These days, it is no more a Derby than a tin of spam is foie gras. But the Prix du Jockey-Club nevertheless bestrides a racing weekend that otherwise seems to hold its breath before the momentous possibilities of next Saturday.
A generation of thoroughbreds will then have the chance to define its legacy either side of the Atlantic. First, Epsom will disclose the latest colt to fit the template of all Classic racing; and then, in New York, Big Brown will seek a Triple Crown that would anoint him as perhaps the last of the great dirt champions.
How edifying, that both the Vodafone Derby and the Belmont Stakes will in the process maintain the standard gauge for the breed at a mile and a half. There are sound reasons for this. If Big Brown happens to fail, it will be because his physical reserves – natural or artificial – have been depleted. At the end of the longest five weeks in racing, he must run the longest race of his career. Equally, whoever wins the Derby must glitter in as many different facets as a diamond: speed, stamina, constitution, resolution.
In modern times, this kind of test is commonly described as unfashionable. Fashion, to that extent, is nothing to do with style or aspiration, but instead reflects the basest common denominator. Rapacious breeders and unscrupulous trainers have eroded the global breed's competence for the demands of a Classic over a mile and a half.
Whether by accident or design, fashions may be changing again. The most astute and commercial stud farm in Europe happens to have discovered its best prospects for the future in Galileo and Montjeu, both champions over a mile and a half.
Montjeu announced himself in the 1999 Prix du Jockey-Club, but six years later the French somehow got it into their heads to trim the race to a mile and a quarter. After this disgraceful sell-out, anyone who still refers to tomorrow's race as "the French Derby" should consider himself lucky to escape the tumbril. The race that best merits that description now is instead the Grand Prix de Paris, run at Longchamp on Bastille Day.
Two of the three colts to have won at Chantilly since the race's emasculation, Shamardal and Lawman, promptly dropped back to a mile to win the St James's Palace Stakes and Prix Jean Prat respectively. Chantilly, remember, is another of those flat, sharp French tracks that place an emphasis on speed, even before the hesitant habits of local riders are taken into consideration. It became obvious at once, in 2005, that this race had been betrayed. Hurricane Run finished too late to catch Shamardal, but once stepped up in distance he duly won the Irish Derby and the Arc.
True, if the race now suits a different type of horse, it still takes a very talented one to win it. And its altered character could not be better expressed than by the participation of Natagora, whose stamina even for a mile was in grave doubt before that wholehearted success in the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket.
It is a very bold call by her trainer, Pascal Bary, to go charging after the colts over a new trip. No filly has won this race since 1900. Natagora's chances were considerably improved, however, when Frankie Dettori became available at the 11th hour. With Christophe Lemaire claimed for High Rock, Bary was fortunate that Ibn Khaldun, Dettori's intended ride, was found to be lame yesterday morning. Dettori consistently makes fools of French riders on their home circuits and had a decisive tactical role on both Shamardal and Lawman.
Few, however, will share Bary's faith in Natagora's stamina. With Famous Name also looking vulnerable in that respect, the horse to beat is Thewayyouare. Funnily enough, this colt's dam is a half-sister to the last two winners of the Belmont Stakes, Jazil and Rags To Riches, which in turn makes Thewayyouare a half-sister to Peeping Fawn. Little wonder if Coolmore decided to get involved in this colt after his Group One success last autumn.
Having made a creditable reappearance over a mile on fast ground, Thewayyouare seems sure to be suited by the extra distance and easier conditions. Only his rather agitated demeanour before that comeback run tempers confidence, because there is a parade to negotiate. But then a race hardly qualifies as a Classic, never mind as a Derby, if it does not test the temperament as well.
Ishetoo primed for Scottish honours
The BBC will no doubt rise to the big occasion, as usual, but its terrestrial rivals would unquestionably have a superior right to cover the Derby in terms of their overall commitment to racing. Today's fare is pretty plain for a Saturday, but Channel 4 is weaving together as much colour as it can from three courses – two of them historically associated with the BBC.
They should guarantee a good laugh, at any rate, by broad-casting the National Express Scottish Sprint Cup from the famous Caledonian city of York. Ishetoo (3.55) flourished last season and laid some solid foundations for further progress on his comeback. Red Gala (3.25) meanwhile would have got rather closer to the top-class Macarthur at Chester last time but for being badly hampered.
Ainama (3.0) was definitely unlucky at the same meeting but his next start came too soon afterwards; only the softer ground remains an issue at Goodwood, where the most intriguing runner on the card is Bankable (3.35). He will be a microscopic price for the Hunt Cup if he can win off these terms.
Pick of the televised opportunities at Haydock is Fat Boy (2.10). Despite sharing a photo for the Free Handicap on his first start for Peter Chapple-Hyam, he confirmed that sprinting is his metier at Newbury last time.
Bolger pays price of firm decision
The setback to Ibn Khaldun really is wretched luck for the Godolphin stable, which again seems doomed to miss out on the Classics despite a far better campaign with its juveniles last year. Certainly Rio De La Plata, with remote prospects of staying the trip, seems to be going to Epsom next weekend rather too candidly for the sake of it. If Sheikh Mohammed is that desperate to have a runner in the race, he must read the small print a lot more carefully next time he buys a horse off Jim Bolger.
Bolger's insistence on keeping New Approach on Irish soil last weekend rather backfired. But it would not be fair to treat Bolger's comments about the firmness of that soil as an attempt to divert blame: New Approach was moving like a crab on hot coals throughout the race.
Ironically, Bolger knows very well the one place where his horses will never find conditions like that. After this, perhaps he will graciously assent to Lush Lashes coming to Epsom on Friday.
In fairness, it may be that Bolger has been nursing doubts all along about New Approach's ability to get the Derby trip. Perhaps that was the only politic aspect of his decision to go for two Classics over a mile, rather than two over a mile and a half. Equally, if he did principally have the interests of Ireland's Classics at heart, it is a shame the same cannot be said of those who prepared the ground at the Curragh. Without Bolger doing his bit, there would only have been four runners.
Japanese get big Brown brush-off
Good to hear that Big Brown's trainer is suitably in awe of the Belmont challenge. Six horses have failed to pull off the final leg of a Triple Crown in the past 11 years, but Rick Dutrow has baldly declared that the outcome this time is "a foregone conclusion".
There was, he added, "no way in the world" that the Japanese challenger, Casino Drive, could win. Nobutaka Tada, racing manager to Casino Drive's owner, was asked if Dutrow's comments offended him. "No, not at all: I enjoy listening to his comments," he said. "It sounds like he knows our horse more than us."
Fixture wizards miss their chance
The monkeys on typewriters who presumably compose the racing calendar really surpassed themselves yesterday afternoon, when meetings were staged at Goodwood and Brighton. These courses are fully 20 miles apart. Why on earth did they not cater for those stranded halfway in between, by offering a fixture at Fontwell as well?Reuse content