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By Major Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.) | 04 Jun 2021 |

The Epsom Derby may not be the oldest Classic in the world of horse racing but it is certainly the oldest and most prestigious of all Derbies run from Fair Grounds to Fuchu. This year, it is being sponsored for the first time by Cazoo, an online used cars dealership.

Crumbs of History

The origin of the race in 1780 and the toss of the coin which decided its name is, perhaps, too well known for a  repetition. Except for the first five years when it was run over a mile, it has generally been run on the Epsom Downs over a distance of 1 mile, four furlongs and six yards. At first, it was run on a Thursday, then on a Wednesday -- usually the first Wednesday -- and of late on the first Saturday in June. During war times it has been run at Newmarket and last year the current pandemic forced a postponement to July. Though the fillies are eligible to run, most of them prefer to participate in the Oaks. Six fillies have won the race, last one being Fifinella in 1914.

The Track

Most tracks in England have natural, picturesque settings and Epsom is no exception. Each track is different and has a different shape and a configuration that is unique.  The town of Epsom in Surrey is just 15 kms. south of Piccadilly. It was famed for its manganese rich springs and was a well known spa in its time. The racecourse, located two kms. south of the railway station, is amidst undulating downs and the track is a left handed horse shoe. The backstretch, a bit like a dog's leg, has a steady climb up to the highest point of the course from where the track swings sharply to the left and descends steeply to Tattenham Corner. Another sharp left-handed turn and then we have a little over three furlongs, straight and uphill, to the winning post. The pull-up is short but most horses are out of breath passing the winning post. The ups and downs are taxing and not all horses can maintain their action as they hurtle down to Tattenham Corner. There is no set script for the way the race is won. Serpentine made every post a winning one last year; Kris Kin, Authorized, New Approach, Pour Moi and Wings of Eagles swooped from the rear of the field while Galileo, High Chaparral, Motivator and Sea The Stars were handy at the Tattenham Corner. Though some rain has been forecast on the Oaks day, good going is anticipated for Saturday.                                     

The Trends

Racing trends are like clues in a who-did-it story. They are very much there but not all lead to the culprit and it requires a Sherlock Holmes to unravel them. We have had twenty renewals of the race this millennium throwing up eight winning favourites. Fourteen of the winners had won their previous starts and the other six had bagged a paying place, four in the Two Thousand Guineas either at Newmarket or Curragh. The Coolmore stalwarts Galileo and Montjeu, both sons of Sadler's Wells, have been dominant, siring nine of the winners. With five winners of the race, Galileo now stands on the podium ahead of Waxy, Sir Peter Teazle, Cyllene, Blandford and Montjeu who have four each. Seventeen winners have either Sadler's Wells or the 'Blue Hen' Urban Sea in their pedigrees. Aidan O'Brien, the Master of Ballydoyle, has led in eight winners and Ryan Moore has ridden three. Seven favourites have failed to secure a paying place. Of the twenty winners this century, none had a Dosage Index higher than 2.00. 

Over the last ten years, the average size of the field has been 13 runners and the average field rating has been 107. None of the winners had a rating below the average field rating but only three top-rated runners managed to secure a winning bracket. 

The Race This Year 

Any discussion of the race must start with Aidan O'Brien. He first appeared in the Derby paddock with three runners in 1998. Since then, he has fielded 88 more in twenty two years, that is to say, an average of four every year. In Authorized's year, he had as many as eight and only thrice before -- in the years of Oath (1999), Sinndar (2000) and North Star (2004) -- was he represented by a solitary runner. At the start of the week, the Ballydoyle Battalion was six strong. On Wednesday, O'Brien hinted --and thereby dropped a bomb -- that Bolshoi Ballet could well be his only runner on Saturday. This sent the betting market in a tizzy. O'Brien was as good as his word. Earlier, he mentioned that it would be difficult for his main jockey, Ryan Moore to overlook Bolshoi Ballet. By declaring only the favourite, the trainer has spared the jockey from having to make a choice.  Exactly a dozen runners will report to the Starter on Saturday and average field rating is 111 (Hannon's Mojo Star is still a maiden after two starts and is yet to be rated).

