The turf

Why the Derby is the ultimate test

8 June 2019

9:00 AM

8 June 2019

9:00 AM

There is a danger that memories of the 2019 Epsom Derby will be swamped by statistics. By training his seventh Derby winner in Anthony Van Dyck, the self-effacing Aidan O’Brien equalled the totals set by Robert Robson, John Porter and Fred Darling between 1793 and 1941. The first of Aidan’s Derby successes, Galileo in 2001, has sired four of the winners since then. No fewer than seven of the 13 runners in this year’s scurry over Surrey for the Blue Riband of the Turf came from Aidan’s Ballydoyle team and five of them were in the first six past the post. John Magnier, the driving force of the Coolmore team, has now had a share in the ownership of ten Derby winners, nine of them trained at Ballydoyle.

But in a sense all that is for the anoraks. What made this year’s Derby such a delight was the pulsating nature of the contest and the characters involved in the drama. When Anthony Van Dyck flashed past the post first, after being driven through a gap to deliver his run along the rail, there were three horses just half a length behind him on the outside and it took the camera to determine that it was Madhmoon who had held on for second, a nose ahead of Japan, who beat Broome into fourth place by a short head. A single horse blanket would have covered the three. You could not have contrived a more exciting finish or a more enthralling advertisement for the joy of watching horse racing.

The Queen has no doubt about those pleasures. She has never won the Derby herself but since her Aureole finished second in 1953, she has only twice missed seeing the race and before racing began on Saturday she unveiled a life-size statue of the man who has his own remarkable set of Derby statistics: Lester Piggott rode in the race 36 times and won it nine times. A more than averagely loquacious Piggott called sculptor Willie Newton’s bronze ‘marvellous’. Better than the time a biographer asked him for his thoughts on his greatest Derby winner. After a two-minute pause, the full response was: ‘Nice ’orse’. Former jockey Jason Weaver, the shrewdest analyst of an ITV team who have brought both zest and humanity to racing’s most vital shop window, hit the button as usual when he said of Piggott: ‘When he came here [to Epsom] he didn’t let the nervous energy of the place affect him — he just took it all in and didn’t transfer it to the horse.’ And it is that capacity to keep calm — and keep your mount calm, too — that is so crucial, with split-second decisions having to be taken in the hurly-burly of the Derby.

The Coolmore operation have no doubt about what is the most important race in the world. As Aidan put it: ‘We have to pinch ourselves every day. We’re working with the best people, the most incredible horses with unbelievable pedigrees and physiques in the best facilities. The Derby is the ultimate test: it tests their speed, their stamina, their agility and mentality. This race is so tough to win every year, that’s why we run so many horses.’ But even ‘the lads’, as Aidan describes the operation headed by John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, don’t know in advance which of their four-legged team members is going to deliver best on the day. This year their No. 1 jockey, Ryan Moore, was on the favourite Sir Dragonet, who finished fifth. Aidan’s precociously talented but tall son Donnacha, who will only have so many Derbies before weight forces him out of the saddle, was on the second favourite Broome, who came fourth.

But Coolmore have strength in depth in the saddle too and there was no doubting their obvious pleasure that the man in the plate on Sir Anthony Van Dyck was their long-time squad member Seamie Heffernan, now 46. Aidan trusts his team — remember Padraig Beggy, who won the Derby on the 40–1 shot Wings of Eagles in 2017 on only his ninth ride of the year — and the team trust Aidan. Asked if he had expected to win on his 12th Derby ride, Seamus locked his tongue firmly in his cheek and noted: ‘It was only a matter of time!’ Pointing out that no other yard in Ireland could have provided him with a dozen Derby chances, he added: ‘I’m into the last ten years of my career. I was second on the favourite one year and second on a 150–1 shot the next, so you never know where they’ll finish when Aidan trains them. I’m lucky I don’t have the choice [of which one he rides]. If you did, and got it right 51 per cent of the time, you’d be doing well.’

Seamie Heffernan’s association with Coolmore, as their supersub, has brought him plenty of big wins and Aidan was happy to remind the world’s media that his first Derby success was no one-off: ‘He is an unbelievable feller — and a world-class jockey.’

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