Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake runs the rule over the main protagonists in the Investec Derby.

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An in-depth look at the leading contenders for the Derby

There really is nothing like the Derby. Billed as the “supreme test of a racehorse” by its sponsors Investec, everything about the race from the very beginning of the preliminaries right up to when they pass the winning post is a merciless examination of a horse’s mental and physical credentials.

The specific details of what makes the race such a test of a racehorse have been detailed in this space in the past and it is within those details that this year’s contenders have to be evaluated.

Clearly, the race revolves around the Aidan O’Brien-trained SAXON WARRIOR. The unbeaten winner of the Racing Post Trophy and 2000 Guineas, he has emerged as a potential superstar of the sport and all being well will be sent off the short-priced favourite for the Derby.

Before getting into his prospects in the race, one intriguing aspect of Saxon Warrior is how he physically changed over the winter. It has become such a cliché in racing for trainers to describe a horse returning for a new season as being “bigger and stronger” that one wouldn’t have to be too cynical to question just how often this is actually the case. Thus, many will have let O’Brien’s comment that Saxon Warrior had “turned into a monster” over the winter months pass over their heads. However, in Ballydoyle where everything is measured and recorded, this statement is backed up by the data.

O’Brien has told me that Saxon Warrior’s racing weight for the 2000 Guineas was approximately 40kg greater than it had been for the Racing Post Trophy. This number in isolation will not mean a lot to most, but when one considers that O’Brien typically expects his Guineas horses to return to much the same racing weight for the first Classics that they registered at the backend of their juvenile season, the addition of the better part of 10% of his body weight goes a long way to explaining why the Ballydoyle team were concerned that he may need the run at Newmarket. As it transpired, he quite clearly didn’t need the run too much if anything and one can conclude that this vast increase in weight was attributable to what was a genuine physical transformation.

While it may be assumed by many that such an increase in size and strength could only lead to improved performance, given that Saxon Warrior had shown so much ability in his previous physical form as a two-year-old, such a big change in physique couldn’t be taken for granted to have a positive effect on him. His performance at Newmarket allayed any fears that this change may have had a detrimental effect on him and indeed it suggested that he could well be even better in his current form.  

So, what of his prospects at Epsom? One doesn’t need to dwell long on the assessment of the relative abilities of the runners in the Derby, as based on all evidence Saxon Warrior is the form pick in the race. Thus, what the question becomes is how likely Saxon Warrior is to prove fully effective in the unique circumstances of the Derby.

In terms of what evidence we have on paper, there is every encouragement in Saxon Warrior’s pedigree that he will stay the mile-and-a-half trip. Deep Impact won over two miles and has proven to be a strong influence for stamina as a sire. On his dam side, some have tried to use the race record of his dam Maybe as a means to throw stones at Saxon Warrior given that she didn’t match her Group 1-winning juvenile form when failing to win as a three-year-old.

However, it is worth watching her run in the Oaks, as while she failed to get seriously involved in the finish, she did gallop all the way to the line having been held up in an unfavoured position in rear and was only beaten 3¾ lengths. Looking further back down his page, the Oaks winner Dancing Rain and other middle-distance performers appear. In a nutshell, he is very much bred to stay at least a mile-and-a-half.

Of even more importance than pedigree in terms of Saxon Warrior’s prospects of producing his best over a 50% longer trip than he has ever run over is his racing character. Relaxing in the preliminaries and in the early stages of the race will very much help his cause and racecourse evidence again offer nothing but encouragement. He has looked notably relaxed in the preliminaries and while he has tended to take an enthusiastic grip in the early stages of his races, the tack he races in is a very telling indicator of just how tractable he is considered by those closest to him.

It isn’t at all unusual for horses trained by O’Brien to wear a crossed noseband or other pieces of tack to aid the jockey in controlling the horse. However, Saxon Warrior doesn’t wear a noseband of any description and even more eye-catchingly, he races in a vulcanite (rubber) bit. Such a bit is kinder to a horse’s mouth and while O’Brien races his horses in them more than most trainers, they wouldn’t tend to be used without the addition of a noseband on anything but a horse that is considered very tractable. Saxon Warrior’s tractability will be tested in a manner that it never has been before in the Derby, but all indications are that he has better prospects of staying relaxed in the preliminaries and early stages of the race than most.

Once the race is underway, one can only assume that one or more of the other Ballydoyle runners will set at least an even pace and Ryan Moore will ride Saxon Warrior with patience. In both the Racing Post Trophy and the 2000 Guineas, Saxon Warrior seemed to surprise his rider with just how quickly he went through the gears and quickened. He also showed a degree of rawness when in front on both occasions. Considering those two points, Moore could well set out with the intention of delivering Saxon Warrior later than he has been in his last couple of starts.