Bolshoi Ballet (Galileo - Alta Anna by Anabaa) (DI 0.77), who heads the market, is the lone Ballydoyle runner to have won a lead-up Trial. His winning margin in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial Stakes, Gr.3 at Leopardstown has been the widest of all Derby Trials this year. In that race, his detractors pointed out,  he beat nothing much. Subsequently, Mac Swiney, a poor fourth at Leopardstown, has come out and won a stirring Tattersalls Irish 2000 Guineas, Gr.1 from stable-mate Poetic Flare who had earlier captured the Qipco Two Thousand Guineas, Gr.1 at Newmarket. Though Mac Swiney is now rated higher than Bolshoi Ballet, the latest result only adds gloss to the favourite's form. Bolshoi Ballet's full-brother Southern France, also trained earlier at Ballydoyle, is a Group winner over 2800 the favourite should not be short on stamina. The only time he has failed to come on board in his five starts was in the Criterium de Saint-Cloud, Gr.1 where the going was heavy. He is from the same family as Cape Verdi, the last filly to run in this race in 1998. Backable last week at 5/2 in some places, he has now hardened into a 11/10 favourite and could well be odds-on at the starting time. The stable is in good form having bagged a Guineas at Newmarket, Curragh and Longchamp.

Mac Swiney (New Approach - Halla Na Saoire by Teofilo) (DI  - 0.36) is clearly a horse whose performance is related to the state of the track. Jim Bolger's ward has four wins so far from eight starts; two -- Tattersalls Irish 2000 Guineas, Gr.1 and Vertem Futurity Trophy Stakes, Gr.1 -- have come in heavy going; he won the Galileo Irish EBF Futurity Stakes, Gr.2 on soft ground while his maiden win came on a track described as 'yielding'. By contrast, he has raced thrice on good going and finished five lengths or more behind the winner. Dual Gr.1 winner, the only Classic winner in the race, a rating higher than all his rivals and by a sire who  won this race and has also sired a winner, give Mac Swiney four very good reasons for support. He is very much a Bolger horse -- bred and trained by Jim Bolger, owned by his wife and to be ridden by his son-in-law Kevin Manning. Like most horses bred by Bolger, there is close inbreeding in his pedigree with Galileo figuring 2x3. Bolger has won this race with New Approach but in the last fifty years no winner of the Irish 2000 Guineas has captured the Epsom Classic. 

It was only two years ago that we saw a runner in the Godolphin colours winning this race. It was through Masar that the dream finally came true. The Team Masar (Godolphin, trainer Charlie Appleby and jockey William Buick) is back this time with Hurricane Lane (Frankel - Gale Force by Shirocco) (DI 0.27).  Hurricane Lane is unbeaten in three starts as were Galileo, Motivator, Camelot, Ruler of the World and Golden Horn in their years. Hence, it is surprising that Hurricane Lane is on offer at 8/1. His sire Frankel is Galileo's obvious heir apparent and it is a question of when -- not if -- he gets a winner of this race. Hurricane Lane's elder full-sister, Frankel's Storm, has scored over the Derby distance for Mark Johnston. The Godolphin hope goes into Saturday's race having won the Dante on his last start in a workmanlike fashion, two lengths ahead of High Definition who has been scratched but was much better supported in the ante-post market. Hurricane Lane is related to 2016 winner Harzand on his dam's side and his work at home has been impressive. The other two Godolphin runners are stable-mates One Ruler (Dubawi - Fintry by Shamardal ) who is from the family of Teenoso and Sir Percy and Adayar (Frankel -- Anna Salai by Dubawi), second in the Lingfield Derby Trial Stakes, Gr.3. Given his dam's name, is Adayar a corrupted form of Adyar, the river which flows through Chennai  ?  

The four other Trial winners deserve a mention and consideration. Chester Vase, Gr.3 was won this year by Youth Spirit (Camelot - Rocana by Fastnet Rock) (DI 0.78)  who is trained by Andrew Balding. The trainer's father, Ian Balding, sent out Mill Reef exactly fifty years ago to win this race. Andrew Balding has trained a winner of the Epsom Oaks in Casual Look but is looking for his first Derby victory, though he has had runners finishing in the frame. At 33/1, Youth Spirit is currently the longest priced of all Trial winners. Twenty three years ago,  Sheikh Mohammed Obaid al Maktoum's own-bred High Rise won the  Derby Trial Stakes, Gr.3 at Lingfield and went on to win the Derby. That same Derby Trial has been won this year in the same colours by Third Realm (Sea The Stars - Reem Three by Mark of Esteem) (DI - 0.09). The Roger Varian trained-colt, like High Rise, is bred by the owner and will be having his fourth start in the Derby. 

