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By Anil Mukhi | 03 Jul 2020 |

It was the 12th Earl of Derby who founded the mile-and-a-half Classic race carrying his name that is the pre-eminent event for three-year-olds in Britain. That race is also the model for dozens of equivalent events around the globe. First contested in 1780, the Investec-sponsored Epsom Derby will be run for the 241st time this Saturday, July 4th, at Epsom Downs, Surrey, England, at 4:55 p.m. BST (9:25 p.m. in India). Even accounting for the difficulties faced during the World War years, never has The Derby been run in more peculiar circumstances as in 2020!

For a start, the race is being run a month later than usual. It is also the first time when it will share billing on the same card as the Oaks – which would make it the first occasion when these two Classics were carded on the same afternoon. It is also unusual as regards the cancellation of the original entries, all 356 of which were made when they were yearlings. And finally, it will make history as the first to be run without spectators. All these profound changes are thanks to a microscopic organism, the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19, which has upturned the entire world. One has to be grateful that the race is being run at all!

Prize money has taken a big hit, with the winner set to earn a mere £283,550.00, a far cry from the corresponding figure – the munificent sum of £921,537.50 – picked up by last year’s winner, Anthony Van Dyck (by Galileo). Sixteen three-year-olds have been declared, all colts (geldings are not permitted). Their preparation has been most unorthodox, with races like the King Edward VII Stakes acting as trials, while established lead-up races like the Chester Vase and Dante Stakes are yet to be run. The race even features a couple of maidens and none of that category have scored for 133 years.

Favoured at 11 to 4 – eased a fraction after picking up the unfavourable starting gate position of # 1 – is the Ed Walker-trained English King (by Camelot). The fluent Lingfield Derby Trial Stakes winner, sporting the Bjørn Nielsen silks made so popular by Stradivarius – sees a jockey change. In order to buttress the colt’s chances, connections have brought in the irrepressible Frankie Dettori, twice successful previously in the Epsom Derby from 24 previous attempts, to replace the talented but relatively inexperienced Tom Marquand, who will partner Andrew Balding’s second string instead in the shape of Khalifa Sat (by Free Eagle) at 33 to 1. 

That move brought back memories of Roberto, whose owner famously replaced Bill Williamson by the “Master of Epsom”, Lester Piggott, who drove the American-bred to a memorable triumph over the hapless Rheingold in 1972. The start will be crucial – any sluggishness on the part of English King will see him trapped along the rails and on track to be hampered by exhausted front-runners dropping away. His trainer is not overly concerned by the draw.

If you believe he will stay, you can potentially quadruple your money with Kameko (by Kitten’s Joy), the Qipco 2000 Guineas winner and the top-rated runner in the line-up, 7 points clear of the next highest-ranked. Trained at Kingsclere, Berkshire, by Andrew Balding – whose father Ian sent out the great Mill Reef in 1971 from the same establishment to annex the Blue Riband – and to be ridden by the up-and-coming Oisin Murphy, the Qatar Racing representative has every chance. The laid-back colt is the solitary Group 1 winner in the field and won his Guineas in record time. The Guineas/Derby double has been accomplished twice this century (Sea The Stars in 2009 and Camelot in 2012). 

Provided his rider is able to switch him off for the first 9 or 10 furlongs, Kameko’s turn-of-foot should see him home. Some will make much of the fact that no runner drawn 11 has won the Epsom Derby since the institution of starting stalls in 1973, but as the adjacent draw (#10) has a disproportionate 10 winners, well clear of any other, logic says this displacement of a yard or so can hardly be an impediment.

Inevitably, the Investec Derby draws a battalion from Ballydoyle in Ireland and this year’s squad from the famed yard, presided over by Aidan O’Brien, is six-strong. The betting market usually prices them in the same order as the fame of their riders, namely the mount of Ryan Moore is the best-fancied, followed by the mount of Seamie Heffernan, etc. That is indeed the case here too, with the former’s chosen one, the 3.4 million guineas acquisition Mogul (by Galileo) quoted at 5 to 1, followed by the latter’s selection Russian Emperor (also by Galileo), available at 7 to 1. 

