Steve Moran

Has The Derby – “The Derby” – lost its standing among the world’s great races?

In keeping with the spirit of mischief which was surely behind Peter Moody’s declaration that Australian trainers are better than their English and European counterparts, let’s have a crack at an ever holier grail. 

The Derby. The one run at Epsom Downs which apparently, like its golfing equivalent, needs no designation other than “The”. The Derby; The Open. 

Described as the “world’s greatest flat race” as recently as last week in the Racing Post. Described as the “ultimate test” and “our signature race” by ITV’s Ed Chamberlin before last Saturday’s 2021 edition of the 2400 metres Classic. 

I’m not so sure. Could it be, just maybe, it’s been in decline over the past ten years and is not the hallowed race it once was?

Last year it was ranked as low as the equal 93rd race in the world. In the past decade, the Derby has yielded just one genuinely great winner in Golden Horn (Cape Cross)…plus two good winners – Australia and Anthony Van Dyck by Galileo (Sadler’s Wells). The other seven had no claim to star status on the racetrack – notwithstanding that Wings Of Eagles (Pour Moi) had just one more run and won an edition of some depth. 

Only Golden Horn and Australia, among those ten winners from 2011, would go on to beat all comers at Group 1 level. From 2000 to 2010, by comparison, seven Derby winners would win against older horses at Group 1 level including three to take the Prix de l’arc de Triomphe. 

The Derby, of course, may simply have gone through something of a mixed decade and will resurrect itself again. After all, the decade from 2000 was much more in line with the word Classic given the winners included Sinndar (Grand Lodge), Galileo (Sadler’s Wells), High Chaparral (Sadler’s Wells), New Approach (Galileo), Authorized (Montjeu), Sea The Stars (Cape Cross) and Workforce (King’s Best) and was a stronger race than through the 1990s. 

The Derby’s mystique seemingly remains centred on the remarkable deeds of Coolmore’s 12 time champion stallion Galileo who won the race in 2001 and has subsequently sired five winners of it. But he is simply a freak and an exception to the rule. You have to go back to the 1980s to find a previous Derbywinning champion stallion –  Nijinsky (Northern Dancer) and Mill Reef (Never Bend) who were Derby winners during a lustrous 70s decade which is now a long, long time ago. 

The uniqueness of the course probably means the Derby remains a test but a test of what? Perhaps not sustained speed or class these days. No subsequent winner has gone within cooee of Workforce’s 2010 course record. 

In fairness, the race’s contemporary honour roll is probably no worse (or better) than that of the French or Irish equivalent or even that of a resurgent Japan. However, it is moderate compared to the list of Kentucky Derby winners over the past decade, notwithstanding whatever shadow you may choose to believe hangs over that race. 

This year’s winner Adayar (Frankel) has been tagged as the most visually impressive winner since Golden Horn but surely judgment must be, at least, reserved as he and 501 runner-up Mojo Star (Sea The Stars) hugged the rail and the fresh ground throughout which earlier winners on the card Parent’s Prayer and Oh This Is Us had indicated was advantageous. 

Adayar, whose win was sweetly complemented for Godolphin when Essential Quality (Tapit) took the Belmont Stakes hours later, scored decisively but so too did Serpentine (Galileo) last year and he’s not been competitive since. 

The win was also further testimony to the capability of trainer Charlie Appleby who won Godolphin’s first (Epsom) Derby with Masar (New Approach) in 2018. The trainer who became the first of his countrymen to train a Melbourne Cup winner.  An Englishman who could more than reasonably take offence to being labelled as inferior to Australian trainers – especially given his record in Australia. 

This year’s Derby may prove to be above average. Only time will tell, but I doubt it. 

I don’t mind the winner’s stablemate Hurricane Lane (Frankel) who was third. The Dante winner lost both front plates and may have benefitted from firmer ground at Epsom. However, 24 laters at Chantilly, two horses with form around Hurricane Lane (and indeed Adayar) disappointed in the French Derby – namely Megallan (Kingman) and El Drama (Lope De Vega). 

