The turf

The thoroughbred exists because of a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

In the previous 17 runnings of the Derby this century no fewer than nine had been won by horses trained in Ireland. The Ballydoyle genius Aidan O’Brien had won four out of the last six for ‘the lads’ behind the Coolmore operation, and with his Saxon Warrior (already the winner of this season’s 2,000 Guineas) the odds-on favourite at Epsom, and four more O’Brien horses in the field of 12, bookies and punters alike were expecting this year to be ‘déjà vu all over again’.

The day before, O’Brien and the lads had won the Oaks, the fillies’ equivalent, with Forever Together, sired like so many of their winners by the 2001 Derby winner Galileo and ridden by Aidan’s youngest son Donnacha. In second place in that race, a position he had twice before occupied in the Derby, was William Buick, first-choice rider for the familiar blue silks of Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation. That night, Charlie Appleby, for the past five years one of Sheikh Mo’s two British-based trainers, went home wondering, as he had for a while, ‘just what we had to do to get in front of Coolmore’.

The next day, as the Buick-ridden, Appleby-trained Masar powered home to win the Derby from Dee Ex Bee and Roaring Lion, with Saxon Warrior only in fourth, much of the racing world shared the obvious joy of the sometimes formidably hawk-eyed Sheikh Mohammed and the Dubai ruler’s family. It is not that they, or any one of us, can resent the phenomenal successes of Aidan and his team. Son Donnacha, as modest and intelligent a 19-year-old as you could find worldwide, is only the latest prodigy stamped out in that hard-working, self-deprecating O’Brien mould. But competition is the essence of racing. Formula One only truly engages attention when both Mercedes and Ferrari are firing, and the Derby is special. As this column has noted before, Federico Tesio, the breeder of the great Ribot, once insisted: ‘The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended not on experts, technicians or zoologists but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby.’ So if any one yard or breeding team seems to be establishing a near-monopoly in getting their three-year- olds first past that piece of wood then our sport is poorer. It doesn’t matter that Sheikh Mohammed and his team, like ‘the lads’, have almost uncountable oodles of the folding stuff; at the top level this is not a sport for those with short pockets. Like Sheikh Mohammed’s team, racing as a whole needed to see a Godolphin Derby winner trained in Britain, and the extraordinary thing is how long it has taken.

In between turning Dubai into a holiday resort and sporting mecca, Sheikh Mohammed has been pouring money into racing worldwide, but especially into British racing since the early 1980s. His Godolphin team, created in 1994, has been the winning owner in Britain on a dozen occasions and has won more than 250 Group One or Grade 1 races across the world. But he and his team knew there was one thing missing. A family friend of William Buick’s told me, on the morning of the Derby, how he used to watch the infant William astride a sofa riding finishes and challenging observers to say which famous jockey’s style he was employing. That afternoon, William, who speaks fluent Norwegian thanks to his father Walter having been a champion jockey in Scandinavia, became the first jockey to drive first past the post in the Derby in the blue Godolphin silks and, after a succinct summary of how he had ridden the race, he summed up the Derby’s importance: ‘It’s something really special. It’s the pinnacle of the sport, the Holy Grail, the be-all-and-end-all, the everything. It means the absolute world to me.’

So it did to Sheikh Mohammed. Twenty-three years before, his other British-based trainer, Saeed bin Suroor, had won the Derby with Lammtarra, but that was in the colours of Sheikh Mo’s nephew Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum. This really was the first for the Boys in Blue. Not only that, Masar was the son of their own stallion New Approach, who won the race in 2008, while the second horse home, Dee Ex Bee, was owned by Sheikh Mohammed’s son Sheikh Hamdan.

Coolmore will be back, do not doubt it, but it was a good day for racing and there was much else to applaud at this year’s Derby Festival. High levels of staff, sheer professionalism and the sense of fun that provides stilt walkers in slinky bodysuits and bouncy rhythm groups like the Roaming Revels ensured that the crowds enjoyed themselves without any ugly outbreaks of hooliganism. It was sensible, too, given the heat to have strolling backpackers dispensing free iced water. Investec can be proud of its decade as sponsor. And as punters we should watch out now for three Derby Festival winners: Richard Fahey’s two-year- old Cosmic Law, Simon Crisford’s Century Dream (on soft ground) and Martyn Meade’s improving filly Wilamina.

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