The Listed Fairway Stakes, run at Newmarket over ten furlongs, is the youngest of lead-up races, having been instituted only in 1998. Some of its winners have run in the Derby but none has so far won. This year's winner, John Leeper (Frankel - Snow Fairy by Intikhab) (DI 0.60) has the pedigree to be seen in a better light. Ed Dunlop, who trains John Leeper, also had the charge of his dam whose eight wins included six Gr.1 victories in four countries highlighted by the Oaks at Epsom and Curragh. John Leeper, who has a bit to find on form, will be Ed Dunlop's first Classic runner in five years. The trainer's late father, John Leeper Dunlop, won the Derby with Shirley Heights and Erhaab. In the Fairway Stakes, the colt was ridden by William Buick. With Buick being claimed by Godolphin for Hurricane Lane, Adam Kirby gets the ride. Interestingly, Kirby had once ridden his dam Snow Fairy. The other Trial at The Headquarters is the Newmarket Stakes, L won this year in a canter by Mohaafeth (Frankel - French Dressing by Sea The Stars) (DI - 0.18). He is inbred 3x3 to Urban Sea, runs in the colours of the Late Sheikh Hamdan and is trained by Lester Piggott's son-in-law William Haggas who trained the 1996 winner Shaamit.

No trainer in England has saddled more winners than Mark Johnston whose Gear Up (Teofilo - Gearanai by Toccet) is a dual Group winner at 2. He won the Acomb Stakes, Gr.3 at York and then made all in heavy going to win the Criterium Saint-Cloud, Gr.1 over 2000 m. where Bolshoi Ballet was only fifth. Gear Up just missed the board in Hurricane Lane's Dante Stakes, Gr.2 on his seasonal reappearance. Bred by Jim Bolger -- like Mac Swiney -- he should come on after having a race under his belt. He is being quoted at the outlandish odds for a colt who is a Gr.1 winner. 

In the three races that he has won so far, Bolshoi Ballet has been prominent throughout, grabbed the lead early and challenged his rivals to get him. As the only Ballydoyle runner, all guns will be trained on him and what tactics Ryan Moore employs on Saturday will be interesting to watch.  The Starting stalls are placed in the centre of the course and draw does not show a definite bias. For what it is worth, Bolshoi Ballet is drawn 9 in a field of 12 as was High Chaparral in 2002. 


Finally, some -- not all, it has to be emphasised -- Indian connections.

*  Only one winner of the Epsom Derby has set his feet on the Indian soil. That is the 1999 winner Oath who later stood as a stallion -- after a stint in Japan -- at the Pratap Stud. 

*  Maharaja of Rajpipla is the only Indian to have led in a winner. He did so with Windsor Lad in 1934.

*  Trainer O.M.D. "Ossie" Bell was an Aussie who saddled the 1928 winner Felstead. He started training in India and then went on to England.

* Only one Indian jockey has ridden in The Derby at Epsom. Pandu Khade was astride Maharaja of Baroda's Bhishma in the 1947 renewal. Bhishma was only a pacemaker to his owner's better fancied Sayajirao. From a difficult draw, Khade got Bhishma to the front and the favourite Tudor Minstrel had to stretch much earlier than planned to get a handy position. Bhishma retired after having done his job while the early exertion told on the suspect stayer Tudor Minstrel. Sayajirao was in the reckoning for a long way but eventually the French horse Pearl Diver and the Aga Khan's Migoli beat him to a third place.
*  The Aga Khan and Sir Victor Sassoon won nine Derbies between them. The Aga Khan, who was born at Bombay,  and Sir Victor Sassoon, first started racing in India. Sir Sassoon was a Chairman of the R.W.I.T.C., Ltd. for many years and a man very much instrumental in nourishing Indian breeding. However, by the time both won their Derbies, they were living abroad.