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Dublin: 3 °C Wednesday 13 November, 2019

Donn McClean: Ballydoyle puzzle as tricky as ever following five-star Derby day

Aidan O’Brien joined an elite group with Anthony van Dyck’s win on Saturday.

Seamie Heffernan and Anthony van Dyck lead home an Irish sweep of the first six places.
Seamie Heffernan and Anthony van Dyck lead home an Irish sweep of the first six places.
Image: Simon Cooper

SATURDAY’S INVESTEC DERBY was a thrilling race, an exciting race. Visually, as a sporting contest, it made for compelling viewing from start to finish.

As has been well documented, in winning the race, Anthony Van Dyck brought up Aidan O’Brien’s seventh Derby win, which took the trainer, in terms of Derby prolificacy, past his predecessor at Ballydoyle, the legendary Vincent O’Brien, and equalled the all-time Derby record. That is a record that is deserving of consideration.

The Epsom Derby was first run in 1780. It has been run every year since then, including during the War years. No trainer has trained more than seven winners of the race. Before Saturday, just three people had achieved that feat: chronologically, Robert Robson, John Porter and Fred Darling, with Fred Darling’s last two wins recorded during the War years. On Saturday, 78 years after Fred Darling’s seventh, Aidan O’Brien joined that elite group.

It has not been a continuum. Galileo back in 2001 was Aidan O’Brien’s first Derby winner, but there were 10 years and nine Derby winners between his second High Chaparral and his third Camelot.

Aidan O’Brien has now won five of the last eight Derbys and, with Dermot Weld sending out Harzand to win the race under Pat Smullen in 2016, that means that Irish-trained horses have won six of the last eight. In terms of sporting achievement, we shouldn’t take that for granted. There have been fallow times. There was no Irish-trained Derby winner after Secreto in 1984 until Johnny Murtagh booted the John Oxx-trained Sinndar home in 2000.

Interestingly, while Lester Piggott rode four of Vincent O’Brien’s six Derby winners, Aidan’s seven have been ridden by six different jockeys. Michael Kinane, Johnny Murtagh, Ryan Moore and Padraig Beggy have ridden one each, while Joseph O’Brien has ridden two. Now you can add Seamie Heffernan to the list.

Heffernan had gone close in the Derby before. In 2009, he finished second to Sea The Stars on the 9/4 favourite Fame And Glory. The following year, he finished second on the 100/1 shot At First Sight behind Workforce. Just shows you, it doesn’t matter how big their SPs are, these Ballydoyle horses don’t travel to Epsom just to make up the numbers.

Investec Derby Festival 2019 - Derby Day - Epsom Downs Racecourse Seamie Heffernan, right, and Aidan O'Brien, left, collect the trophy for the Investec Derby Stakes. Source: Simon Cooper

There were seven Ballydoyle colts in this year’s Derby, and five of the seven filled five of the first six places. And it was Madhmoon, trained by octogenarian Kevin Prendergast on The Curragh, who got in among them, who finished second under Chris Hayes. That’s the first six home that were trained in Ireland.

Anthony Van Dyck was only third best of the Ballydoyle brigade going into the race according to the market, and only fourth best of the Derby field overall, but, even so, he wasn’t allowed go off at a wild price. Just 13/2. Contrast that with the aforementioned At First Sight, who was also third best in the market of the Ballydoyle contingent in 2010, but who was allowed go off at 100/1, or with Treasure Beach, who was fourth best of the Ballydoyle team in the 2011 Derby, and was sent off at 25/1 when he and Colm O’Donoghue were beaten by a head by Pour Moi.

The realisation that the pecking order of the Ballydoyle Derby team is difficult to determine before the Derby is run is factored into the market these days.

And this year, it may be that the pecking order is not even set in stone after the Derby has been run.

Anthony Van Dyck obviously put up a big performance in winning the race. The Galileo colt didn’t have the run of the race either; he was squeezed out of it a bit at the two-furlong marker, Heffernan had to sit and suffer a little and allow the gap to appear in front of him before he could ask his horse for his effort. Switching towards the far rail, he finished off his race best of all to get up and win by a half a length.

It was a strong performance by the Lingfield Derby Trial winner. It looks like the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at The Curragh at the end of June will be his next target, and that makes sense.

The next four home at Epsom — Madhmoon, Japan, Broome and Sir Dragonet — were separated by a nose and a short head and a short head. Just head-bobs and nostril-flares between them.

Madhmoon stumbled a little on the home turn and he did well to recover his equilibrium and run on as well as he did. Chris Hayes was anxious to hold onto him for as long as he could, given that his stamina for a mile and a half was unproven. He had never been beyond a mile before in his life. But the rider really had to go when he went, when the gap was there, as Sir Dragonet loomed up on his outside.

The Dawn Approach colt picked up well and hit the front at the furlong pole, and it looked like he might out-battle Sir Dragonet. He did, and that was to his immense credit, but he couldn’t withstand Anthony Van Dyck’s late lunge on the far side.

You couldn’t say that Madhmoon didn’t stay a mile and a half on this evidence: second in the Derby. That said, it may be that he will be even more effective back over 10 furlongs. He travelled so well into his race, and he showed so much pace from three out to two out. You would love to see him take on the older horses in the Eclipse next.

Broome stayed all right, as you suspected he would. The Australia colt had never ventured beyond 10 furlongs before, but the manner in which he stayed on in winning the Ballysax Stakes and the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial suggested that he would get a mile and a half all right, and that he could even improve for the step up in trip, which he probably did.

That said, with an eye on the future, there could be more improvement forthcoming from his stable companions Japan and Sir Dragonet. Japan was expected to come on significantly for his run in the Dante, which he duly did. But, winner of the Beresford Stakes last September, this was just his second run of the season. It would be surprising if the Galileo colt did not progress again.

Sir Dragonet only finished fifth in the end, but he still ran big race. Sent off as favourite, when he and Ryan Moore started to make their move at the three-furlong marker, it looked like it was a move that could carry them to victory. In the end, he wasn’t as strong in the finish as some of his rivals.

It is unlikely that it was a lack of stamina that beat him. He is stoutly bred, by Guineas and Derby winner and St Leger runner-up Camelot, out of a half-sister to a Cheshire Oaks winner and Epsom Oaks runner-up, and his two runs, his two wins before the Derby, were both over a mile and a half. Perhaps it was down to a lack of experience.

This was just Sir Dragonet’s third race. Unraced as a juvenile, he didn’t make his racecourse debut until 25 April this year, just over five weeks before the Derby. His learning curve has been steep, and there is every chance that the Camelot colt will progress again for this experience. He is another who could be aimed at the Irish Derby now by Aidan O’Brien and, if he is, he should be a leading player in what could be another fascinating contest.

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Donn McClean

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