Aidan O’Brien creates a thrilling Derby at Epsom, but was it top-class form?
Pre-race assertions that the dominance of Aidan O’Brien would spoil the Investec Derby were turned into misguided folly as the contest unfolded on the Epsom Downs.
Instead, it was almost entirely down to the Ballydoyle battalions that the 240th running of the great race was a richly competitive thriller.
Not only was O’Brien responsible for the winner, he also saddled five of the first six, four of whom were separated by less than a length in a finish that delighted a sell-out crowd.
ANTHONY VAN DYCK was a record-equalling seventh Derby success for the remarkable O’Brien, following hard on the heels of the colt’s dad, Galileo, in 2001, High Chaparral in 2002, Camelot in 2012, Ruler Of The World in 2013, Australia in 2014 and Wings Of Eagles in 2017. What on earth was the man playing at between 2002 and 2012?!
Whether Anthony Van Dyck will prove to be quite as good as most of those predecessors remains to be seen, as will the value of the form of Saturday’s race. Although I was pleased to have backed him and tipped him, my initial impression was no, and probably not much. Old-school race-readers would certainly question the merit of a race in which a blanket can be thrown over the leading quintet.
Nevertheless, recent history tells that it is very difficult to get a proper handle on O’Brien 3yos at this stage of the season because they are open to any amount of improvement.
I thought it was significant that Anthony Van Dyck, a veritable sturdy barrel of a colt, and the fourth, BROOME, were the two who were most relaxed of the entire field in the paddock, reflecting almost certainly the experience advantage they had over most of their rivals.
Less battle-hardened were stablemates JAPAN and SIR DRAGONET, but both ran respectable races to suggest they are sure to come into their Group One own later in the campaign. Japan, in particular, has caught the eye, running on nicely from uncompromising positions, on both of his starts this term when probably not fully wound up. I am sure he can be competitive in the Irish Derby. There were few excuses for Sir Dragonet, who was perfectly placed throughout by Ryan Moore and very much got the run of the race. But his failure to change gear should not detract from his prospects as a stayer, especially as this was only the third start of his career and especially as he looked absolutely immaculate beforehand. In fact, the stand-out pick of the paddock.
Having said all of that, it must also be noted that Anthony Van Dyck would have been a much more clearcut winner but for getting messed about behind horses around the 3f and 2f poles. Yes, he’d been pushed along from Tattenham Corner, but he was responding and beginning to hit top gear at the time, so full marks to jockey Seamie Heffernan for possessing the nous to switch him to the inner to make his winning charge.
Talking of a form assessment, I am sure the presence in second of the classy 2,000 Guineas fourth, MADHMOON, gives the race ballast. A lovely-looking colt, he travelled into contention like the winner, despite taking a minor stumble on the descent into the straight, and his turn of foot actually contributed to the aforementioned hemming-in of Anthony Van Dyck. He kept on gamely for heavy pressure too, although the suspicion lingers that 10f will be his optimum trip, as his pedigree suggests.
The first five, all trained in Ireland, were well clear of the rest, and it has to go down as a wake-up call for UK handlers that the first colt home to be based in this country was the 33/1 outsider HUMANITARIAN. Sadly, our strongest fancies, TELECASTER and BANGKOK, bombed big time, with Hughie Morrison’s Dante winner running free and flat as if a fourth race in quick succession was too much for him to take, and Andrew Balding’s fancy getting quite badly worked up beforehand and not appearing to handle the track.
Both are much better than they showed, but that is not to detract from the effort of John Gosden’s Humanitarian, who belied his odds and inexperience with a most eyecatching display on the huge step-up from a Class 5 novice at Salisbury to the highest of Group One company. Anchored in rear, the son of Frankel’s brother, Noble Mission, was the last to be asked to pick up in the home straight, as if the outing was more about education than glory. But pick up he did, running on relentlessly through the final furlong. A major prize awaits him.
Gosden, of course, had underlined his skills the previous day when bagging the Investec Oaks with a filly, ANAPURNA, who has improved dramatically with each of her four runs. She showed an admirably tenacious attitude to wrest the initiative from O’Brien’s PINK DOGWOOD, who looked a filly of serious talent with the way she quickened to the front 2f out and is not one I’d be wanting to desert for the rest of the campaign.
Yes, the pair took full advantage of lots of scrimmaging in behind, but of their perceived main rivals, MAQSAD palpably failed to stay and while the favourite, MEHDAAYIH, also trained by Gosden, suffered two bouts of interference, she wasn’t really quickening up at the time and might prove to need the kind of give in the ground she got at Chester to perform to her best.
That O’Brien and Gosden bossed the Classics came as no surprise. They are masters of their craft, and the Surrey sun provided a fitting theatre in which they could bask at what proved to be a most enjoyable two-day meeting. From the state of the ground to the atmosphere within the track, the Epsom executive can feel chuffed with the show they put on. The quality of the support races stood up too, which isn’t always the case.
There exists an agenda within the racing media to denigrate the Derby, but its pulling-power remains substantial across the country. Even on a day when so many other major sporting occasions were taking place, coverage in the national mainstream press was excellent. Free bet offers featured on the front pages of many papers, while others went to town inside. For example, the i paper devoted the best part of four pages to Epsom coverage -- and this from a publication that, until not so long ago, did not feature racing at all.
In this context, it was disappointing that ITV’s coverage yielded, for the third year running, viewing figures worse than that in 2013 of Channel 4, even though it boasts four times the average audience-share of that station. Or perhaps, the figures underscore the rapidly changing landscape of TV viewing and the rapidly changing habits of TV viewers.
It would not surprise me either if the hardened racing aficionados not at Epsom chose to watch the race on Racing TV instead of the terrestrial channel. In its efforts to appeal to a wider spectrum of viewers, there is a danger that ITV’s efforts can come across as shallow.
Criticism of ITV’s Derby coverage manifested itself via Twitter derision of segments between races on fashion. Such segments can easily be defended at Royal Ascot, where dressing-up is an intrinsic part of the event. Epsom is more of a raucous, bawdy, down-to-earth occasion. Indeed, I would argue it is ludicrous to impose a dress code of top hat and tails in the Queen’s Stand on Derby Day, only yards from the most popular enclosures where it is not even a requirement to wear a suit, or jacket, or tie, and where even jeans are allowed.
The haughty dress-code stems from the misplaced perception that years of tradition must be respected. Someone brave enough needs to change it. Perhaps, considering he’s currently re-writing the Epsom history books, we could ask Aidan O’Brien.