Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Our Irish expert puts the Derby Trials under the microscope to identify the most promising of the Ballydoyle contingent

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There is a replica of Tattenham Corner on one of the Ballydoyle gallops and if the few remaining Derby trials go the way of those already run then it might be as well to move the whole show from Epsom to South Tipperary on the first Saturday in June.

Already Aidan O’Brien has won the Ballysax, the Blue Riband Trial, the 2,000 Guineas, the Chester Vase, the Dee Stakes, the Lingfield Derby Trial and the Derrinstown along with supplying placed runners in a number of those races so it is not unreasonable to think he could break his own record of eight runners in the Derby, that total coming in the 2007 race won by Authorized.

He has won the race six times from 74 runners this century with some trials in that period proving more informative than others. Of the six winners, two each came from the Derrinstown (Galileo and High Chaparral), the 2,000 Guineas (Camelot and Australia) and the Chester Vase (Ruler Of The World and Wings Of Eagles) but to get a sense of which trials were best it is better to look at the placed horses too.

I added up the expected placed runners for each Ballydoyle runner in the race since 2000 using starting price; ideally Betfair SP would be used but it wasn’t around in the early part of the period and I wanted to broaden the sample. So, for instance, a 5/1 shot is an even-money shot to make the frame, the 5/1 divided by the standard place terms of a fifth which means 0.5 expected places.

Below is a table of the significant trials by total runners, placed runners, expected places and the difference between the last two.

Trial Total Runners Placed Runners Expected Places Difference
Derrinstown24 7 6.9 -0.1
Chester Vase 13 5 3.1 +1.9
2,000 Guineas 8 4 4.9 -0.9
Dante 6 0 1.8 -1.8
Dee Stakes 5 2 1.8 +0.2
Lingfield Trial 5 0 1.1 -1.1
Everything Else 13 0 2.7 -2.7

The Guineas is the best pure trial in terms of runners hitting the frame as a percentage of total runners but will hardly be relevant this year with Magna Grecia likely to stay at a mile. The Derrinstown comes out ok but most of that comes from good returns early in the period; it has produced only one placed runner (Idaho in 2016) since 2009.

Both Chester races, especially the Vase which punches well above its weight, are interesting. O’Brien has developed a real fondness for the track since the Kieren Fallon days and while the course and Epsom are very different in some ways both are tight and turning while the May Festival brings the crowds close to the horses as on Derby Day.

It is a surprise to see the Dante do so poorly considering it is a valuable Group 2 and widely regarded as the preeminent UK trial while Lingfield has produced little of note, a sixth place finish the best any horse from that race has achieved. Horses having a non-traditional prep, running in any of the other races, have not been involved.

The historical record of the major trials is one thing but ultimately it is the individual horses that matter most. Cape Of Good Hope won the Blue Riband but is unlikely to be good enough while Circus Maximus has run to roughly the same level the last thrice and needs to improve to figure here; the step up to a mile and a half should bring progression though perhaps not enough.

Sir Dragonet hits the Chester Vase angle but his lack of experience could be an issue. Since 2000, O’Brien has run only five horses in the Derby that didn’t race as juveniles though interestingly the last two were US Army Ranger and Ruler Of The World, both of whom won the Chester Vase. Between them they won once from 18 combined subsequent starts so it is possible Epsom took a lot out of them.

Being without a run at two may be relevant but Sir Dragonet has taken a massive leap from first to second start and may well do so again; if so, he will be hard if not impossible to beat though tactics and luck will need to play a part if he is ridden as he was last time.

I had been sceptical about the form of Broome’s Ballysax win as it came in a race where the leaders went too hard early but am less so now. They went hard again in Sunday’s Derrinstown – though not as hard at as the Ballysax – but any sense that he is slow or lazy is harsh; his last three-furlong sectional was faster than any of those run by horses in the Amethyst Stakes or the 1,000 Guineas Trial on the same card, both of which were over a mile. Broome also impresses with his attitude.

In terms of experience it is Anthony Van Dyck that stands out of the Ballydoyle contingent and one could also argue he has the best form from his juvenile days. He was satisfactory at Lingfield, travelling well and seeing out the trip fine, without really impressing but the pertinent thing with him is that he had met a setback in the run-up to the race and was expected to need the outing.

Cases like this can give the lie to looking at the historical record of certain trials; the horse has to fit the trial but the trial must also fit the horse and if they need another week – as was the case with Anthony Van Dyck – then so be it.

He may have won the ‘wrong’ trial but could still be the right horse and that might apply to Japan too who has also been on the easy list for a time lately. Thursday’s Dante has not been the typical source of O’Brien-trained Derby winners but Japan was as short a price as any of them at the start of the year and if we have learned nothing from the trainer over the years it is that he has stayed at the top by changing and adapting his methods.


The recent Derby trials have not been all about the big race itself and it is worth mentioning a pair of Ballydoyle horses that ran well in defeat and are unlikely to go to Epsom.

Mohawk was second to Circus Maximus in the Dee and while the third Fox Chairman was unlucky, the runner-up shaped well in his own right under a five-pound penalty. He seemed to be ridden with the next day in mind, dropping back going out on the second circuit, but got back into the race wide on the home turn and ran on well, not given a hard time.

That was on ground slower than he ideally wants – his best effort at two came on good-firm – and it was interesting that O’Brien’s said afterwards that his ‘first reaction was [he] could stay at a mile and a quarter.’ He has a St. James’s Palace entry and perhaps they could even drop him to that trip.

Blenheim Palace was a revelation when second in the Derrinstown, sent out to make the pace as the outsider of the field and going too hard on the sectionals, but he stuck at it well in the finish despite the inefficient ride. This was a huge jump given he had won a handicap off 76 on his previous start and looks one to follow, allowing he may need time to get over this.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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