Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake has extensively analysed the 2019 Epsom Derby.

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An in-depth dissection of a fascinating Derby

In terms of a Flat race, there is nothing like the Derby. Running the most historically-significant and important of races at a track that almost seems custom-made to catch out and exploit any physical or mental inadequacies in what is a fundamentally fragile breed seems like madness. However, it is a beautiful madness that serves a very important purpose in sorting out the wheat from the chaff in pursuit of the most well-balanced middle-distance horse to pass on their genes to future generations as stallions.

This year’s Derby looked a particularly open renewal and as it turned out, it remained wide open until the very final strides up to that famous piece of wood in what was a chaotic finish. When only ¾-length separates the first five home in a well-run Derby, it is inevitable that there will be some scepticism as to the level of the form. Time will reveal just how strong the form is, but right here and now, breaking down the race with a view to speculating which might prove to be best from a mile-and-a-quarter to a mile-and-three-quarters in the coming months makes for a fascinating process for those of an analytical inclination.

The one that emerged on top was the Aidan O’Brien-trained ANTHONY VAN DYCK. He had shown himself to be a talented and tough juvenile in a seven-race campaign, albeit one that made him more exposed than all of his rivals. His winning return in the Lingfield Derby Trial had been impressive not so much because of what he beat, but that he won well on soft ground that he has never looked comfortable on, over a trip that would have been a question mark for him based on his juvenile form and off the back of an interrupted preparation. Thus, there was a clear case to be made for him as a potential winner if he could come forward from Lingfield and he duly did.

However, for a horse with so much experience both in terms of number of runs and of a somewhat similar track to Epsom in Lingfield, Anthony Van Dyck didn’t necessarily show that in the Derby. Sharply away under Seamie Heffernan, he was soon eased back into mid-division in a well-covered, ground-saving position on the rail. From there, he didn’t travel with fluency that one would expect from one with his CV and was ridden along over four furlongs from home. While Seamie didn’t get the splits he was looking for just inside the three-furlong pole, that may well have proved to be a significant blessing in disguise, as while he was waiting, conserving and switching for room, his main rivals were playing their hands. That delay, coupled with a bit of luck when Madhmoon edged right rather than left to open a gap for him, allowed him to deliver his challenge last of all down the inside and seize victory.

The next steps for Anthony Van Dyck will be interesting. The Irish Derby would seem the logical place to go, but where he goes after that will be even more interesting. For a horse with his profile as a two-year-old, he has adapted very well indeed to the demands of middle-distance racing. While he doesn’t look like one that needs to step up in trip to contest the likes of a St Leger, he shapes like one that would have the necessary tools to do so if required. If he happened to be beaten in the Irish Derby, that path is likely to become more likely, but should he progress again to follow up at the Curragh, taking on older horses over a mile-and-a-half is likely to be his role for the remainder of the campaign. While he may not have been heralded as a vintage Derby winner in the immediate aftermath of the race, he deserves his chance to advance himself in his next few starts before he is damned with faint praise.

For winning jockey Seamie Heffernan, he is likely to look back on this as a career highlight. An ever-present member of the Ballydoyle team that has seen many retained jockeys come and go, he has never griped about his supporting role in the team. Rewards for loyalty don’t get much bigger than the Derby, but it is worth noting that this was the 30th Group 1 win of his career. Only a very select group of currently active riders in this part of the world can match that tally.  

It is also interesting to note that Anthony Van Dyck was born on May 19th, making him a notably late foal. This is the second year in succession that an Epsom Classic has been won by such a young horse, with last year’s Oaks being won by Forever Together who was born on May 25th. Mare owners, it isn’t too late, the Derby or Oaks winner of 2023 may not even be conceived yet!

Just a ½-length away in second was Madhmoon. His defeat denied the race what would have been one of the great Derby stories of recent decades, as 86-year-old Kevin Prendergast saddling the winner of one of very few races that eluded his legendary father Darkie Prendergast would have been a genuine fairy tale result. It wasn’t to be, but Kevin has a high-class colt on his hands that will have excellent prospects of winning a Group 1. Indeed, it could be argued that on another day, he might well have won this Derby.

One can only imagine Chris Hayes must have been delighted with how the first half of the race went for him and his mount. Having started on terms, he dropped into cover on the rail, following the eventual winner behind the brisk pace. Crucially for a horse stepping up 50% in trip, Hayes got Madhmoon beautifully settled.

