Donn McClean: Epsom Derby Trials and Tribulations

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Donn McClean: Epsom Derby Trials and Tribulations

When Auguste Rodin won the Epsom Derby last year, he became the third horse in 10 years to win the Derby after being beaten in the Guineas.

Famously, Auguste Rodin wasn’t just beaten in the Guineas, he trailed in 12th of the 14 runners, 22 lengths behind the winner Chaldean.

He finished almost 17 lengths behind fourth-placed Dubai Mile in the Guineas, and he finished 11 and a half lengths in front of Charlie Johnston’s horse in the Derby, thereby effecting a near 28-length turnaround with a horse who ran to a similar level in both races.

Auguste Rodin’s Derby win is up there with Aidan O’Brien’s greatest achievements as a trainer and, it is largely down to the fact that City Of Troy is trained by Aidan O’Brien that the Justify colt remains at the top of the market for this year’s Derby. The 2000 Guineas remains a major pointer to the Derby.

Australia and Masar both finished third in the Guineas before going on to win the Derby, while Sea The Stars and Camelot won both Classics in the previous decade, and New Approach went mighty close to pulling off the double. 

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And City Of Troy is obviously a big player in this year’s Derby picture, the Derby favourite, and the only Guineas representative who still holds an entry in the race.

The Dante is also a major Derby pointer. The two British-trained non-Godolphin Derby winners in the last decade both trialled in the York race. Winner of a Nottingham maiden on his only run at two, Desert Crown won the Dante on his first run as a three-year-old, and Sir Michael Stoute’s horse won the Derby on his second.

Golden Horn had a remarkably similar profile to Desert Crown’s. Also the winner of a Nottingham maiden on his only run as a juvenile, he won the Feilden Stakes at Newmarket’s Craven meeting on his furst run at three before going on to win the Dante on his second and the Derby on his third.

Economics was a seriously impressive winner of this year’s Dante, but he doesn't hold an entry in the Derby. Actually, he was taken out of the Derby in the spring in order to remove the temptation to run him in it.

Beaten in a maiden at Newmarket last November on his racecourse debut, the Night Of Thunder colt won his maiden at Newbury on his debut this season, and he took a massive step forward at York.

After his Dante win, connections are currently re-considering the Derby option, it will cost £75,000 to put him back into the race now, and William Haggas’ horse will be a major player if he does take his chance. Hopefully he does line up, because he will be a big addition to the race if he does.

The Lingfield Derby Trial went through a barren spell as a Derby trial in the early 2000s, a race that had been won by Teenoso and Slip Anchor and Kahyasi in the 1980s, but Anthony Van Dyck in 2019 bridged a 21-year gap back to High-Rise in 1998, and Adayar, runner-up at Lingfield, added ballast to the Lingfield race as a Derby trial when he won the Derby two years later.

Ambiente Friendly burst into the Derby picture when he won at Lingfield two weeks ago. Before that, he only had a Leicester maiden win to his name from three runs, and he was on the periphery of Derby machinations at best.

That all changed at Lingfield, where James Fanshawe’s horse appeared to be at home on the downhill, left-handed turn into the home straight – it’s not Tattenham Corner, but it’s not a bad approximation – and careered away from his rivals, winning by four lengths in a fast time.

He hadn’t been beyond nine furlongs before in his life, but he saw out the near-12-furlong trip well, and that obviously all augurs well for Epsom.

Dante runner-up Ancient Wisdom won the Futurity Trophy at Doncaster on his final run at two, a juveniles’ Group 1 contest that was also won by Auguste Rodin and Camelot and Authorized and Motivator and High Chaparral in the past.

And Workforce proved in 2010 that you can finish second in the Dante before going on to win the Derby. (And the Arc.)

Wings Of Eagles finished second in the Chester Vase before springing a shock in the 2017 Derby but, sadly, this year’s impressive Vase winner Hidden Law suffered a fatal injury shortly after crossing the winning line at Chester, and the Vase runner-up Agenda doesn’t hold a Derby entry.

Harzand won the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown in 2016, then skipped the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial before winning at Epsom.

The Ballysax was one of the main Derby pointers in the early 2000s, it was won by Galileo and High Chaparral in 2001 and 2002 respectively, both of whom went on and won Leopardstown’s Derby Trial, run over the Ballysax course and distance, before winning the Derby.

Also, Sinndar was just beaten in the Ballysax in 2000 before winning the Derrinstown and then winning the Derby, and Yeats won the Ballysax and the Derrinstown in 2004, and he would have been favourite for the Derby that year had injury not ruled him out.

Dallas Star is this year’s Ballysax Stakes winner. Having his first run for Adrian Murray that day at Leopardstown, he was ridden positively by Seamie Heffernan in a race that was run at a really strong pace, and he saw off all-comers to spring a 50/1 shock.

Like Harzand in 2016, he skipped Leopardstown’s Derby Trial, and he could be an under-rated outsider if he takes his chance in the Derby.

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It is remarkable that you have to go back 22 years to find the last winner of the Leopardstown Derby Trial – the old Derrinstown, now the Cashel Palace Hotel Derby Trial – who followed up in the Derby. Even so, as a trial, it holds significance, and Los Angeles was a game winner of this year’s renewal.

A Group 1 winner in France as a juvenile, Aidan O’Brien’s horse battled on well to win at Leopardstown, and he should improve for the experience – his seasonal debut and just his third run ever – and for the step up to 12 furlongs.

It's shaping up to be an intriguing Derby. It usually is. All the unknowns, all the imponderables in one of the defining contests in the world of horse racing.

And interestingly, six of the last 10 Derby winners did not win a Group race as a two-year-old, so don’t go ruling out any horse just because he wasn’t among the top-rated juveniles last season.

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