Talk about triumph over adversity. That’s the only way to describe the heroic victories of HARZAND and MINDING in the Epsom Classics over the weekend.
Harzand shrugged off a serious injury-scare only hours before the race to land the Investec Derby, while Minding defied a whole litany of negatives, such as stamina fears, unorthodox preparation and Tattenham Corner traffic trouble, to win the Investec Oaks.
More of Aidan O’Brien’s rock-hard, razor-sharp filly later. Let’s concentrate firstly on a wonderful Derby that bristled with strength in depth and yielded a race that was fascinating to watch.
As was to be expected, one or two challengers failed to handle the 12f trip, most notably 2,000 Guineas runner-up MASSAAT. Others couldn’t cope with the idiosyncratic nature of the track, most notably MOONLIGHT MAGIC. While some found the unexpectedly softish ground against them, most notably DEAUVILLE. Others seemed to be confounded by a combination of two or all three factors, most notably CLOTH OF STARS and ULYSSES.
However, many horses ran above themselves, unveiling career-best performances. Even in heavy defeat, the likes of WINGS OF DESIRE, HUMPHREY BOGART, RED VERDON and ALGOMETER performed with admirable distinction. Which only served to upgrade the efforts of the first three home, all of whom entered the echelons marked top-class by pulling so far clear of the rest.
Harzand took the spoils, but what a race runner-up US ARMY RANGER ran. Punters who piled into him before the off might still be shaking their heads with frustration after he loomed large approaching the 1f pole, only to be undone by inexperience as he hung left with the course’s camber and couldn’t get by the winner. But, on only the third start of his life, that cannot be held against him. Focus instead on the explosive turn of foot he unleashed from the rear. It was the trait of a star in the making, and it also helped to pour scorn on the comments, emanating from the wallets of some, that jockey Ryan Moore had the colt too far back. Watch the race again and spot how Moore was trapped for a good half-furlong between two or three rivals at a key stage entering the home straight before he was forced to bite the bullet and switch widest of all.
By that time, stablemate and fellow son of Galileo, IDAHO, had quickened impressively to the front. How interesting it was to see jockey Seamie Hefferan commit him so soon after the much-criticised hold-up ride he gave him in his preparatory trial. But it brought the best out of the colt and justified the faith pinned in him by those of us who have followed his progress. Sifting through the Ballydoyle battalions as they mature from their juvenile days and determining the most talented of them is no easy exercise. O’Brien himself is happy to let them develop in their own time and learns almost as much as we do from their public performances. But it is a cast-iron, tried-and-trusted measure of potential to monitor closely those who win first-time out as two-year-olds, particularly on Grade One tracks, as Idaho did at The Curragh last October. Even when collared by Harzand and US Army Ranger on Saturday, he galloped all the way to the line and it would be no surprise if his inevitable Group One prize comes in the St Leger.
However, it is to Harzand, we must doff our Derby hats the highest. A son of another Epsom great, Sea The Stars, a couple of wins in testing ground in the spring announced his promise, but his very participation at Epsom was kept curiously low-key. Trainer Dermot Weld expressed reservations about ground and track. Maybe he also feared a repeat of last year’s 11th-hour setback when the much-fancied ZAWRAQ had to be withdrawn when going lame four days before the big day. The reservations this time were countered by heavy midweek rain on the Downs that turned the ground in Harzand’s favour. But remarkably, the fears reared their ugly heads again when the colt pulled off a shoe on the Derby-day journey from Ireland and drew blood from a sore foot that had to be protected in ice for four hours.
Not until Harzand was loaded into the stalls could connections be confident that he was fit and ready to go. Yet you would hardly have guessed it from the way he travelled and picked up to order under a characteristically well-judged ride by Pat Smullen, impressing most when finding more as he was challenged in the final furlong. Not for the first time, stamina was the key requisite for winning the Derby. Not for the first time either was his owner, the Aga Khan, winning it -- this being his fifth success in a sequence that goes back to the mighty Shergar in 1981. Amazingly, for a trainer with such a revered worldwide reputation, it WAS the first time Weld was able to taste Epsom Derby glory. And it probably tasted even more sweet than the day in 1975 when, as a 26-year-old jockey, he won the Moet Chandon handicap on the Surrey track that they call the ‘amateur riders’ Derby’, beating Luca Cumani into second!
The Oaks, 24 hours earlier, was a considerably poorer version of its more illustrious relation. The late withdrawal of EVEN SONG robbed the race of another of the more serious rivals to the warm favourite, Minding, and the lack of a proper explanation was as disappointing as the decision to sacrifice PORT DOUGLAS as a pacemaker in the Derby when, on the evidence of his seasonal bow at Chester, he had every right to finish close to US Army Ranger.
It was also a decidedly messy Oaks, with several fillies wandering and wobbling all over the helter-skelter gradients and/or meeting trouble in running as the action unfolded. Thankfully, it was saved by a display of the highest order from Minding.
Only 12 days earlier, she had endured the toughest of contests in the Irish 1,000 Guineas when bumping her head leaving the stalls, bursting her sinus and succumbing to a shock defeat on testing ground. And a genetics test would have given her only an outside squeak of staying the Epsom trip - odds that must have quadrupled after she found herself a distant last turning for home when checked by at least two bouts of wretched interference.
Not only did she find the class to recover but also the stamina to reel in a runner-up who’d got first run and wasn’t for stopping. There was no hiding place, and if ‘Minder’ was the TV show that taught us not to mess with ‘Er Indoors, Minding is the filly we’ve learned to respect as ‘Er Outdoors.
All racing roads lead to Royal Ascot next week
After the Epsom jamboree, all racing roads lead to a very different kind of meeting at Royal Ascot next week.
There’s always a danger that the jewel in the crown of the Flat season is sidetracked by its penchant for top-hatted-and-tailed glamour and glitz. An event where the human guests regard it more important for them to be seen, ahead of the array of equine talent. Only last weekend, London’s ‘Evening Standard’ told us: “There’s much more to Ascot than placing bets. Not least the spectacle that is the royal enclosure and the chance to drink your body weight in prosecco”. But the fact remains that the five-day meeting showcases racing at its best. Thirty races ooze quality at probably the greatest sporting venue in the country. Catch my tips and advice on this website from Monday.