DERBY VERDICT: why Godolphin deserved the glory, and why the hot favourite was beaten
The smug postscript to last week's pre-Derby column would be to celebrate the fact that yes, my fancy ROARING LION did indeed make it third time lucky and exact his revenge on the hot favourite, SAXON WARRIOR.
The more salient postscript is that no, John Gosden’s colt did not make it third time lucky and exact his revenge on MASAR.
Roaring Lion might well have reversed Qipco 2,000 Guineas and Racing Post Trophy form with Aidan O’Brien’s charge. But despite travelling like the best horse in the race for most of the way, he could not alter the balance of power with Charlie Appleby’s colt from their previous meetings in the Craven Stakes and the Guineas.
Instead Masar became the first winner of the historic race in the royal blue silks of Godolphin. Equally tellingly, and in stark contrast to the era, not so long ago, when Sheikh Mohammed’s outfit sought to buy their way to Group One glory, Masar was a horse they bred themselves.
Joy was written all over the beaming, top-hatted face of the 68-year-old Sheikh in Epsom’s winners’ enclosure. And it was reciprocated among the throng watching on, all acutely aware of the huge support he has given to British racing over the last 40 years. Not just through the successful ownership of top-class horses but also as a financial benefactor.
As a horseman of impeccable credentials, he has pumped money into schemes to help the sport’s rising young talent and grassroots workers, as well his worldwide thoroughbred empire. He has transformed stables, studs and buildings in Newmarket, where he first caught the bug for British racing when watching Royal Palace win the 1967 2,000 Guineas with his brother, Hamdan. Yet at all times, he has respected racing’s ethics and heritage. Not for nothing, after Saturday’s triumph, did he label the Derby “the greatest race in the world”.
It’s a CV often at odds with the treatment both he and Godolphin receive in parts of the racing media. Scurrilous aspersions were cast on the Sheikh himself when one of his trainers, Mahmood Al Zarooni, was banned in 2013 for doping offences. Only last year, Godolphin were said to be in crisis just because chief executive John Ferguson had quit. And even Masar’s victory was greeted in some quarters as if they had been languishing in racing’s wilderness. It’s worth reminding all and sundry that champion Flat owners in 2017 were a certain Godolphin, sending out no fewer than 132 winners, 89 seconds and 74 thirds for a prize-money haul of more than £5.5 million.
Mind you, Masar was their first Classic winner since the 2012 St Leger and Encke, trained ironically by Al Zarooni, the man who fled in disgrace, to be replaced by former groom Appleby. As a colt who had been beaten more times than he had won in an unusually high total of eight starts, the son of New Approach hardly fitted the standard profile of a Derby winner. But he had certainly showed more than his generous SP of 16/1 suggested, and boasted a pedigree laced with the necessary stamina for the race.
My one concern was that Appleby openly admitted that, after a spell in Dubai, he had him cherry-ripe for the Craven in April, which he bossed by nine lengths, and although he started favourite for the Guineas, his run suggested others had, or were about to, improve past him.
However, Appleby did a wonderful job in bringing Masar back to the boil. I felt he didn’t quite travel as smoothly as jockey William Buick felt. Up the hill on the far side, he was a shade keen and rounding the descent into the home straight, he was a shade awkward. But where it really mattered, in the final 2f, he produced all the resolution required, thoroughly outstaying Roaring Lion and HAZAPOUR, who had appoached that same 2f pole in cruise mode.
Those two rivals had nothing to be ashamed of and will surely win Group One prizes over 10f. And neither had the runner-up DEE EX BEE, owned incidentally by Sheikh Mohammed’s son, and a different type altogether, who looks as if even more of a stamina test, such as the St Leger, will help him find his stardust.
Indeed, with the first five pulling some way clear, I think the form of the race is top notch. It looked a cracking, competitive Derby beforehand, and nothing I saw made me change my mind. Not even the performance of the beaten favourite, Saxon Warrior.
Much weeping and gnashing of teeth greeted his defeat, but only among those misguided enough to take such a ludicrously short price about a colt wildly over-hyped, probably because of the reputation that goes before the Ballydoyle stable ahead of every big race these days. If they watched again with the sound down and without rose-tinted spectacles, they would surely acclaim a respectable effort.
I was stunned to read one assessment that Ryan Moore never looked happy on him. After a slight stumble on leaving the gates, I felt he travelled beautifully in mid-division and coasted round Tattenham Corner. Unfortunately, 3f from home, just when the likes of Masar, Roaring Lion and Hazapour were making their moves, he was badly hampered as Dee Ex Bee inexplicably cut across and wedged him behind and between horses with nowhere to go.
When Saxon Warrior was able to regain his momentum and Moore gave him a backhander to pick up, he hung left with the notorious Epsom camber, but he still kept on at the death and, unquestionably, was not found wanting for stamina.
Quite apart from the bad luck involved, it looked a classic case of inexperience catching him out. Inexperience that had also surfaced in the paddock, where Saxon Warrior was nervously awkward when being saddled. It was a curious feature of this year’s Derby that the first three home were the most street-wise in the field, boasting a total of 22 previous runs to their name.
If inexperience did catch out the Guineas winner, such an unorthodox track could hardly have helped, as O’Brien hinted afterwards. Nor could the startling statistic that not one of 104 horses to be drawn one in double-figure fields over 12f at Epsom since 2000 had won. Some rubbish such evidence, trotting out the phrase ‘trends are there to be broken’. In fact, they are there for a reason, and Saxon Warrior proved it.
There will be no such trends to defy in the Irish Derby, where it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Saxon Warrior reversed the form and galloped to victory on the more conventional course that is The Curragh.
BEFORE I go, a quick word on Epsom’s other Classic of the weekend, the Investec Oaks. The fact that it was won by a maiden tells you all you need to know. It was the weakest renewal for many years.
A bit like Roaring Lion or Hazapour 24 hours later, WILD ILLUSION travelled like the best horse in the race but didn’t get home. Very much unlike 24 hours later, O’Brien had a field day, saddling four of the first five. On the face of it, that’s a sad indictment of the quality of middle-distance 3yo fillies in the UK, but surely either Gosden’s LAH TI DAR, who missed the gig because of injury, or SEA THE CLASS, whom William Haggas chose, gobsmackingly, to leave at home, would have wiped the floor with all four.