Chris McGrath: Understudy Heffernan looks to rip Glory from Murtagh's grasp
Saturday 06 June 2009
The irony will not be lost on Seamus Heffernan, his jockey, when Fame And Glory wins the Investec Derby at Epsom this afternoon. Last autumn, with Johnny Murtagh heading out to California for the Breeders' Cup, Heffernan was looking forward to a number of good rides as deputy to the Ballydoyle stable jockey. Among them was the well backed favourite for a maiden at Navan.
All was going to plan two furlongs out, as Heffernan's mount cruised alongside the leader – another Ballydoyle colt, previously unraced, ridden by an inexperienced apprentice named Stephen Hunter. But when Heffernan started pushing, Hunter's horse simply began to stretch away. They finished miles clear of the rest, but Heffernan could never get to grips with Fame And Glory.
Fame And Glory remains unbeaten, and until Tuesday was the Derby favourite. Then it was announced that Murtagh, choosing between six runners trained by Aidan O'Brien, would instead ride Rip Van Winkle. Heffernan, who rode Fame And Glory for the first time in his trial at Leopardstown last month, was ecstatic. He knew, to his cost, that when Fame And Glory gets on to a racecourse, you can forget the pecking order notionally established on the gallops.
So do we rely on the judgement of the man who rode half the Derby field in their final work? Or do we leave that to those whose credulity extends to treating even the most venerable of all races as some arcane ritual, legible only to those "in the know"?
On the face of it, Murtagh has compounded the customary hazards of his assignment. At the best of times, the Derby is a white-knuckle ride. Even the most talented horses, when measured against their peers, must have their resources artfully deployed. Three years ago Murtagh committed too early on Dylan Thomas, was caught on the line, and for several months was left out in the cold by the men who have since hired him as their retained jockey.
Dylan Thomas, remember, had been passed over by Kieren Fallon, who held the post at the time. Conversely, when Murtagh won the race for O'Brien, on High Chaparral in 2002, Fallon's predecessor, Michael Kinane, favoured Hawk Wing, the runner-up.
If anything, the choice facing a Ballydoyle stable jockey has only become harder since. O'Brien increasingly wakes up his middle-distance three-year-olds race by race. Any of his runners today could build dramatically upon the form of their respective rehearsals.
Murtagh, moreover, did not ride three of the four Ballydoyle trial winners. He was required in France when Fame And Glory won the Derrinstown Trial, and favoured the stable's other runners behind Black Bear Island at York and Golden Sword at Chester.
All along, Murtagh was nursing this infamous "soft spot" for Rip Van Winkle, who had finished fourth in the 2,000 Guineas on his reappearance – behind Sea The Stars, the outstanding obstacle to Ballydoyle today. Rip Van Winkle looked ring-rusty that day, and the suspicion persists that he may yet prove best of that field by the end of the season. But those of us who backed Rip Van Winkle for the Guineas, last summer, did so largely because his pedigree made Newmarket a far more obvious target than Epsom.
True, he is by the most sensational young Derby stallion of modern times in Galileo, but his dam was by the sprinter Stravinsky and on the gallops he has always shown corresponding dynamism. It is conceivable Rip Van Winkle will last the extra half-mile today, but Murtagh has decidedly gone for two in the bush.
The bird in the hand was surely Fame And Glory. Of all the Ballydoyle colts, this is the only one you can readily picture storming several lengths clear. The others could well be competent enough, if Sea The Stars fails to stay and this radiance in Fame And Glory proves an illusion. Masterofthehorse and Black Bear Island, in particular, have a worthily progressive profile, while Age Of Aquarius was badly in need of his comeback run. But Fame And Glory alone introduced an aura of stardom to his public preparations.
When he won a Group One prize in France last autumn, just three weeks after winning at Navan, he looked a bit of a slogger. The ground was heavy, and 10 furlongs was the maximum test for a juvenile. In his two visits to Leopardstown this spring, however, Fame And Glory has shown a lot more flair, hurtling clear on faster ground. The first time, he won despite the overall lethargy of his stable; the second, he looked like a reincarnation of Galileo or High Chaparral, both of whom were aimed at the same Leopardstown races.
Critically, his family tree suggests that he will not just cope with the extra distance today, but adore it. And that is the obvious contrast in Sea The Stars, whose Guineas form is the best in the race but whose genes prompt his respected trainer, John Oxx, to rate him no better than "50-50" to get home. With the majority of the Ballydoyle horses requiring a true test, Sea The Stars should be afforded no hiding place.
The rogue element is Gan Amhras, representing the same trainer as New Approach last year. Of the Guineas protagonists, he has the stoutest pedigree and third there looks a dangerous springboard for Jim Bolger to intrude upon the cavalry saddled by his former protégé, O'Brien. This time, however, Bolger may have to settle for some reflected Glory.
Borel seeks unique crown in contrast to French fake
Like cuttings taken from the parent stem, local variations of the Derby flourish around the world. True, the French have so desecrated the Prix du Jockey-Club, run at Chantilly tomorrow, that it no longer merits description as "the French Derby". And the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the US Triple Crown, almost invariably depends for its resonance on the participation of the Kentucky Derby winner.
Mine That Bird, a 50-1 winner at Churchill Downs, shows up in New York tonight as hot favourite, but there is no Triple Crown on the line after that epic Preakness Stakes showdown with Rachel Alexandra. If anything, the little gelding from New Mexico enhanced his reputation in defeat that day, but in the absence of the phenomenal filly, attention now switches to his jockey, Calvin Borel. Following his unprecedented desertion of a Kentucky Derby winner, in favour of Rachel Alexandra, Borel stands to become the first rider to win his own "Triple Crown" on different horses.
The crude coppicing of the Chantilly distance nowadays leaves the Grand Prix de Paris, at Longchamp next month, as the nearest French approximation to a Derby. In its new guise the Prix du Jockey-Club has again lured colts with equivocal prospects of getting 10 furlongs, including Silver Frost, already a Classic winner over a mile. Westphalia, hampered when promoted into third there, heads the Ballydoyle challenge while Godolphin try their luck with Parthenon.
Nap: Fame And Glory (3.45 Epsom)
NB: London Bridge (1.25 Epsom)
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