I simply love The Derby. The Grand National was my first horseracing crush, but The Derby was my first love and sparked a lifelong involvement with the sport. We have remained faithful to one another since.
You can measure the passing of your life by the milestones of horseracing seasons, and by a race like the Derby more than perhaps anything else.
I bunked off Junior School to watch the 1974 Derby, laid everything bar Shergar as bookie at the big-boys’ school seven years later, was managing a betting shop in London when Slip Anchor landed an ante-post customer £8,000 in 1985 (a lot of money in those days, and in these days to be honest), attended my first Derby in person in 1989 (Nashwan), watched a couple of this century’s Derbys in exotic holiday locations and somehow tipped the 2018 winner Masar at 25/1 on these pages.
Some of the spectacle will not be there this year, as the race will be run behind closed doors for the first (and let us hope only) time.
No thronging at the rails – less of a feature of late anyway – fairground rides or some idiot in the crowd throwing a toilet roll approaching the 2f marker (1979, Troy’s year: toilet rolls are much too valuable now, anyway).
But there will be, from me anyway, the same feeling of nervous excitement before, during and after the race, especially that bit where they swing round Tattenham Corner and straighten for home. Horses have come from well back at that point, as well as from up front. Anything still seems possible before dreams and bets are cruelly dashed or just occasionally realised.
So, while the remainder of this piece will focus on hard-nosed analysis, I ask you to remember what the Derby is really about and imagine how you will remember the 2020 Derby in years to come. Perhaps as an amazing spectacle/non-spectacle in which you “could not believe that [insert name of horse] won”, or had been telling everyone for weeks that it would!
Sectionals. To be honest, sectionals have enhanced my enjoyment of the Derby over the years, but primarily after the event, rather than during or before. But a knowledge of what horses have done going into the race, in sectional terms, should improve understanding, and therefore appreciation too.
Fortunately, we have a lot more sectionals on a plate for us now than was once the case, thanks to Total Performance Data figures that can be found (and in much more detail than I can replicate here) in the Results Section on this site. I have plugged the gaps manually from Newmarket and the Curragh in the following.
There is a lot of information there to take in, but the most important pieces are the finishing speed %s – how quickly a horse ran the last 3f as a % of its average race speed – within the context of where it happened and under what circumstances, and the sectional ratings, which derive from my adjustment of the overall time in light of the efficiency with which it was achieved.
English King ran fast late on in absolute terms, but that was influenced by firm going (firmer than the official description) and the easy finish at Lingfield, which drops 2 metres in the last 3f according to Google Earth. Epsom drops by 11.
I have edged down English King’s sectional rating from my previous assessment due to inadvertently using the wrong sectional par originally. But the Lingfield Derby Trial he won has been franked by the runner-up’s second to subsequent Irish Derby winner Santiago at Royal Ascot since, and English King has shown an impressive blend of speed and stamina already.
Royal Ascot is where the majority of English King’s main rivals prepped. It proved to be a happy hunting ground for Russian Emperor, Pyledriver and Highland Chief, especially the first-named, who ran a fast overall time as well as that quite fast finish (Ascot rises 8 metres in the last 3f). 12f is an unknown for Russian Emperor, but he certainly runs as if he will stay it, and even be suited by it.
Russian Emperor's Hampton Court win is stronger on the clock than Pyledriver’s King Edward VII Stakes win, but the closing splits the latter recorded confirms he deserved to finish ahead of Mohican Heights and Mogulthat day. The main straw that Mogul’s committed supporters have to clutch at is that the colt was not fully fit that day, for it was an underwhelming effort on the face of it.
Vatican City finished quite well when second in the Irish 2000 Guineas at the Curragh, but races at a mile and races at a mile and a half tend to be run at very different tempos.
As it is, the Irish version of the Guineas was probably inferior to the Newmarket version, in which the winner Kameko put up the best single piece of form going into Epsom. He represents the most obvious example of the age-old conundrum of whether or not to trust a top miler to reproduce its form at fully half a mile further.
For every Nashwan, Sea The Stars and Camelot, who all doubled-up in the Guineas and the Derby, there is a Mister Baileys, an Entrepreneur and a Dawn Approach, who won at Newmarket but failed at Epsom, and more besides.
My research shows that only 10% of horses that have contested the Guineas this century have gone on to be described as staying 12f (or further) by Timeform in the fullness of time. Kameko saw it out best of the principals at Newmarket, but only after the leaders had gone insane fractions mid-race, which meant that he settled.
That 96.7% finishing speed shows that it was not so much his staying on strongly as slowing down less than the others that day. Something very different will be required of him on Saturday. I think it is a big ask.
There is a similar conundrum but maybe a different answer in the Oaks, run 75 minutes earlier at Epsom on Saturday.
Love won the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket in a time 1.08s slower overall than Kameko had done 24 hours earlier, but by running the final 1f (which rises by 4 metres) 0.82s, or about 5 lengths, quicker.
She was much too good for her rivals, but the signs are that her rivals might not have been up to much. Love does seem a likely stayer, but not a certain one.
In the expected absence of the Irish 1000 Guineas winner Peaceful, Frankly Darling and Ennistymon are next in. They finished one-two in the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot, with Frankly Darling quickening clear before being eased close home, and Ennistymon never closer than at the finish.
The latter was faster in each of the last three furlongs on TPD figures but could not get in a blow at her enterprisingly ridden rival. Both have proved their stamina more than others, and Ennistymon may have more of it in her locker still to be shown.
The Derby looks up to scratch this year but that Oaks is beginning to seem a bit threadbare. Connections of Dubai Love, third under a big weight in a handicap at Royal Ascot last time, and Gold Wand, the winner of an ordinary maiden at Newbury (a barren zone sectionally) since that second to Domino Darling at Doncaster last backend, are entitled to fancy their chances of picking up some of the action.
As mentioned, many of these sectionals may be found in greater detail elsewhere. Time to get digging, if you haven’t dug already.
Then, there are the sectionals that will come out of The Derby itself. Official ones were flawed last year but may have improved. Fortunately, camerawork usually means that taking your own is feasible. Doing that is usually one of my final acts in my annual love-in with the greatest race on Earth.