Given his exalted purchase price, Mogul has a lot to live up to and his trainer has made no secret of the fact that he would have preferred two lead-up races rather than just the one. The victorious finishing effort of Russian Emperor at Royal Ascot was eye-catching, even though it came at a level much weaker than this. It’s noteworthy that Heffernan has agreed to step out of Ireland for this weekend’s races – he will be in France as well on Sunday – as he will be forced to quarantine for 14 days on his return to Ireland and thereby miss a ton of rides. 

Three years ago rider Padraig Beggy astounded the International turf by bringing home O’Brien’s Wings Of Eagles in the Derby at 40 to 1. This time he is piloting a much shorter-priced runner who is as low as 10 to 1 in Vatican City (by Galileo), a brother to Gleneagles. This likeable colt ran a blinder when runner-up in the Tattersalls Irish 2000 Guineas to Siskin. Once again pundits are assailed by fears about his stamina and only the race will tell us if their opinions are well-founded. Emmet McNamara also makes the journey across the Irish Sea to assume charge of the controls aboard the 25 to 1 Serpentine (by Galileo), a runaway maiden winner just last week. He will probably make the running and needs to be kept on the right side as he is certain to see out the trip. Like Heffernan, both riders mentioned here face an enforced holiday in quarantine on their return to the Emerald Isle.

Godolphin’s retained pair of William Buick and James Doyle also figure amongst the riders in this race – although they will be partnering mounts from arch-rival Coolmore instead! It being impractical for Aidan O’Brien to bring all his retained jockeys from Ireland, notably Wayne Lordan, due to the quarantine issuesmentioned, the schooler has chosen to offer the ride on the maiden Amhran Na Bhfiann (by Galileo) to the first-named and on Mythical (by Camelot) to Doyle but as they are at 100 to 1 and 66 to 1 respectively, one doubts if this venture will be attended with a Derby victory.

Four other runners have credentials of some sort. These include the tall Highland Chief (by Gleneagles), conditioned by the father and son team of Paul and Oliver Cole, who made an encouraging start to his 2020 campaign; Max Vega (by Lope De Vega), from the flying Ralph Beckett barn, who should come on from a tepid seasonal debut; David SImcock’s Mohican Heights (by Australia), winner of both his starts at 2, who will appreciate his recent lung-opener and the added distance; and the seasoned Pyledriver (by Harbour Watch), bought back by connections as a yearling for just 10,000 guineas, who had both Mohican Heights and Mogul behind him in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot. The big, good-looking Pyledriver hails from the Lambourn yard of William Muir, whose son-in-law Martin Dwyer takes the reins. Dwyer won the Epsom Derby with Sir Percy and the McDowell Indian Derby with In The Spotlight, so has shown he is a man for the big occasion – he will be riding his chilled-out mount from behind.

Seventy-five minutes before the Derby, a mere 8 fillies would have been around the unique track for the latest renewal of the Epsom Oaks over the same mile-and-a-half course. It’s safe to say the field would have been bigger in normal times and also to point out that this is essentially a two horse race between a pair of trainers who have between them won the last six renewals of this prestigious Classic. 

Coolmore’s Qipco 1000 Guineas victress, Love (by Galileo), tutored by Aidan O’Brien with Ryan Moore up looks like the proverbial “good thing” at around Evens. All she has standing in the way is Anthony Oppenheimer’s John Gosden-schooled Frankly Darling(by Frankel), whose owner-breeder has produced the winners of all the Classics in England bar this one. While the latter filly, a big, strong, almost masculine type is entitled to improve for her last effort in the Ribblesdale Stakes, so too is Love as the offspring of Galileo thrive with added distance.