Kevin Blake

Kevin looks ahead to Saturday's fascinating and unique Derby at Epsom.

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The eyes of the racing world will focus on Epsom this Saturday for a Derby meeting like no other. While there were fears the Covid-19 crisis would make it impossible to stage the Derby at Epsom, the local council and Jockey Club Racecourse worked out a solution. Now, it is being held as a one-day meeting a month later than usual under strict behind-closed-doors protocols. To make this possible, the in-field area will be closed to the public for 24 hours. It won’t be the Derby meeting that we know and love, but the most important thing is the Derby and Oaks will take place at the track that makes them so special.

The famed cauldron of noise created by 125,000 people on Derby day has contributed to the melting of many a Derby dream will be absent, but every other test the Derby presents will remain. The seemingly endless journey to the start, the brutal 41 metre climb over the first five furlongs, the downhill swing for home, the merciless camber down the straight and the final climb in the concluding 100 meters. It is a recipe that combines to produce the ultimate test of a three-year-old over a mile-and-a-half.

So, which colt will pass the test in 2020?

The Ed Walker-trained English King heads the market at 5-2, and is one with no doubts about his stamina. The son of Camelot first came to attention when coming from well off a steady pace to win a maiden over a mile-and-a-quarter at Newcastle last November, but it was his winning return in the Lingfield Derby Trial that really showcased his Derby credentials. The turf course at Lingfield is a tricky proposition, with its downhill swing into the straight being comparable to that of Epsom. It represents a notable challenge for an inexperienced horse like English King, but he proved more than equal to the task.

Having been dropped in after a slightly tardy start, English King took an enthusiastic, but not excessive hold in cover. The first half of the race was otherwise uneventful and it was from the top of the hill that English King really began to impress. He handled the downhill section of the track without any issues of note, and once the field straightened for home, it was clear he was travelling best. The manner in which he made smooth headway to challenge and quicken away from a smart rival in Berkshire Rocco under hands-and-heels riding was very taking indeed.

While the bare form of the win ranks below the peak efforts of some of his rivals, English King showed every attribute that a Derby winner needs to have. He will go to Epsom with no great concerns on the stamina, track or ground fronts. Improvement will be needed, but such was the size of the step forward he took in form terms at Lingfield, it would be a major surprise if there wasn’t more to come from him. He looks to have a great chance, though he looks a short enough price, and that is unlikely to change with the “Frankie Factor” now in play.

The clear second favourite is the Andrew Balding-trained Kameko at 9-2. There is no question his victory in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket represents the strongest piece of individual form in the race. He was given an excellent ride in a race where his main rivals were given slightly less than optimal ones, but what he did on the day was impressive. The main concern for his chance is his stamina for the mile-and-a-half trip. His pedigree can be read in a way that offers some encouragement, but analysis of his stride frequency is less encouraging. As well as that, he did look to be well-suited by a strongly-run mile in the Guineas, so how he will cope with a very different test in the Derby is a concerning unknown.

Comparisons with his paternal half-brother Roaring Lion are interesting. His stamina was unproven going into the Derby, albeit in less doubt given he had won a steadily-run Dante over an extended mile-and-a-quarter. He looked to stay the Derby trip, but it was almost certainly beyond his optimum distance, with him going on to greater success back at shorter trips for the remainder of his career. Another interesting piece of common ground between the two are their tendencies to come off a true line under pressure. Roaring Lion tended to edge left, whereas Kameko tends to edge right. Coming off a straight line at Epsom is never ideal, though edging right is less of an issue than edging left down the camber.

All told, Kameko winning the Derby wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but there are enough doubts about his stamina for the mile-and-a-half trip to put me off him.

Will Emperor stay trip and rule Epsom?

Aidan O’Brien is set to saddle a big team of runners and the one that makes most appeal to me is Russian Emperor (7-1). By Galileo and out of the Australian star Atlantic Jewel, Russian Emperor started his season in dramatic style by coming back from what looked set to be a resounding defeat (hit the maximum price of 1000 on Betfair) to win a maiden at Naas in the final stride. He returned from his lockdown-enforced break to finish a promising second to Cormorant in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial Stakes at Leopardstown, giving the impression he would improve from the experience and relish a stronger test of stamina. Just eight days later, he lined up for what looked an above-average renewal of the Hampton Court Stakes. Dropped in off the solid pace, he again took a little bit of time to go through the gears, but powered home in the final furlong to hit the front in the dying strides.

