Category Archives: Epsom Derby

Preview: Epsom Derby 2019

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No overly dramatic talk is needed about how great a race the Epsom Derby is. We all know it remains the number one in the racing calendar – the one not to miss, the date marked red. Personally I’m more in love with other races but the Derby is the Derby for a simple reason: it’s history defining.

Horses can contest it only once in their life: a chance to write history and following in the footsteps of racing greats such as Shergar, Galileo or Sea The Stars comes once and never again. Derby winners are remembered. The runner-up never is.

As we’re about to find out which colt will make history this year I have to confess: I’m all over Sir Dragonet to be the one remembered! I was delighted when he was supplemented for the race; as if there was ever any doubt after what he did at Chester?

Let me be frank: you don’t see all that often a horse doing what Sir Dragonet did in the Chester Vase last month. It was only his second career start after debuting only a fortnight earlier in a Tipperary maiden.

This fact shows the general inexperience of this son of Camelot. He’s got only two starts to his name to date. He certainly looked in need of the experience at Chester. He better have learned plenty that day.

Another concern is the ground. He’s only proven with cut in the ground. Epsom will ride much faster. hence you also can question the merit of the Chester form.

Those two question marks aside. there is so much more to love about Sir Dragonet. He’s obviously supremely well bred for the job, given his daddy was a Derby winner himself plus he has the legendary Urban Sea in his pedigree as well.

His debut performance at Tipperary was eye-catching. His Chester Vase was victory visually stunning. The way he moved through the early parts of the race, not quite comfortable, very much learning his craft, how he then made smooth progress on the outside from 4f out, turning for home hard on the bridle, and then pushed out a light under hands and heels ride to win by 8 lengths as easy as he liked.

This performance is highly rated on the clock as well. Sir Dragonet ran to a 106 Time Speed figure. Reminder: he did it on what was only his second ever career start and he did did it with ease. Insane.

More importantly: no other horse in this field ran faster so far – only stable mate Anthony Van Dyck ran to a TS rating of 100+ in this field – which he did as a juvenile over 7 furlongs.

That’s not to say the likes of Broome, Telecaster or Bangkok can’t improve for the Derby trip. The fact I merely state is that judged on time speed ratings – which I rate highly, even though they have their own flaws, of course – none of the other market principles has proven yet to be able to ran to anything that matches Sir Dragonet’s Chester run.

Whether he can reproduce such an impressive performance on different ground in a pressurised environment with loads of different sights and sounds is the main question. Of course that’s always the danger with an inexperienced individual as Sir Dragonet is.

Regardless; as unoriginal as it seems, given Sir Dragonet is heading the betting and is trained by Aiden O’Brien, he’s my clear choice for the 2019 Epsom Derby.

Selection:
10pts win – Sir Dragonet @ 3/1 PP

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Epsom Review: Minding The Gap

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!

Photo Credit to citizen.co.za

Why I back US Army Ranger

 “Everyone is knocking this horse, but they shouldn’t ….If we hadn’t have ran Port Douglas, US Army Ranger would have been an eight-length winner and would be a very short price for the Derby.”

Interesting words from Aiden O’Brien the morning after the Chester Vase when assessing the performance of his main Derby hope US Army Ranger, who, up until 24 hours earlier, was a rather foolish short priced favourite for the Epsom Derby – based solely on reputation, good hope and a single – albeit impressive – maiden win.

This verbal endorsement from Mr. O’Brien carries some weight though, doesn’t it? Sure, we hear it often enough from these connections; the “best we ever had” slogan comes all too easy over their lips, as critics rightly point out. Yet, this time it stands in a different light, I feel. It goes deeper.

These words and the overall reaction coming out of the Ballydoyle camp after what was widely regarded as an underwhelming success of US Army Ranger at Chester, felt more like wounded pride to me. How dare you doubting this horse? How dare you doubting our judgement?

They really seem to believe in this lad. And they are vocal about it. So no surprise to hear Joseph O’Brien adding: “He (US Army Ranger) shouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing (at this stage of his career). He could be really good.”

But then, jumping on the defence of US Army Ranger is not necessary. What does AOB care about the nagging doubts many in the world of racing have about his star colt? Let the race in June speak for itself! But that’s not what’s happening here. Team Ballydoyle wants everyone to know how much they like US Army Ranger.

Maybe that is because they have largely an underwhelming crop of three year old colts on their hands this season. Though, that might be better judged at the end of the season, given all those tremendously well bred colts walking around the paddock at County Tipperary every morning. Least we forget sometimes these horses just need a bit of time and suddenly appear to improve dramatically from one run to the next.

So why are they pushing this lad so much? All hot air? All calculated risk? All in the name of commercial success for the future stallion US Army Ranger? Yes, maybe.

Steep Learning Curve

Plenty of different opinions have been voiced in the aftermath of the Chester Vase. US Army Ranger scrambled home against stable mate Port Douglas, prevailing by a narrow margin. The ride on the runner-up came under scrutiny subsequently. Why did Seamie Heffernan not shut the door on the inside, why did he not go for his whip in the final furlong? All legit questions.

