What It Takes To Win The Derby At Epsom

What It Takes To Win The Derby At Epsom
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“The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby” – Federico Tesio.

You know the great Derbys, the great Derby winners. Sea-Bird and Nijinsky and Sir Ivor and Shergar.

Go back further if you like. Go back as far as you want. It’s almost a quarter of a millennium deep. Pinza and Crepello and Never Say Die. Or move into the modern era, to Sinndar and Galileo and New Approach and Sea The Stars. Household names.

It is a race that tests every dimension of the thoroughbred. Primarily, you have to have the mental attitude for it all. You have to have the soundness of mind that will allow you to ease your way through the lengthy preliminaries, retain all energy and enthusiasm, against the buzz and the razzamatazz that is part of Derby day in Ordinary Times. Some horses have run their races before they leave the parade ring.

You have to break sharply and have the early speed to get your early position, up the hill and around to your right, and you have to have the pace to be able to hold that position with minimal effort.

You have to have the soundness of limb to be able to wheel down around Tattenham Corner to your left, at racing pace, the balance to do so smoothly without upsetting your rhythm, the willingness to go forward without the need to be asked.

And at the end of it all, you have to have the stamina to climb that final incline, against the hill and against the camber, with the baying masses and the towering stands and double-decker busses encroaching on you from the left and from the right.

The human protagonists are household names too. Almost by definition.

Lester Piggott was the greatest Derby craftsman of them all. In one of the most difficult races in the world to ride, you rarely saw Piggott in the wrong place. Just off the pace and one off the rail, he used to say. His first Derby winner was Never Say Die in 1954, as a whipper-snapper 18-year-old, and he rode eight more, four of them – Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Roberto and The Minstrel – for Vincent O’Brien.

Memorable Epsom Derby Triumphs

There have been many memorable Derby-winning rides: Willie Carson’s on Erhaab, Steve Cauthen’s on Slip Anchor, Michael Kinane’s on Commander In Chief, Walter Swinburn’s on Shergar and again on Lammtarra, Johnny Murtagh’s on Sinndar, Mickael Barzalona’s on Pour Moi, Pat Eddery’s on Golden Fleece, Ryan Moore’s on Ruler Of The World, Kevin Manning’s on New Approach, Frankie Dettori’s on Authorized, Pat Smullen’s on Harzand.

It is the greatest stage and it is on it that the greatest riders excel.

The records show that Frank Neale trained six Derby winners in the late 1700s and early 1800s, while Robert Robson trained seven, which intertwined with Frank Neale’s six and also straddled the turn of the century. Fred Darling equalled Robert Robson’s tally of seven when he sent out Owen Tudor to win the wartime Derby of 1941, and the legendary Dr Vincent O’Brien came close with six: Larkspur, Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Roberto, The Minstrel and Golden Fleece.


Aidan O’Brien’s first Derby winner was the 2001 winner Galileo. We couldn’t have known then the magnitude of the impact that the Sadler’s Wells colt would have on the thoroughbred breed – greater, even than his own sire’s, and we’re back to Federico Tesio again – but we did suspect, even then, that Aidan O’Brien’s association with the Epsom Classic would run and run.

The Derby has always been to the fore in Aidan O’Brien’s mind and in Team Ballydoyle’s plans. High Chaparral followed Galileo into the Derby winner’s enclosure in 2002, a 1-2 for Aidan O’Brien, with Hawk Wing chasing him home.

We had to wait a decade for the next Aidan O’Brien-trained Derby winner – Camelot in 2012, ridden by the trainer’s son Joseph – but Camelot was the start of a flow of Ballydoyle Derby winners that shows no sign of abating. Ruler Of The World, Australia, Wings Of Eagles, Anthony Van Dyck and Serpentine. Six of the last nine Derby winners have been trained by Aidan O’Brien, and his current total of eight is unmatched by any other trainer in the history of the great race.

Ballydoyle Number One?

It is often difficult to determine the Ballydoyle Derby number one. Last year’s Derby winner Serpentine was not the Ballydoyle number one, according to the market and according to jockey bookings, for all that he was given a superb front-running ride by Emmet McNamara. The 2019 winner Anthony Van Dyck was not number one, nor was Ruler Of The World in 2013, nor High Chaparral in 2002.

