In a race with many imitations but no true rival, Aidan O’Brien is primed to move himself beyond the storied legends of Derbys past, writes James Toney.
O’Brien is seeking a record eighth win this weekend with a six-strong raiding party travelling across from Ballydoyle.
Back in the early 19th century Robert Robson was known as the ‘Emperor of Trainers’, winning the race seven times for grandly-titled owners such as the Duke of Grafton, the best friend of William Pitt the Younger.
John Porter was the most successful trainer of the Victorian era, winning not just seven Derbys but three Triple Crowns. And then there was Fred Darling, who won his first Epsom showpiece in 1922 and his seventh 19 years later.
Sixty years then passed before Galileo soared into a different stratosphere to win O’Brien’s first Derby in memorable style.
High Chaparral followed up 12 months later but a decade went by before Camelot, under a brilliant and historic ride from son Joseph O’Brien, scorched to the second leg of an ultimately doomed Triple Crown bid.
Since then the Master of Ballydoyle has dominated, winning four of the next seven races, with Ruler of the World and Australia all obliging before 40-1 outsider Wings of Eagles flew home under a stunned race novice Padraig Beggy, proof that whoever he fires at the race is a threat.
Last year Anthony Van Dyck obliged for jockey Seamie Heffernan to make it a truly magnificent seven, meaning O’Brien is now poised to move to a plinth of his own in the pantheon of this most fabled of races.
“I suppose it all started with Galileo but I’ve got so many memories of great Derby winners,” said O’Brien.
“The thoroughbred breed is based on the Epsom Derby, it’s the ultimate test of the racehorse. It is physical and mental, they have to get the trip, they have to have pace, they have to act on the track.”
Frankie Dettori’s English King – a son of O’Brien’s legendary Camelot – will likely go to post as favourite this weekend, despite his unfavourable stall one draw, something of a kiss of death in the last two decades.
Oisin Murphy is also well-supported to deliver a second Classic for Andrew Balding on Kameko but there is a growing belief that O’Brien could have plotted another winner from up on the rails.
Mogul, an eye-catching juvenile last year, looked a little lacklustre when a distant fourth at Royal Ascot last month but with O’Brien it is all about timing and peaking when it really matters.
“We had to do an unorthodox thing with Mogul and we wanted one race to do the job of two at Royal Ascot,” he said.
“Firstly to know to give him a chance of winning a Derby, he had to run in the toughest trial. The risk was that he was going to get beaten but we felt it was a risk worth taking. What we’ve seen since has really impressed everyone. He’s bounced out of Ascot with a big smile on his face begging for more and we like where we are with him.”
Last year’s winning jockey Heffernan faces a busy weekend, taking charge of Russian Emperor, the winner of the Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot, before jetting to Chantilly where he’ll ride Order of Australia in French Derby, a race no Irish horse has won since Vincent O’Brien’s Caerleon in 1983.
O’Brien has booked William Buick for Amhran Na Bhfiann and James Doyle for Mythical and for the first time this season he will bring his Ballydoyle jockeys across the Irish Sea, Beggy riding Vatican City while Emmet McNamara partners Serpentine.
“Russian Emperor came out of his Ascot win well, we think Vatican City will get the trip but we don’t know if he’ll have enough class,” added O’Brien.
“Mythical has improved a lot for his last run at Curragh and is good traveller and Serpentine is seriously well-bred and stays well.
“Amhran Na Bhfiann is a lovely big horse who is getting better and his sister won an Oaks so he should get the trip too.”
It’s a squad with strength in numbers but Epsom’s unique characteristics don’t make it any easier. From the stalls the field rapidly climbs the 184 feet towards the seven furlong pole, the highest point on the course.
The rollercoaster then plunges downwards while undulating cambers can unbalance the most experienced of runners in the mile-and-a-half contest.
However, such is O’Brien’s attention to detail, he has got a version of Epsom’s famous Tattenham Corner on the gallops.
“You can’t recreate Epsom – the contours and everything about the place make it unique,” he adds. “It’s sport at the top level, everything gets tested – horses, jockeys, trainers – everything gets put to the test.
“I’d be delighted if we won it again, just delighted.”
Indeed it could be a weekend to remember for O’Brien, who will see 1000 Guineas winner Love go for the fillies’ classic at Epsom as he attempts to win the Derby and Oaks double yet again.
And then it’s all eyes on Chantilly, where he is looking to win the French equivalents for the first time, with Irish 1000 Guineas winner Peaceful taking on Jessica Harrington’s Royal Ascot heroine Alpine Star in the Prix de Diane.
Perhaps by Monday he could be celebrating something no trainer has ever achieved in the same year, a trifecta of Derbys at the Curragh, Epsom and Chantilly, with an Oaks winner either side of the Channel for good measure too.
A long shot forecast maybe but trends say you may be crazy to bet against it.