But the answer to those questions – does it actually matter in the grand scheme of things? What would have changed if Port Douglas would have prevailed by a short head? I reckon not much, expect for those who were the unlucky folks with a wager on him in the Chester Vase.

What this race did change was the general perception of US Army Ranger. Bookies, punters and racing experts alike clearly cooled off; three minutes was all it took, the sexy horse was not so sexy any more.

US Army Ranger himself won’t care much about all the fuzz. For him it was all about experience. Experience he doesn’t have much. He didn’t race as a juvenile. In that sense history is against him. A Derby winner unraced as a two year old is not all that common.

That aside there was plenty to like about his debut run at the Curragh in April. He was clearly green and probably didn’t really know he was in a race. Under a hands and heels ride he prevailed with plenty in hand, which was probably no more than a good workout. To step up from there right into a Group 3 at the odd track that Chester is, with huge crowds as far the eye can see – it must have been a bit of a culture shock for him.

Mind, the Chester Vase was probably not that strong a race quality wise, with only stable mate Port Douglas a serious rival. This Port Douglas, an experienced horse, with five runs under his belt at the time, already a Group 2 winner, provided a first stern test. US Army Ranger didn’t pass with flying flags. He passed with merit.

It is fair to assume he would have learned more in this one race at this strange, noisy, crowded, ever turning Chester track than he would have in two or three races elsewhere. That is the benefit of taking horses over there. And that’s the reason why Aiden O’Brien loves to bring his top prospects over there. They learn allot and he learns allot about them.

Did US Army Ranger show enough to be a real Derby contender, though? It always depends on the perspective. On the pure visual impact of the performance and on what was in the race rating wise he probably did not. If you believe he can learn and improve big time for this run, which – one shouldn’t forget – was only his second career start – he probably is one.

Now actuality has caught up with me – the essay above may be slightly outdated, given I wrote it the day after the Chester Vase and just forgot to publish it. But then has so much changed in the meantime?

To an extend, yes. There wasn’t much talk about USAR in recent weeks, and the fact that Aiden O’Brien saddles four other stable mates on D-day doesn’t scream confidence. Yet I stick to what I said and felt back then. He’s the one I want, he’s the one they all have to beat.

What about the opposition?

Something between underwhelming and decent. John Gosden’s Dante winner Wings Of Desire is clearly talented. He beat Aiden O’Brien’s Deauville in a tight finish. It remains to be seen what this form is worth. For all what it is now it doesn’t look all that impressive, though Wings Of Desire is certain to improve for going back up in trip.

Never underestimate Ande Fabre. His experienced Sea The Stars colt Cloth Of Stars is two from two this year. He never tried the trip before but should be fine. I rate him the main danger in this field.

Lingfield Derby Trial winner Humphrey Bogart appears to be a one paced individual and was probably lucky to win anyway, given third placed  Across The Stars was full of running but never got a chance in the closing stages. He’s the better prospect of the two, and Kieren Fallon’s glooming words are to note.

Hazard landed the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown. He’s an exciting prospect, the form works out well and he is one of the more likely candidates to be in the shake-up, though has to prove his stamina over the Derby trip. A slightly underwhelming Idaho finished runner-up in the Ballysax. Clearly talented, but this big horse may not be ideally suited to Epsom I fear.

The Stoute camp really likes their leading prospect Ulysses. An impressive maiden win last time out, is still a dramatic step up in class. Irish Derby Trial winner Moonlight Magic has at least Group form in the book, and those gutsy types trained by Jim Bolger can often outrun their price tag.

 

Quite a few people jumped on the Port Douglas bandwagon right after the Chester Vase. And it’s easy to see why. He’s a big price and you can argue he was at least the moral winner of the Chester Vase. His performance there must give him a fair shot at the Derby.

Some arguments against could be: that was his sixth career start – how much more has he to offer? And is he best as a fresh horse? His three strongest performances came either on his debut or after a break – though he’s been off since Chester and that might be enough.

Summary

Is the form of anyone in today’s Derby field so much better than what US Army Ranger has achieved? Not really if you ask me. But to cut a long story short: this years Derby shapes like an underwhelming renewal. Unless something steps up or blows us away on the day itself. Can US Army Ranger be the one?

Of course he can! Look, I loved his debut run, I believe he learned plenty at Chester and I believe in the words coming out of the Ballydoyle camp stating this guys is massively talented. Am I naive? Possibly.

I am also aware of the fact there are plenty of stark opinions out there contrary to anything I argue here. That’s fine. This game is in fact all about opinions. Often different opinions. It’s the salt in the soup. And admittedly, I’m getting it often enough wrong. With that I’m certainly not alone, though.

Still, at 13/2 it is hard for me to pass on US Army Ranger for all the mentioned reasons. If he is as good a horse as I hope he is, this certainly is a big price. Particularly if you take the reasons on board why Chester was less a disaster as many like to think.

Photo: all credit Skysports.com