Trainer Ed Walker is struggling to contain his excitement after his Investec Derby favourite English King enjoyed a first spin under Frankie Dettori on Wednesday morning.
The Newcastle maiden winner emerged as a major contender for the premier Classic with a dominant display in the Lingfield Derby Trial earlier in the month – and is now the clear favourite following Monday’s announcement that Dettori will take over in the saddle at Epsom.
Following a Tuesday evening dinner between Walker, Dettori and English King’s owner Bjorn Nielsen – who saw the charismatic jockey deliver him a third Gold Cup aboard the mighty Stradivarius at Royal Ascot last week – the popular Italian was on board the son of Camelot for his final piece of serious work ahead of his date with destiny on July 4.
Walker said: “Today is 10 days out from the Derby, which is always when I would do my last proper piece of work with a horse, and he worked very well. Frankie came in and had a sit on him, and everything went smoothly. He came out of it good and seems in good shape.
“Frankie came down last night and had dinner with Bjorn and me, which was fun. We spoke about Stradivarius for about three hours – and English King for about five minutes!
“You know what Frankie is like – he’s quite a calming influence. It’s great to have him onside – he’s got such a wealth of experience and he loved the horse.”
“I wasn’t really nervous about this piece of work, because he’s not a horse that you need or expect to see blasting clear of his lead horse in Frankel-Bullet Train style. I was lucky enough to see that horse work a number of times and I always feared that if that’s what it took to have a Group One horse, I probably never would have one!
“This guy only does what he has to do, and the thing I was most nervous about, with Frankie coming down, was he might not impress Frankie, but he loved the horse.
“Frankie rode him from his stable and back to his stable – he really wanted to get inside the horse’s head and understand him, which is a mark of Frankie’s professionalism. He rode him for well over an hour, and they got on great.
“His feedback was kind of as I expected – he loves the way he moves, he’s an exceptionally athletic horse and he loved his personality. He’s a playful horse who switches off and conserves energy. He is very straightforward, but has that Montjeu twinkle in his eye.
“He’ll have another piece of work early next week, all being well. Then it’s just a case of freshening him up and get him feeling as well as he possibly can for the big day.”
The decision to replace rising star Tom Marquand with Dettori for the Derby was met with consternation by some, but Walker feels the veteran rider’s experience and big-race know-how was too attractive to turn down.
“I hold Tom in the highest regard as a potential star of our sport – it was definitely not an easy decision,” he said.
“If you look at the stats it’s an easy decision – Tom has ridden five winners around Epsom, not won over a mile and a half and never ridden in an Epsom Classic, whereas Frankie has won the Oaks five times, two Derbies and five Coronation Cups.
“It wasn’t the easy decision it should have been statistically, but ultimately, we’ve got to give ourselves the best chance. Bjorn has been trying to win this race for over 30 years, he grew up in Epsom and has been dreaming of winning the Derby all his life, as have I.
“We all know Frankie raises his game on the biggest stage and is the coolest out there under pressure. It’s my first runner in a Derby, we’re favourite and it’s high pressure stuff, so to have someone like that on our side gives you confidence.
“Frankie is a master tactician. The stress on me, who has never ridden in a Derby and never will, legging up Tom, who has never ridden in a Derby and definitely will, would have been huge.
“We’d have had to have lots of discussion about tactics and so on, whereas now I don’t need to worry about that any more. I hand the keys over to Frankie – and hopefully he brings the car back in first place and in good shape!”
While Walker has plenty of confidence in his own colt, he has the utmost respect for the opposition, which is headed by Andrew Balding’s 2000 Guineas hero Kameko and Saeed bin Suroor’s, Military March, fourth at Newmarket.
He said: “I’ve always been a believer that the Guineas is the best Derby trial. It’s a slight surprise to me that we’re favourite ahead of the Guineas winner, not that I would necessarily swap horses.
“The Guineas is the Guineas – we won a Listed race around Lingfield, whereas Kameko is a Classic winner and dual Group One winner. I have enormous respect for that horse – he won the Guineas with an imperfect trip and beat a higher rated two-year-old than Frankel (Pinatubo).
“Bjorn actually bred Punctilious, who is the dam of Military March, so it would be incredibly ironic if that horse chinned us! Bjorn always feared that horse’s pedigree, and his form in the Guineas wasn’t a bad run. Was it a run good enough to win the Derby, who knows?
“There’s not an absolute stand-out horse from Aidan O’Brien’s yard – that’s not to say he can’t win it, of course – and John Gosden hasn’t got a runner, so it is a bit more open than other years.”
Walker admits the nerves have started to kick in post-Royal Ascot, with the Derby build-up now very much in full flow.
He added: “I was as cool as a cucumber until this week. I was quietly and happily bumbling away, training my horse behind closed doors and minding my business. It’s funny that when the magnifying glass is suddenly on you, coupled with the announcement of the jockey, it suddenly feels a bit more pressurised.
“It’s incredible what it does to the atmosphere on the yard. It’s intense, but it’s a great feeling, and everyone is united in hoping and dreaming we can pull it off.
“I’m massively excited. It sounds mad that I wouldn’t swap him for a Guineas winner, but I wouldn’t – I think he’s got everything it takes.”