jeremiah moved up to challenge Isn't She Special on her outside. The Oaks winner dug deep and did not cave in. Jeremiah, however, had done his bit and Murioi had swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. It was Murioi who went past Isn't She Special as Jeremiah retired. Murioi, however, was not in the clear for Starry Eyes came up along the rails and Alaindair loomed on the outside to match strides with him. Around the 200 m. mark, Alaindair finally wore down Murioi and as the favourite began to drop out as first Starry Eyes and then Circle of Life edged past him. The grand plan had worked ! Circle of Life had beaten Murioi !! A small matter, perhaps, that Alaindair and Starry Eyes were not part of the plan.

It has to be reiterated that this is a hypothetical script. However, watch the replay and compare it with the script. The points which emerge are:-

       *  Neither Murioi nor Jeremiah have been ridden so much with the pace in most of their previous races.

       *  Circle of Life was last or second last at the bend. In previous races, she had held a more forward position.


Seventy two Indian Derbies have been run and approximately a thousand horses have participated in them. Only four horses (Alaindair, Starry Eyes, Circle of Life and Jacqueline) have run a faster Indian Derby than Murioi. Another way of putting it is that Murioi would have won 70 of the previous Indian Derbies. It is also a fact that Murioi beat Isn't She Special and Agostini, two Gr.1 Classic winners over the distance. So whether he stayed or did not stay is a matter of opinion.

Ability to stay or not stay is not a finite attribute. It is relative. Relative to horses you run against, the pace of the race, the going and when the final effort is called for. Isn't  She Special, a course and distance winner, finished 10th in Alaindair's race with Starry Eyes, Circle of Life and Amazing Grace whom she had beaten in the Oaks reversing the placings here. Agostini, who came to Mumbai after winning the Bangalore Derby, finished behind five horses who had never gone beyond  2000 m. earlier. So, are Isn't She Special and Agostini stayers or non-stayers ?

Racing is not about formulas and figures. It is about being at your best on a particular day. However, it has to be mentioned that Murioi has a lower CD (which translates into potentially better stamina) than those who finished ahead of him. With three winter Derby winners, it can now be averred that Multidimensional does add some stamina to his progeny. That is not surprising given his pedigree and racing record. It makes Multidimensional-Razeen cross likely to have a bit more stamina than the overall pedigree.  Yet,it is also true that Alaindair has had four siblings to race - two of them by Steinbeck who has sired two winners of the Stayers' Cup, Gr.1 and none of them has won beyond a mile.


Fans of Alaindair are adamant that the switch to jockey Srinath paved the way to success. Equally convinced are the legion of Murioi followers that substituting Sreekanth with Chris Hayes spelt doom of their horse. Both Srinath and Hayes were riding their respective mounts for the first time in a race in the Indian Derby.

What may not be generally known is that once it was decided to put Srinath on Alaindair, a plan to integrate the horse and jockey was quickly put into place. Srinath rode Alaindair in a mock race and his final piece of work. Besides, as an Indian jockey,  Srinath would have accumulated, first hand knowledge of Alaindair having raced against him twice in Bangalore. Hayes would surely have studied the videos of Murioi's previous races but the first time he actually sat on the son of Dubawi was probably on the Derby Day.

The connection between a jockey and a horse is all important. Frankel was a great horse; Tom Queally, who rode Frankel in all his fourteen races, is an average jockey. It is hard to imagine that the late Sir Henry Cecil ever thought of severing the partnership no matter how important the race. Jagdish never won a black-type race on Prince Khartoum; Wally Swinburn never lost one on the same horse.

The most heart-warming moment of the day came after the horses had passed the winning post and were pulling up. Jockey A. Sandesh, who had been jocked off Alaindair and had himself finished an agonising second on Starry Eyes, drew up alongside Alaindair and was the first person to shake Srinath's hand. It was a tremendously graceful gesture and for that alone it is hoped that his turn to be an Indian Derby winning jockey doesn't take too long.


That is a fact as it has been so recorded in Stewards' Report. Rolf Johnson, formerly "The Scout" of Daily Express, London was in India to see the Derby being run. Earlier, he had gained first hand knowledge of the sport as an assistant to well known trainers Capt Ryan Price and Toby Balding. Rolf, who is associated with Highclere Thoroughbreds these days, was asked how much difference the loss of a plate made.

"I will tell you of a recent case," he said. "One of the Highclere horses lost a plate during the race and the jockey said he was not aware of it. The horse's trainer William Haggas - son-in-law of Lester Piggott - said that it made no difference to the result." Rolf Johnson paused for a while and then mentioned that he asked Haggas - "If it doesn't make a bloody difference, don't you think you could save us a few quid by way of farrier charges by entering them unshod ?" That, indeed, was in jest.

Rolf Johnson went on to add that it was difficult to say what the effect of a loss of a plate was. His personal opinion was that it must make some difference. You don't have to run; just try walking with one shoe. You should get the answer.


The Indian Turf Invitation Cup has been run seven times previously in Hyderabad at the end of the winter seasons. The details of how the Indian Derby winner fared in those seven contests are given below. They are of academic importance because all those events were confined to four year-old.

       1983 NELSTON (third to COLUMBIA)

       1988 CORDON BLEU (did not run)

       1993 ASTRONOMIC (did not run)

       1998 STAR SUPREME (third to FOREST FANTASY)

       2003 NOBLE EAGLE (Un Placed) behind ZURBARAN

       2008 HOTSTEPPER (seventh to SWEEPING SUCCESS)

       2009 ANTONIOS (second to AUTONOMY)