Reflections on the Derby
There really is no race quite like the Derby. The roller coaster track, the electric build-up, the sky-high stakes and expectations, it has it all. Last Saturday’s renewal was one of the most hotly-anticipated in recent years thanks to the presence of a potential Triple Crown candidate in SAXON WARRIOR and while that particular dream died on the Downs, what we witnessed was a fabulous horse race that could well be referred back to in the years ahead as being a turning point in the one of the great rivalries in the long history of horse racing.
Much had been made of the potential impact of the draw and race tactics in the build-up to this year’s Derby and what transpired didn’t disappoint. Unsurprisingly, the pace of the race was unrelenting and there was no hiding place. When all was said and done, it was the Charlie Appleby-trained MASAR that emerged the 1½ lengths victor in the Godolphin silks, but that only tells a fraction of the story.
Masar’s performance can be marked up given that it took him a while to settle in mid-division and he briefly got unbalanced on the entrance to Tattenham Corner. From there however, it was plain sailing with William Buick being able to peel him to the outer and pick up well to lead, maintaining his balance all the way down the straight and never looking in serious danger of being challenged.
This represented a change of tactics for Masar who had generally been ridden very forwardly in his races and he seemed well suited by it. While some in behind shaped better than the bare result, there can be no questioning of the authority with which Masar won. He may have brought a strong level of form into the race, but the only conclusion to draw is that he improved for a combination of the longer trip and the more patient tactics.
Masar’s win was also a highly-significant result in terms of the bigger picture of the decades-old rivalry between Godophin and Coolmore. While Godolphin have held their own in the breeding sheds by producing stallions such as Dubawi, Shamardal, Exceed And Excel, Iffraaj, New Approach and Teofilo, on the racecourses of Europe it has largely been one-way traffic in favour of Coolmore in the biggest Group 1 races for the last decade.
While there are many theories as to why this has been the case, the origins are likely to be primarily threefold.
Firstly, Godolphin’s decision to self-exclude from buying untried horses sired by Coolmore stallions from September 2005 onwards resulted in them largely missing out on being involved in the rise of the unstoppable Galileo which has played such an important role in the Coolmore dominance of the last decade.
Secondly, the exit of Frankie Dettori from Godolphin in 2012 resulted in multiple changes in riding arrangements in the years that followed. Finally, the huge steroid scandal surrounding Mahmood Al Zarooni led to a seemingly endless string of personnel and policy changes in the Godolphin operation around the world that have still yet to fully settle down. Indeed, it was only a year ago that Chief Executive John Ferguson walked away from the organisation after very public grumblings by Godolphin trainer Saeed Bin Suroor which resulted in another chain of personnel and policy changes.
However, amongst all the chaos and change, the last year or so has seen Godolphin make a comeback on the racetrack. They secured a total of nine Group 1 wins in Europe last season with the likes of Ribchester, Harry Angel and Barney Roy and their new head trainer in Australia James Cummings has made a fine start in that role since his appointment in early-2017. That this comeback commenced in the same year that Godolphin decided to bring their boycott of untried horses by Coolmore stallions to an end has only served to raise hopes that the old rivalry between Godolphin and Coolmore could well be about to become a proper contest again and Masar’s victory on Saturday has poured fuel on that fire.
With the next generation of Godolphin in Sheikh Mohammed’s children Sheikh Hamdan (who also owned the runner-up Dee Ex Bee) and Sheikha Al Jalila being very much involved in receiving the Derby trophy, it was a powerful message that Godolphin are very much here to stay. As well as there being set to be sons and daughters of Coolmore sires racing in the Godolphin silks as two-year-olds for the first time in over a decade this year, hopes will be high that the old rivalry between Godolphin and Coolmore can come full circle and return to the levels of fierce competiveness that prevailed between them 20 years ago.
Even for those that find themselves in one camp or the other, all are likely to agree (even if it is through gritted teeth) that competition is healthy and the sport of horse racing will be the biggest winner if that rivalry once again flourishes.
The beaten horses
Much of the pre-race focus was on the Aidan O’Brien-trained SAXON WARRIOR as he bid to complete the second leg of a potential Triple Crown, but it was not to be.
While not being helped by being drawn in the increasingly infamous stall one, Saxon Warrior was perhaps even more inconvenienced by being drawn on the opposite side of the track to the majority of his stable mates. This contributed to Ryan Moore finding himself in the nightmare position of being hemmed in on the rail by Masar and Dee Ex Bee. The dangers of that situation were hammered home just before the three furlong pole with both those rivals aggressively closing a potential path to the outer for Saxon Warrior and Roaring Lion soon did the same. By the time Saxon Warrior had open ground in front of him with just under two furlongs to race, he became unbalanced on the camber and could only find one pace thereafter to finish fourth.
Saxon Warrior wasn’t helped by meeting the trouble he did, as it really isn’t easy for an inexperienced colt to show their best around Epsom when their stride pattern is being interrupted. However, he was ultimately beaten 4½ lengths and will have a lot of ground to make up on Masar if they meet again in the Irish Derby. With both camps having indicated that they are thinking along those lines, it will be a rematch to relish if it comes off.
The Mark Johnston-trained DEE EX BEE ran a fine race in second, confirming that a more positive ride than he was given in his first two starts this season would show him to better effect. He appeals as having stamina in abundance and looks a leading candidate for the St Leger at Doncaster.
The John Gosden-trained ROARING LION ran right up to his best in third. Fears that he may not get the trip and would struggle to handle the camber in the straight proved to be unfounded and he ran a fine race in defeat without ever really threatening to win.
The Dermot Weld-trained HAZAPOUR was ridden closer to the strong early pace than many might have expected and the aggression with which he raced in the early stages very much hindered his cause. He travelled as well as anything, but quite clearly didn’t get the trip. Progeny of his sire Shamardal are generally seen to best effect at shorter trips than a mile-and-a-half and it seems that is the direction he will be sent down. He remains a high-class prospect.
Of the rest, the John Gosden-trained SEVENNA STAR wasn’t helped by the drying ground, but his race was effectively over after less than a furlong after he was very badly squeezed out and went from being the heels of the leaders back to last position. His run can be forgiven.