While Russian Emperor has yet to race beyond a mile-and-a-quarter, it would be a major surprise if he didn’t stay and indeed improve for a step up to a mile-and-a-half in the Derby. Epsom will be a completely different track to anything he has encountered before, but he looks a well-balanced colt and it is difficult to recall too many horses trained in Ballydoyle that failed to handle Epsom. He looks to have a leading chance.

In terms of O’Brien’s other potential runners, Mogul (8-1) has long seemed the main Derby hope for Ballydoyle. However, he ran below expectations in both the rearranged Vertem Futurity at Newcastle last November and on his seasonal reappearance in the King Edward VII at Royal Ascot. O’Brien has made his case they would much rather have got two runs into him before the Derby, thus wanted to give him the toughest trial possible in bringing him forward. That is why they ran him over a mile-and-a-half at Royal Ascot rather than the more traditional mile-and-a-quarter in the likes of the Derrinstown Derby Trial or the Gallinule.

O’Brien has issued positive updates on Mogul since Royal Ascot and believes he has come forward a lot from the run. However, those taking his current price for the Derby are putting all their faith in O’Brien to deliver a big chunk of improvement on the day that matters most, as the form of his last two runs leaves him well short of the required standard. Of course, there is no better candidate to pull off such a training feat than O’Brien, but everything has a price, and Mogul looks short enough considering all the concerns.

Perhaps the most interesting of O’Brien’s other potential runners is Vatican City (9-1). Having won a maiden at Dundalk last October, he was thrown in at the deep end for his seasonal reappearance in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and acquitted himself extremely well. Tucked in behind the leader, he was travelling well with nowhere to go when shuffled back by the interference caused by Lope Y Fernandez, not getting into the clear until the eventual winner Siskin swept by him with 200 yards to race. He finished off well to grab second close home, giving the strong impression he had plenty of running left in him.

As promising a run as that was, the main concern for Vatican City is his stamina for a mile-and-a-half. He is a daughter of You’resothrilling, a full-sister to the great Giant’s Causeway who was much faster than he was, winning the Cherry Hinton at Newmarket. She has subsequently established herself as one of the very best broodmares of recent decades, with her “marriage” to Galileo having produced six runners courtesy of Gleneagles, Marvellous and Happily all winning Group 1’s, and the other three being placed in Group 1’s.

However, what is striking about the race record of all her progeny is that despite Galileo’s well-established influence on stamina, none of her offspring won a race at beyond a mile in Europe. Taj Mahal won a couple of Group 2 races over a mile-and-a-half in Australia, but it would be ill-advised to directly equate middle-distance racing down there with the same discipline in Europe. It should also be noted that he didn’t look to get the trip on his only attempt at it in Europe - in the Irish Derby. Her only other offspring to attempt a mile-and-a-half in Europe was Marvellous. Having won the Irish 1,000 Guineas in impressive style, she ran below form in both the Oaks and the Irish Oaks.

Pedigrees are there to be defied, but one will rarely get such a strong body of directly-comparable pedigree-based evidence as there is in this case. If Vatican City stays the Derby trip, it will be in defiance of almost everything six of his full brothers and sisters established on the racecourse. For those that prefer more direct evidence, analysis of Vatican City’s stride frequency suggests he will have a chance of staying a mile-and-a-quarter, but he does not stride as slowly as a typical mile-and-a-half performer.

That said, if one wants an example of how horses can outrun and outstay their pedigrees, look no further than the William Muir-trained Pyledriver. Unsold for 10,000gns as a foal and retained by his connections despite some big-money offers since he started to succeed on the track, Pyledriver represents the fairytale story in the making of this year’s Derby. What makes him so unusual from a pedigree perspective is that he represents a rarity for his sire Harbour Watch in terms of the stamina he has shown. Harbour Watch himself never raced beyond six furlongs in a three-race career, and as a sire, the vast majority of his progeny proved best at up to a mile. He has only sired a handful of winners at a mile-and-a-half or further, but despite this, Pyledriver showed stamina for that trip is no issue for him.

Pyledriver roared into the Derby picture with an impressive victory in the King Edward VII at Royal Ascot, showing an impressive set of gears to outspeed Arthur’s Kingdom in the closing stages. While that rival failed to give the form a boost in the Irish Derby, Pyledriver earned style points that extend his superiority beyond the bare form. With his stamina now proven, and him clearly being blessed with plenty of pace at the trip, he should not be overlooked at Epsom.

To conclude, preference is given to Russian Emperor. If you wanted one at a bigger price, Pyledriver is the best alternative to the front end of the market.

Kevin Blake
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