Epsom reconnaissance for the Derby should never be wasted
25 April 2017
The road to the 238th Derby at Epsom unfurls on Wednesday with the Investec Derby Trial, which is staged along the twists and turns of one of the world’s great, but idiosyncratic and testing racecourses.
Only two horses since the Second World War have won the most important Flat race on the planet without a prep run – Lammtarra (1995) and Shaamit (1996), and the Derby trials perform a crucial function for connections and the public alike.
The best trial of all is the Qipco 2000 Guineas, and since 1946 there have been 19 Epsom winners who participated in the first Classic of the season – keep an eye out for Frankel’s Eminent at Newmarket next week.
The Betfred Dante at York has produced 11 winners, the Betfred Derby Trial at Lingfield, which has a similar configuration to Epsom, has thrown up nine winners, while the Bet365 Classic Trial at Sandown stands on seven winners.
The tight turns of Chester demand balance and dexterity and the MBNA Chester Vase and the Dee Stakes can boast seven winners between them. And then there is Ireland, where the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, favoured by Aidan O'Brien, has been the stepping-stone for four, while the PW McGrath Memorial Ballysax Stakes was won by last year’s Derby hero Harzand.
And yet there is one trial that perhaps should be the best of them all but curiously is not only unloved, but seen by many as a an obstacle to success.
On Twitter on Monday night I wrote that the Investec Derby Trial should be the pre-eminent Derby Trial in the land – not a single person agreed with me.
In almost every other sport I can think of the benefit of reducing the number of variables by visiting, or training at, the stadium, or route, body of water, mountain range or court is seen as the template for perfect preparation. For some reason, a trip to Epsom is seen by many as Derby suicide.
Reasons put forward to me included that there was more prestige in other Derby trials in terms of breeding, nobody wants to find out if their horse can act on the famous course to dash their dreams beforehand, to nobody wants to risk a young horse on such a track as it might ruin them.
The Investec Derby Trial is a Win and You’re In race and there is £50,000 in the pot. Any syndicate with a horse half good enough should be thinking about it as entry fees can be expensive. Should your horse win the race, you will already know that it handles the course and you can prepare your horse with enough time in hand before applying the gilt for the big race with a spin at Breakfast With The Stars around ten days prior to the big day.
There are two trainers who swear by the Breakfast With The Stars event – Andre Fabre, who conditioned Pour Moi there before the colt’s triumph in 2011. The other is John Gosden. Gosden dispatched Golden Horn and Jack Hobbs to the media morning before they finished first and second in the Derby in 2016. That was on the back of Taghrooda’s presence at Epsom early one May morning before she won the Oaks in 2014.
Gosden got the idea from when he used to work for the great Vincent O’Brien. Getting a theme here yet? They are three of perhaps the sharpest minds there have ever been involved in Flat racing.
There is obviously a difference between the Investec Derby Trial pace and work pace, but either way, as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel said: 'time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted.'
I asked Gosden about his thoughts on both the trial and Breakfast With The Starson Tuesday on Warren Hill.
"I think it is essential to go and have a look at it," he said.
"I have sent Golden Horn, Jack Hobbs and Taghrooda - all went to the Breakfast With The Stars. I know you are only doing a half speed but you are getting a look at it and you are getting a feel.
"I remember coming over for Vincent O’Brien. We flew in two days before. The day before the race we got the jockeys there and he had me take them out to canter the horses - The Minstrel, Valinsky and Be My Guest, that’s quite a trio.
"We cantered them around Tattenham Corner in to the straight and home. I got them back in the box with a sigh of relief and then telephoned Mr O’Brien, who was in Ireland. It was one of the most nervous day of my life.
"It was just to have a feel and a look but it is a unique track.
"When you race them somewhere like Epsom they don’t half learn a lot there in a hurry."
For what it is worth, Gosden’s two Derby winners, Benny The Dip and Golden Horn, both had their prep race in the Dante Stakes at York. So did Jack Hobbs and so did Presenting before he was third in 1995. Romsdal, who was third in 2014, warmed up in the Chester Vase. Thought Worthy, who was fourth in 2012, like Western Hymn, who was sixth in 2014, both used the Sandown Trial.
None of Gosden’s Derby placed horses have run at Epsom beforehand, so either the master of Clarehaven is having a rethink at the age of 66, or Cracksman, who lines up as the 4-6 favourite on Wednesday is not really considered a true Derby performer by his handler. Cracksman is no better than 16-1 for the June 3 date, and is as short as 11-1, behind O'Brien's 13-2 chance Churchill.
For what it is worth, Gosden was extremely downbeat about the Frankel colt’s chances, citing a complete lack of maturity. Frankie Dettori, his jockey, agreed with him later that day, which is a shame. In so many ways.