Kevin Blake

In a week where Aidan O'Brien dominated trials for the Derby in England and Ireland, Kevin Blake takes a closer look at likes of Sir Dragonet, Anthony Van Dyck, Broome et al.

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What was a murky picture for the Derby has become much clearer in the last week following trials at Chester, Lingfield and Leopardstown. The story of the trials thus far has been the dominance of Aidan O’Brien in them. The question of which of his candidates now has the best credentials for Epsom is very much in debate, with the following poll on the subject generating a great amount of discussion on Twitter.

The one that has clearly captured the public’s imagination the most is Sir Dragonet who ran out the surprise winner of the Chester Vase on Wednesday. The son of Camelot had only made his debut 13 days earlier when defying second-string status to win a run-of-the-mill maiden at Tipperary in impressive style.

Following that win, Aidan O’Brien was evidently very surprised by his performance, saying that the colt had “obviously been sleeping” at home and hadn’t shown them anything like the ability he showcased at Tipperary.

Fast-tracked to the Chester Vase just 13 days later, he was again his stable’s second string in the face of what was a significant step up in class. Indeed, after just two furlongs it looked as though Sir Dragonet was set to be found out in quite dramatic style, as he was soon detached from the remainder of the field as he struggled to keep tabs on his more experienced rivals.

However, he gradually warmed to his task and he came alive from the four-furlong pole, making eye-catching headway widest of all and quickly taking control over a furlong out, sprinting away to beat his better-fancied stable mate Norway by eight lengths.

Visually, it was a very taking performance, his closing sectionals stood out on the day and his connections have indicated he will be supplemented for the Derby after it. However, I can’t help but think that the market has overreacted to his performance in installing him as the general 3/1 favourite for that race in the days that have followed.

While it is clear that Sir Dragonet has a huge amount of ability, talent alone isn’t enough for the unique test of the Derby. It is billed as the ultimate test of the thoroughbred for good reason and it requires a horse to have a great many tools other than raw talent.

Sir Dragonet may well develop those tools in time, but whether they will be present and sufficiently sharpened in time for June 1st, just 37 days after his racecourse debut, must be open to question.

In his two starts to date, Sir Dragonet has never had to race in amongst horses. He has never had to come through horses. The two tracks he has raced on are pancake flat. The ground has been soft on both those occasions and he displays enough knee action to raise a question as to whether he will be as effective on firmer ground, particularly if he meets it on a track with significant downhill sections such as those at Epsom.

While he did look a quite laid-back colt at Chester, he was heard to whiny on a couple of occasions. If he isn’t completely focused on the job at hand at Epsom, the Derby experience and atmosphere will ruthlessly expose that.

As much as anything, given how outpaced he was in the early stages at Chester, one wouldn’t need to have to a wild imagination to see him struggling to cope with the early exchanges in the Derby. It tends to be a fiercely-run race and he will never have experienced the tight quarters and punishing climb of the first five furlongs of that race.

If he finds himself out of his ground and having to make significant headway on the downhill turn into the straight, will he have the tools to do so in an efficient manner? It must be a significant question mark.

Thus, as talented as Sir Dragonet looks, personally I would find it hard to fancy him for the Derby, particularly so at 3/1. He may well prove to be the best of these in the long term, but the Derby could well prove to be too much too soon for him.

With regard to the runner-up Norway, while he shaped with some promise in staying-on well to secure second after not getting the clearest of runs, his temperament would be a major concern should he run in the Derby. He got very sweaty indeed on what was quite a cold day and the prelims for the Chester Vase are a walk in the park compared to those for the Derby. He appeals as being more of a St Leger type.

The Dee Stakes at Chester was the next trial and it saw Aidan O’Brien saddle a 1-2 with Circus Maximus receiving 5lb from Mohawk and beating him with a degree of authority. It was a solid performance from the winner on what had deteriorated to heavy ground at that stage. 

He made good use of his experience and clearly stays well, but it wasn’t a performance that stamped him as a potential Derby winner in my book. One could see him being ridden positively at Epsom and being found out at the business end.

There was encouragement to be taken from the run of Mohawk, given he was conceding 5lb to the winner and came from much further back than him. That said, it was a solidly-run race (finishing speed of 96%) and the quiet ride he was given may well have served to flatter him slightly.

As well as that, the manner in which he edged left under pressure wouldn’t want to be repeated at Epsom, as the camber there will brutally expose any such tendency.

