Since the very first Derby run in 1780, no trainer has managed to win the Classic more than seven times – but that could all change this weekend.
Those who are immortalised in tales of the Turf such as John Porter and Fred Darling ‘only’ managed a magnificent seven – along with Robert Robson at the turn of the 19th century.
However, an unassuming man based at Ballydoyle stables in Tipperary could surpass them on Saturday, as Aidan O’Brien sends a six-strong team to Epsom Downs for the Investec Derby.
His Derby story began with Galileo in 2001 – and it is quite apt that it is as a stallion that O’Brien’s first Derby winner has cemented the trainer’s brilliance.
There was a 10-year gap after High Chaparral immediately doubled the Ballydoyle tally in 2002.
Since then, the yard has monopolised the blue riband with Camelot (2012), Ruler Of The World (2013), Australia (2014), Wings of Eagles (2017) and Anthony Van Dyck last year.
“I suppose it all started with Galileo – but there are so many memories going back, of all the great Derby winners,” said O’Brien.
“The thoroughbred breed is based on the Epsom Derby, it’s the total ultimate test of the racehorse. Physical and mental – they have to get the trip, they have to have pace, they have to act on the track. It’s the ultimate test – and it’s been that way for a long time.
“It is what (owners) John (Magnier), Michael (Tabor) and Derrick (Smith) breed horses for- they test their horses. You have to have speed, you have to stay and you have to have courage.”
At Ballydoyle, they have even attempted to recreate Epsom’s famous Tattenham Corner on the gallops.
“Sue’s (Magnier) dad, Dr (Vincent) O’Brien, put Ballydoyle together – and when you come into Ballydoyle there’s a statue of Nijinsky there, who won the Triple Crown,” he added.
“Dr O’Brien had the whole place laid out to give every horse every chance – there was no stone left unturned, and we were just very lucky to inherit the gallops and the system really. We’re in a very privileged position really.
“When we came the template was there, and all we had to do was do our best and work hard and try to follow what he was after doing.”
Of course, 2020 has been no ordinary year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but O’Brien is thankful to those in power for keeping the race at its historical home.
“I think it’s incredible to get the race on at Epsom, incredible really – and full credit to everyone who made it happen,” he said.
“You can’t recreate Epsom – the contours and everything about the place make it unique, (and) that’s why it’s the ultimate test. It’s sport at the top level, everything gets tested – horses, jockeys, trainers – everything gets put to the test.
“I’d be delighted if we won it again. We’re a small part of a massive team, so I’d be delighted for everybody. So many people put so much work into getting these horses there. It’s a chain of so many things, and everyone is so important.”
While O’Brien is not responsible for either of the top two in the betting this year, English King and Kameko, he does have six runners – three of which hold solid claims, and two more bred to be Classic contenders.
“Some of them are maidens, some are making serious progress from their first runs to the second,” he said.
“With some horses, especially Mogul, we’d have liked two races – but it’s been unorthodox, and we had to send him to Ascot for a toughish race because we hoped one race would do the job of what two would usually do.
“At Ascot, he just got a little tired. We think that was the reason more than him not staying. We’ll find out a lot more on Saturday.
“Russian Emperor came out of his Ascot win well, and Ryan (Moore) was happy with him. He’s one we’re looking forward to seeing over a mile and a half. He had a run before the lockdown – so he was a fit horse going into Ascot, because he got another one in after it as well.
“(Irish Guineas second) Vatican City is by Galileo, but he’s related to a lot of quick horses. Padraig (Beggy) rode him that day (at the Curragh, behind Siskin) and found it hard to pull him up, so it will be interesting. Often those you are sure of getting the trip might not have enough class.
“Mythical has improved a lot for the Curragh, where it didn’t really work for him in the Gallinule. We think you’ll see a different horse at Epsom – he’s a good traveller, a classy horse.
“Serpentine ran in a maiden first time out this year and he got caught in a pocket and couldn’t get out. He’s a horse that stays very well. Wayne (Lordan) rode him at the Curragh – he got a good break so just let him roll along and he ran straight through the line, he wasn’t stopping. It’s going to be interesting watching him over a mile and a half – he’s a seriously well-bred Galileo.
“Amhran Na Bhfiann is a lovely big horse who we always thought would get the trip well. His sister (Was) won an Oaks. He’s had one run this year in a race which worked out incredibly well. The winner (Tiger Moth) was second in the Irish Derby, the second (Dawn Patrol) was third in the Irish Derby and the third (Order Of Australia) was fourth, so it was a seriously strong maiden. He’ll get better with racing.”
While O’Brien is used to breaking records, he remains the epitome of modesty.
“It would be incredible to win an eighth (Derby), but we never really think of winning any race – because you lose a lot more races than you win, so you have to try to stay level,” he added.
“If you’ve looked under every stone when the stalls open, you’ve done your best. That’s all you can do.”
O’Brien will find it strange this year, though, because travel restrictions will prevent him from being at Epsom.
“I can’t go because if I do I have to go straight into quarantine the next day and then I wouldn’t be able to do my work,” he said.
“I’d love to be there, but we have to abide by what the government thinks.
“I’m very relaxed watching on TV. It’s a great way to be, because you can just turn the television off! I’m relaxed because we have great people and great riders on the ground. We do all in our power, then hand it over.”