However, he hit his first speedbump at the four-furlong pole when Hayes, seeing Anthony Van Dyck immediately in front of him coming off the bridle and looking in trouble, edged Madhmoon out in a bid to go around him. Hemmed in by Japan on his outside, Madhmoon clipped a heel and stumbled. Having quickly regathered his mount, Hayes finally found open country in front of him as the field reached the road crossing, which is just shy of three-and-a-half furlongs from home. The below image shows exactly what positions each horse held at that point of the race.

What happened from there to the two-furlong pole very much shaped how the final result looked, particularly for Madhmoon. Having finally found room, Madhmoon made up approximately six lengths on the leader from the road crossing to the two-furlong pole. As the next image illustrates, that move completely changed the complexion of where he was positioned relative to his four rivals that he dominated the finish with him.

Madhmoon gained at least three lengths on all of them in what was the hottest part of the race and thus the most expensive time to gain ground in energy terms. That he kept galloping and battling as well as he did to hold onto second is a testament to his talent and will to win. Make no mistake, it was a huge effect in defeat.

Madhmoon has plenty of options going forward. His connections would be entitled to be keen for a rematch with all of those rivals in the Irish Derby later this month. Though, the prospect of him being supplemented to drop back to a mile-and-a-quarter and take on older horses in the Eclipse at Sandown is also likely to be considered. Wherever he goes, the promise of even better to come from him should be clear.

Just a nose away back in third was the O’Brien-trained Japan. Much was made this year about how Sir Dragonet sneaked up on the Ballydoyle team, but all the evidence suggests that Japan has been a big surprise to them every step of the way too. Sent off as his stable’s third string on his debut, he was sent to Listowel on heavy ground to win his maiden and was again his stable’s third string when winning the Beresford Stakes. While he was a popular public hope for the Derby this season, he has been incredibly weak in the betting prior to both the Dante and the Derby, yet he continued to seemingly defy expectations by running a stormer on Saturday.

The story of his race is a straightforward one to tell. In a nutshell, Wayne Lordan gave Japan a well-judged ride of efficiency that seemed to show his mount to the very best effect.

Having been slightly shuffled back due to bunching in the early stages, Japan was settled towards the rear in amongst all the other horses that dominated the finish. Lordan didn’t panic in the straight, opting to draft behind the improving Broome to the two-furlong pole rather than pull widest earlier than that, before delivering a well-timed challenge to all-but nab second on the line. That Lordan dropped his whip 100 yards out doesn’t appeal as having been a difference maker and was the only blemish on what was otherwise an excellent ride. While Japan may well find natural improvement from this career-best effort, Wayne Lordan did everything right in seeking to get the very best out of him on the day in the Derby.

A further short-head back in fourth was the O’Brien-trained Broome. While he hadn’t moved everyone’s needle in winning the Ballysax and the Derrinstown, there was a case to be made for him improving for both the longer trip and his somewhat lackadaisical demeanour being fired up by the feverish atmosphere surrounding the Derby. While he duly did improve, one can’t help but feel that on another day he would have shown even more.

The issues that Broome and Donnacha O’Brien faced on the day can be traced back to the start. Broome had missed the kick by two-to-three lengths in both his starts this year and having got restless in the gates on Saturday, he was slow to start by at least three lengths. This put him last in line amongst the main protagonists, which is unlikely to have been where Donnacha had hoped to be given his mount’s attributes.

Aware that he didn’t want to be too far out of his ground on a horse that promised to stay well, Donnacha took the initiative just inside the seven-furlong pole, moving from the two-wide path to a three-wide path and asking his mount to improve. As the below images show, the first being from just inside the seven-furlong pole and the second being the aforementioned road crossing slightly less than three-and-a-half furlongs from home, Broome made up significant ground on all the main protagonists in that section of the race.

While making up ground in the middle part of the race is rarely as expensive in energy terms as doing so when everything else is quickening, Broome had to do it widest of all with no cover around a bend, which has its own energy costs.