Galileo was though. Actually, Galileo was the only Aidan O’Brien-trained runner in the Derby in 2001. Camelot was number one in 2012, ahead of Astrology. Australia was number one in 2014, ahead of Kingfisher and Orchestra and Geoffrey Chaucer.

We obviously don’t have jockey bookings for the 2021 Cazoo Derby yet but, as things stand, it looks like this year’s Ballydoyle Derby team will be headed by Bolshoi Ballet. The Galileo colt has earned his place at the top of the Ballydoyle pecking order and at the top of the ante-post betting market.

Winner of his maiden last season, Aidan O’Brien’s colt was impressive in winning the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown on his debut this season, and he was more impressive in winning the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial back at Leopardstown two weeks ago.


That’s the Galileo route to the Derby: Ballysax Stakes, Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial. That’s the path that Galileo trod in 2001, and it’s the path that High Chaparral followed to Epsom in 2002. And, like Galileo and High Chaparral, predecessors at Ballydoyle, Bolshoi Ballet won both Leopardstown trials.

It is also the route that Sinndar took in 2000, although John Oxx’s horse was beaten in the Ballysax, beaten a head by Grande Finale, before winning the Derrinstown and then going on to Derby glory. And it is the road on which Yeats embarked in 2004, won the Ballysax and won the Derrinstown, and would have been a warm favourite for the Derby had injury not ruled him out.

Interestingly, no winner of the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial has gone on to win the Derby since High Chaparral. That is almost certainly more down to happenstance than anything else though. The Derrinstown is a logical Derby trial, and it is surely only a matter of time before that anomaly is addressed. And Harzand won the Ballysax in 2006 and skipped the Derrinstown before going to Epsom and winning the Derby.

2021 Epsom Derby Form Guide

Bolshoi Ballet has usurped High Definition as Ballydoyle’s number one Derby hope, but High Definition remains a big player in the Derby picture. The Galileo colt stayed on well to win his maiden on his racecourse debut at The Curragh last August, and he stepped forward from that in winning the Group 2 Beresford Stakes back at The Curragh in September.

A slight setback ruled him out of his intended return this season in the Lingfield Derby Trial, but he did appear five days later in the Dante at York, in which he didn’t run badly in finishing third. He is going to have to improve on that if he is going to win a Derby, but it was probably a rush to get him to York, and a significant step forward from that is more than possible.

Hurricane Lane won the Dante, another top Derby trial, a race that has been won in the recent past by Derby winners Golden Horn and Authorized and Motivator and North Light, and in which the 2010 Derby winner Workforce finished second.

The Godolphin colt was game in winning the Dante, he stayed on strongly to get past leader Roman Empire and to hold off the late challenge of Megallan. That was a nice step forward from his win in a conditions race at Newbury on his debut this season and, unbeaten now in three runs, Charlie Appleby’s colt should progress again for a step up to a mile and a half in the Derby.

Third Realm won the Lingfield Derby Trial, a race that Anthony Van Dyck won in 2019 before going on to victory at Epsom. Roger Varian’s colt wasn’t entirely expected, he was the 14/1 outsider of the entire field, but he stayed on strongly all the way to the line to get home by over a length from Adayar.

It was a big step forward by the Sea The Stars colt from his win in a conditions race at Nottingham in April and, while he is probably going to have to step forward again if he is going to win a Derby, that is entirely within the bounds of possibility.

Others are taking less conventional routes to Epsom. Mohaafeth won the Newmarket Stakes at Newmarket’s Guineas meeting, a listed race that hasn’t been won by a Derby winner since 1985, when it was won by Slip Anchor, who wasn’t really considered a bona fide Derby contender until he then went to Lingfield and won the Lingfield Derby Trial. But William Haggas’ horse was so impressive in winning at Newmarket three weeks ago that you have to take his Derby claims seriously.

John Leeper did well to win another listed race, the Fairway Stakes, at Newmarket on Saturday, staying on well through the final furlong despite racing keenly through the early stages of the race, while Youth Spirit and El Drama won the two Chester Derby pointers, the Chester Vase and the Dee Stakes respectively.

Last year’s Futurity Stakes winner Mac Swiney and last year’s Criterium International winner Van Gogh were both beaten on their respective debuts this season, but both will also be players if they do line up at Epsom.

There could be another great Derby winner lurking.

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