Alenquer (Alderflug) and Yibir (Dubawi), who finished alongside Adayar in the Sandown Classic Trial, are likely bound for the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot which will further add to the form story but it’s one which already looks a touch suspect. 

The Oaks, admittedly, has had no recent decline to suggest some endemic problem with three-year-olds crops. 

Five of the previous ten Oaks winners, before Snowfall’s 16-length romp last Friday,  could be reasonably described as high class – Taghrooda (Sea The Stars), Minding (Galileo), Enable (Nathaniel), Forever Together (Galileo) and Love (Galileo). All bar Minding, won by big margins – albeit well short of 16 lengths. 

Snowfall (Deep Impact) set a record winning Oaks margin on ground which was much softer than on Derby day – bettering the previous best of 12 lengths by Sun Princess (English Prince) in 1983. Sun Princess, incidentally, was then beaten in the King George before taking the Yorkshire Oaks and St Leger and finishing second in the Arc.

The Oaks runner-up Mystery Angel (Kodi Bear) is prepared by young training sensation George Boughey who, earlier, on the Oaks card had further improved his outstanding record with two-year-olds, claiming the Woodcote Sakes with Oscula (Galileo Gold). 

It was Boughey’s win which had me musing, if only to myself watching the overnight coverage, about Moody’s comments and the standing of the Classics. 

The training and racing world, if not in the past, is now well and truly entwined with only the training grounds a likely significant difference between the southern and northern hemisphere feeding and methods. Boughey, who has a 31 per-cent strike rate with his juveniles on turf and excelling in just his second season as a trainer, may have learnt something about two-year-olds during his stint with Gai Waterhouse, who also housed his former boss Hugo Palmer for a time. Or maybe not. Boughey also worked for Lloyd Williams.

Just as Michael Kent junior and Calvin McEvoy, and others, may or may not have learned something different about preparing staying horses during their time as pupil assistants in Newmarket. 

The top stable in Australia, right now, is of course headed by a New Zealander. Number two is the partnership of an Aussie and a Pom and it was them, Ciaron Maher and David Eustace, who tutored Australianbased English woman Annabel Neasham whose deeds with Zaaki (Leroidesanimaux) prompted Moody’s musing that our trainers are better than Europeans (if you follow or, indeed, if that makes any sense?).

God bless “Moods” really. He was stirring the pot – musing rather than accusing – which he has licence to do, unlike racing journalists who are generally expected to be cheerleaders rather than commentators. Nobody bats an eyelid if the form of a footballer is questioned but woe betide the racing scribe who dares suggest the same with a trainer or jockey or questions the quality of a horse, race or stallion. 

“Maybe he beat up on old pensioners, maybe, I don’t know,” Moody said of Zaaki after his sevenlength Group 1 Doomben Cup win – effectively answering his own question as to whether Neasham had dramatically improved the horse on Sir Michael Stoute. 

It’s extremely unlikely that she has done that, notwithstanding that she clearly has the horse in great order and form and deserves plaudits for that. Similarly, it’s unlikely that Moody made Manighar (Linamix) hugely faster or better than Luca Cumani. He just ran him in shorter races which may have been genius on his part or the dictate of genetic testing or both.

Zaaki, like Manighar, had very good Group 2 and Group 3 form in the UK and, for as long as I can remember, that translates to Group 1 form in Australia as we simply have less depth at the top end.

The English and Irish and some European horses – at 1600 metres plus – are simply better than ours – whether trained by us or them. That’s the way their breeding is slanted. The evidence is overwhelming. Perhaps even damning when you consider that Best Solution (Kodiac), Sir Dragonet (Camelot) and Rekindling (High Chaparral) – who could not finish in the first four in the Epsom Derby and had not won at Group 1 level on English or Irish soil – have recently annexed Melbourne’s three flagship spring races.