Despite the energy cost that had to be paid for it, that move appeals as being a necessary one, as Broome’s finishing effort thereafter was one of relentless steady progress towards the leader rather than anything more explosive. Having got a shade unbalanced on the camber and then getting crowded inside the final furlong, Broome stayed on dourly to the line and indeed was in front soon after the line. Had Donnacha opted to take the medicine that his mount’s tardy start had prescribed to him and waited until into the home straight to ask for effort, Broome may not have had the necessary change of gears to get competitive from so far back.

There is certainly a case to be made for Broome being better than the bare form he showed on Saturday. If had he started on terms and been able to take a more forward early position, that may well have been a significant difference maker. What he showed on the day is that stamina would seem to be his forte. The Irish Derby looks a natural next target for him and there is plenty of reason to think that he can reverse form with those that finished in front of him at Epsom. Though, in terms of a longer-term view, he looks one that would be very well suited to the demands of the St Leger.

The final member of the quintet that delivered such a stirring finish to the Derby was the O’Brien-trained Sir Dragonet. Despite being the favourite for the race, he arguably had more questions to answer than any of his rivals. A mystery to his connections that emerged from the unraced and unheralded wilderness to make a winning debut just five-and-a-half weeks earlier, he had ye to race on ground firmer than soft (according to Timeform) and had only raced on flat tracks. All of that coupled with how detached he had been from the field in the early stages in the Chester Vase meant there was significant fears that the Derby would be all too much too soon for him.

However, all of those fears proved to be largely unfounded. Having got a little bit wound up in the preliminaries, Sir Dragonet proved to be significantly sharper than he was at Chester, jumping near enough on terms and essentially leading the group that pursued the pace-pushing foursome on the front end. As can be seen from the above images, he was the most forwardly placed of the main protagonists from the start and struck the front fully two furlongs from home. For one so inexperienced that had been up in the teeth of the race from an early stage to only give best inside the final 50 yards was a seriously good effort, one which there must be every chance that he can improve on going forward.

Those five finished clear of the rest, but there was plenty to pick through amongst the remainder.

Circus Maximus wasn’t helped by stumbling badly after exiting the stalls and deserves to be marked up a bit for finishing the best of those that helped force the pace.

Telecaster came into the race after lowering the colours of Too Darn Hot in the Dante just 16 days previous. The possibility of the Derby coming too soon after that and his highly-strung nature being a vulnerability on an occasion such as the Derby were well discussed beforehand, but his connections rolled the dice and supplemented him for the race. Unfortunately for them, both worries proved to be well founded, as he was wound quite tightly in the prelims, raced too exuberantly for his own good in the early stages and had no more to offer in the straight.

Bangkok was simply too free in the early stages to give himself any chance of making a meaningful impact at the business end of proceedings.

All told, this year’s Derby was absolutely fascinating from start to finish. The prospect of seeing the main protagonists meet again in the Irish Derby at the Curragh later this month is a very exciting one indeed. While Anthony Van Dyck was a deserving winner on the day, the cases for his nearest pursuers to improve on what they did at Epsom are clear and there would no doubt be great debate as to how the rematch will pan out.

What to make of the Ballydoyle dominance of the Derby

In the build up to the race, there was plenty of debate and comment about Aidan O’Brien having seven of the 13 runners. I will never understand this line of gripe. While O’Brien’s strong numerical representation may not be ideal from a “narrative” perspective, he has shown himself to be one of if not the best trainer of a Derby horse of all time, so who better to be entrusted with delivering a Derby horse to the race in the best possible order?

All seven of his runners had shown strong enough form to justify being given their chance in the Derby and all seven of them were produced on the day to run up to or beyond their best previous form. As a neutral observer, analyst or punter, what more could one want? Having O’Brien’s name next to a Derby runner should only increase one’s confidence that they will match or advance their form on the day that matters most and after that it’s up to the individual to sort out which one they think will be best. Would it be preferable for the same horses to be trained by someone else that is less likely to deliver them to show their best on the day just for the sake of having more variety in terms of the trainers involved? Not for me.

With five of O’Brien’s runners finishing in the first six home, it must surely go down as one of the finest training achievements seen in the recent history of the race. Yet, it didn’t generate much comment at all, such is the standard of achievement everyone has come to expect from Ballydoyle and Coolmore. One suspects that the full historical significance of what we are currently witnessing from those operations and indeed from Galileo as a sire will not be fully appreciated for a long time to come. That is a great pity, as true sporting excellence is a very rare thing indeed.

Kevin Blake
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