Next up to the plate was the most experienced and highest-rated of any of O’Brien’s Derby trial runners, Anthony Van Dyck. The son of Galileo had spent much of last season looking in need of further when running over seven furlongs and having had a minor setback five weeks ago, O’Brien didn’t have the time to run him over a stepping-stone trip this season, upping him straight to 11.6 furlongs for the Lingfield Derby Trial.

The son of Galileo produced a winning performance that wasn’t spectacular in visual terms, but it certainly ticked many of the most important boxes with a view to Epsom. He settled well over the longer trip, he handled the downhill section of the track very well and he put the race to bed in good style.

It is important to remember that this is a horse that looked notably unsuited by ground softer than good last season, so for him to do what he did on what was the softest surface he has ever encountered at Lingfield is worthy of upgrading.

In terms of the level of form, while it doesn’t look overly strong, it is interesting to note that he beat Cap Francais by 5¼ lengths and that horse had got to within ½-length of the O’Brien-trained Cape Of Good Hope in the Blue Riband Trial at Epsom back in April.  

Based on his performance at Lingfield, Anthony Van Dyck must now be considered all-but-sure to stay the Derby trip and handle the undulations of Epsom. There is also little doubt that he will be much better suited by a sounder surface. As well as that, there must be a strong possibility that he will improve significantly from the run given the interrupted preparation he had for it.

Considering all of that as well as the fact that he was a better two-year-old than every other Derby prospect bar Too Darn Hot, it is surprising to me that his performance wasn’t greeted with more enthusiasm by the Derby market. He looks a very strong prospect for the race.

The most recent of the Derby trials was the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown on Sunday and it saw Broome supplement his wide-margin win in the Ballysax Stakes with another authoritative, but arguably unsexy victory.

Indeed, “unsexy” is probably a fair description of Broome’s career thus far. Despite improving with each of his five starts as a juvenile, he ultimately finished the season with just a win in a maiden to his name and a neck second to Royal Marine in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp.

Such a record as a two-year-old is difficult to cast off when put alongside flashier, unbeaten types, but Broome has shown in his two starts this season that he has improved from two to three and looks far more comfortable being ridden with a bit of patience over middle-distances.

He has already proven himself to be versatile with regard to ground and that he handled the downhill section of Galway with aplomb on just his second career start offers encouragement that he will handle the challenge that Epsom presents.

One of the stones that Broome’s detractors are likely to throw at him is that coming off the bridle as early as he has in his two starts this season will be punished in the Derby. However, I think there is reason to suspect that won’t be an issue for him on the day. For one, the step up to a mile-and-a-half promises to allow him to travel more comfortably, but a key factor could be his temperament.

Broome is a son of Australia and Aidan O’Brien has spoken in very interesting terms about that sire. O’Brien has said that of all the thousands of horses that have come through Ballydoyle in his time, Australia was unique in that he didn’t have a flight response. He was laid back and unflappable in his demeanour to an almost freakish degree. O’Brien has since observed that Australia is passing on similar temperaments to many of his progeny and all indications are that Broome is one of those.

With this in mind, it was interesting to hear O’Brien emphasise after the Derrinstown that Broome may not be the dour stayer that he has appeared to be in his two starts this season, suggesting that he is masking his pace behind a veil of laziness. The significance of this with a view to the Derby relates to how horses tend to respond to the Derby experience.

The drawn-out preliminaries and relentless atmosphere tends to fire most horses up, potentially sending those that live life on the edge of their nerves over that edge. However, for those that are notably laid back like Broome, the Derby experience can serve to fire them up and switch them on in a way that brings out the very best in them.

Broome in action winning the Derrinstown Stud Trial
Kevin feels the atmosphere on Derby day could bring Broome further to life

The combination of the longer trip and him being fired up in a good way by the Derby experience could well see Broome deliver a much-improved performance on the day that matters most. To me, he looks to have leading credentials for the Derby.

Of course, there is still one major Derby trial to come in the shape of the Dante at York and the scene could well be turned on it’s head by that. O’Brien is likely to unleash his final big gun in the shape of Japan and he could well be greeted on the Knavesmire by the outstanding juvenile of last season Too Darn Hot.

As informative as that promises to be, in my book it will take a big performance from either of them to raise their Derby credentials up to the level currently set by Anthony Van Dyck and Broome. Those are the two I have at the head of the pack, with marginal preference given to Broome. 

Kevin Blake
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