Though the Derby, after 234 years of evolution, is no longer a race that causes a traffic jam from London to the Surrey Downs or provokes a suspension of Parliamentary business, it is still a contest of immense significance on so many levels.
It is now Britain’s richest race, offering £1.3 million in purses. It remains a thrilling spectacle over a switchback course that includes one of the most famous of track landmarks, Tattenham Corner. It may not, on its own, define the three-year-old hierarchy any more but, perhaps even more tantalisingly, it sets the standard for a generation.
It can spotlight a superstar runner or a future superstud stallion. It can showcase riding skills over one of the trickiest tracks in the world, with a fortune and immortality at stake. It is still the one Flat prize in the public consciousness and it is the one race that the professionals crave.
“We have a great programme, with so many good races all the way through the season,” said Roger Varian, who will saddle the third favourite, Kingston Hill at Epsom on Saturday. “But though there are other top races, the challenge of the Derby, and any of the Classics, is that they’re only for the one generation. And so even if you’re fortunate enough to have a horse of that sort of calibre, you get only one shot at it.
“The Derby is the pinnacle, it’s the Champions’ League final or the 100 metres at the Olympics. Yes, it is hugely valuable, but its prestige is worth as much. If you win it, you’re part of history, and no one can ever take that away.”
Varian, 35, (right) has unearthed a horse worthy of a place in the Derby field in only his fourth season as a trainer, having taken over Kremlin House Stables in Newmarket early in 2011 after the retirement of his mentor of 10 years, the late Michael Jarvis. Kingston Hill was one of Varian’s second intake of yearlings and became his first domestic winner at the highest level when he romped home in last season’s Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster, a win that put him firmly in the Derby picture.
The dark-grey colt has done little to shift that perception since. He lost his unbeaten record when he finished only eighth in last month’s 2,000 Guineas on his first run of the season, but that mile test was always likely to be too sharp for one who had scored over the distance as a juvenile. After a slow start he was doing his best work at the end and came in barely four lengths behind the principals, Night Of Thunder, Kingman and Australia, the hot Derby favourite.
“Our first reaction after the Guineas was slight disappointment,” admitted Varian. “But on reflection it was a pretty good run, particularly looking at it as a Derby trial. He fluffed his lines at the start then lost ground when the field split, and against those speedier types that was one thing he couldn’t afford to do. He was staying on really well at the end and will certainly appreciate the step up in distance.
“We gave the Guineas a shot, but as well as a good horse, the one thing you need with you on the big day is luck. But the form seems to be the best among three-year-olds of the season and I suppose that points to Australia having a huge chance in the Derby. But we’ll be happy to take him on again, and we won’t mind at all if the ground comes up soft.” Kingston Hill has not raced since his effort at Newmarket, but had a test run at Epsom on Thursday morning, when he handled the switchback part of the Derby course with aplomb. “He’d only ever raced in a straight line before,” said Varian, “so it got him used to the corners and contours of Epsom. He’s a horse with good balance and I didn’t think racing round bends and up and down hills would be a problem, but it was nice to have a practice.”
The colt’s rider, Andrea Atzeni, is another who will be having his first Derby involvement, but the 23-year-old Italian is an emerging talent and Varian is confident that both elements of the centaur partnership have the temperament to cope with the crucible of the day. “Andrea knows the horse and is at the top of his game,” he said, “and he’s a relaxed head on young shoulders.”
Kingston Hill, a son of young Coolmore Stud sire Mastercraftsman, is the best horse so far to carry the solo colours of Paul Smith, whose father, Derrick, is one of the Coolmore partners who own Australia and the other Aidan O’Brien contenders, Geoffrey Chaucer, Orchestra and Kingfisher. And whatever the horses’ future as stallions in Co Tipperary, there is in the meantime the frisson of family rivalry in the public arena and the prospect of the Derby rookies putting one over the old hands.
A Derby victory at this stage of his career would be a tremendous achievement for Varian. But it would bring him personal as well as professional satisfaction, in setting a record straight on behalf of the man who taught him so much.
The universally respected Michael Jarvis won major prizes all over Europe, including the French and Italian Derbys and an Oaks, but that vital element, luck, deserted him in the premier Classic. Beldale Flutter, a leading fancy, was injured in a freak accident a week before the race; Coshocton suffered a fatal leg injury near the finish; and four years later Hala Bek swerved five strides from the finish and was beaten just a neck into fourth in the 2006 running.
“Poor Coshocton would probably have been third at best,” said Varian, “but Hala Bek would surely have won, and for us to have had another chance at it, and then for that to happen was such a blow to everyone in the yard.
“If we are fortunate enough to win with Kingston Hill, it will be my name on the licence. But it will be very much the Derby for Michael.”