A historic day for Irish trainer Dermot Weld, who celebrated a first Derby success thanks to his brilliant Sea The Stars colt Harzand, who followed in the footsteps of his prominent daddy, who himself now sired a first Epsom Derby winner!
It was not a trouble free preparation, though. In fact it was touch and go in the morning whether Harzand would take his chance in the most famous flat race and the ultimate call was actually with Pat Smullen cantering down to the start! He went into the starting gate, thankfully, as we know the outcome by now.
Under a masterful ride by jockey Pat Smullen – also for him a first Epsom Derby success – the inexperienced colt was patiently guided through the field; Smullen settled him in a good position somewhere in midfield and rode with a cool head when gaps didn’t open up immediately in the home straight.
Harzand ultimately fend off a late surge by favourite US Army Ranger. He dug deep and found another gear when it really mattered. Given all the foot problems beforehand, it was a brilliant performance!
And The Ranger, whom I’ve been so keen on? Finished runner-up with plenty of credit. He clearly proved to be a classy individual. However it didn’t go to plan for him. Ever so slightly, yet decisively, he missed the break and didn’t seem to travel particularly well early on, subsequently lost every chance to be in a decent position. In a race where small margins can be the deciding factor about victory and defeat this was surely a tough ask to overcome.
Good Ryan, Bad Ryan?
After the less than ideal start, Jockey Ryan Moore took it easy on US Army Ranger, settled in rear, relaxed the horse and let him find his rhythm. Commentator Richard Hoiles called it during the race: “Us Army Ranger is given time” – which was the only real option in my mind. He was still third last turning for home but Moore gradually edged to the outer of the field to get a run. Gaps didn’t open for him and only inside three furlongs Ranger finally got into the clear.
Winner Harzand was already flown towards home at this stage, still Ranger produced a stunning change of gear and loomed large with 200 yards to go. But the big effort to make up so much ground in such a short space of time showed its effect and he ran out of gas in the final furlong.
Ryan Moore has come under scrutiny for his ride on US Army Ranger. As often in this game, opinions are divided. In my view this was a class ride by the world’s best jockey. He proved, despite defeat, why he’s simply the best. In difficult circumstances he gave his mount the best possible chance to finish as close as possible. Not always is a winning ride a good one and a losing ride a bad one.
Sure, it wasn’t the game plan to travel as far back as second or third last for large parts of the race. But inexperienced Ranger didn’t help the cause when he bottled the start. What other option did Moore haven than let the horse find his stride, relax him and try to preserve as much energy as possible? Hustling him up to make up ground would have been detrimental to Ranger’s chance, in my mind.
The fact that gaps didn’t open up when Moore (and I as a punter) would have wanted it is not his fault. These things happen in racing. Imagine the gap would open up over 4f out though – Ranger cruises through it, and maybe wins the race. You know what happens then? Moore’s going to be the hero!
It wasn’t to be. The gap didn’t open, Moore had to delay and ask Ranger for an almighty effort when the road was finally clear. In the end it was all a bit too much for US Army Ranger who still finished second – what is in fact credit to his class and the one of his rider.
In the end inexperience cost him, and for that reason it’s fair to say the best horse on the day won. Harzand was more professional, mastered the difficult test Epsom provides and is without a doubt a really good winner of the world’s most famous flat race.
Minding and the Beauty of Racing
These last two days were yet again a wonderful reminder why I personally love flat racing so much. Yes, it was a disappointment not to back the winner in the Derby with US Army Ranger, still I enjoyed the coverage, the races leading up to the big one, Postponed’s brilliant success in the Coronation Cup, the joy and emotions on Weld & Smullen’s faces after they won their first Derby….
However it was Friday’s performance by Minding in the Oaks that is the standout of the two days – she simply blew me away! When I saw her overcoming all the trouble in the Oaks, when I saw her blistering turn of foot, changing gears so smoothly like Formula 1 cars usually do, her wonderful attitude and enthusiasm – it was something else!
The speed, the beauty, the power, the elegance – it’s what flat racing is all about and it’s epitomized in this dramatically good looking and at the same time incredibly talented filly Minding. Her Oaks performance was one of those special racing moments you have to see to believe.
And no, I didn’t back her. It has nothing to do with money whatsoever. I’m just grateful for having witnessed her performance for the pure love of the sport. And on that front isn’t it wonderful to know our sport is yet again blessed with brilliant talents like Minding, Harzand and US Army Ranger? I love it!