If that proves to be the case, it promises to be a tremendous spectacle, but whichever way Saxon Warrior is ridden, he looks likely to be exceptionally difficult to beat.

In terms of his opposition, the John Gosden-trained ROARING LION is likely to be sent off as the second favourite. The son of Kitten’s Joy has twice finished behind Saxon Warrior, giving him a real fright in the Racing Post Trophy prior to being more readily held by him in the 2000 Guineas. Since then, he successfully stepped up to an extended mile-and-a-quarter when winning the Dante Stakes at York in great style.

While Roaring Lion clearly has the class to be considered a leading contender for the Derby, there are two notable concerns surrounding his prospects. The first of those is his stamina for the mile-and-a-half trip. His pedigree gives him every chance of staying the trip, with his sire Kitten’s Joy having won over a mile-and-a-half in America and many of his best offspring having proven effective at that trip. While the female side of his pedigree isn’t littered with mile-and-a-half performers, his dam did stay a mile-and-a-quarter.

However, while pedigree is a factor, what he has done on the racecourse is more important and that he has already won over an extended mile-and-a-quarter offers us more relevant evidence on which to base our assessment of him. What is important to emphasise is that the Dante was not a well-run race that tested stamina. It was steadily run and the emphasis was very much on speed. Indeed, the final three furlongs of the Dante was run faster than it was in all bar the five-furlong handicap won by Koditime in all the races over the three days of the Dante meeting. Thus, the Dante had a faster finish than the Duke of York Stakes won by the world class sprinter Harry Angel as well as a number of high-class sprint handicaps.

If Roaring Lion can carry the sort of speed he showed in the Dante over a mile-and-a-half in the Derby, he will clearly have strong prospects. However, that he is capable of showing such searing finishing pace must raise concerns whether he can carry it over that longer trip where the emphasis will almost certainly be much more on stamina than it was at York.

As well as the stamina doubt, there is another significant concern surrounding Roaring Lion’s prospects in the Derby and that is his notable tendency to consistently hang to his left in the closing stages of his races. He has done this to one extent or another in all bar one of his seven career starts, the exception being when he was well beaten in the Craven Stakes. This tendency could be very harshly punished in the Derby where the camber down the straight tends to pull even well balanced horses to their left into the running rail. This has to be a major concern for him.

Those two factors are enough to discourage me from making Roaring Lion the main danger to Saxon Warrior. That position is given to the Dermot Weld-trained HAZAPOUR. The son of Shamardal remains under many radars, perhaps due to the fact that his two-year-old form was unspectacular in the context of a potential Derby winner. He completed that campaign with an official rating of 95 after winning a maiden at Galway and finished a modest third in the Eyrefield Stakes at Leopardstown. However, one must view that form in the context of Dermot Weld having endured a horrid time of it all season and, even more significantly, that he raced exclusively on yielding or softer ground.

With Hazapour having a notably low and fluent action, he was always likely to improve when encountering a sounder surface. He duly did that when meeting good ground on his seasonal reappearance in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial Stakes at Leopardstown earlier this month, but found even more improvement than could have reasonably been expected to beat two high-profile Ballydoyle representatives in Delano Roosevelt and The Pentagon. He was well on top of those race-fit rivals at the line and is entitled to improve from the run in fitness terms. The Derby has been his target since then and the form was given a timely boost on Sunday when the fourth home Platinum Warrior won an admittedly below-par renewal of the Gallinule Stakes at the Curragh.

In terms of his pedigree, the dam side of it is very much that of a Derby horse. His mother won a Listed race over a mile-and-a-half and she is a half-sister to recent Derby winner Harzand. However, it is worth noting that progeny of his top-class sire Shamardal are generally seen to better effect over shorter than a mile-and-a-half. Indeed, it was only last Sunday that a colt or gelding by him won a Group/Grade 1 over a mile-and-a-half or further for the first time when Pakistan Star won the Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup in Hong Kong. Prior to that, only his daughters Faint Perfume and Baltic Baroness had won Group 1 races over that trip when winning fillies-only contests in Australia and France respectively. That said, if any mare is going to impart the necessary stamina into one of Shamardal’s sons to win the Derby, it is a stamina-laden Aga Khan mare.

All told, Saxon Warrior really does look to be the one in the Derby and if he wins, it will create a fabulous narrative leading up to what is very likely to be a Triple Crown bid in the St Leger at Doncaster in September. However, if he fluffs his lines on the day, Hazapour could be the one to pick up the pieces.

Whatever the result, it promises to be an enthralling contest.

Kevin Blake
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