It is not a tableau that would have especially appealed to Vermeer – the teeming, seething downs, all castes of society merging into a single, intemperate throng, the men half-wild, the beasts half-tamed, all energy and agitation. He would have preferred some cool, solitary interior: a groom polishing tack, maybe, or filling a bucket at a standpipe. And that, of course, would be far more instructive of the patient months and years that go into producing every thoroughbred, whether one incompetent to win even the worst of races or the colt whose name will today be engraved beneath 230 previous Derby winners.
For while this race represents the pinnacle of achievement, the endeavour is uniformly impractical for all. From the planning of a mating, to the freezing vigils of the foaling shed, to the breaking of saddle-shy yearlings, to the daily, Sisyphean routines of a training stable. For every thousand who fail, left to depend on humane reserves of affection and duty, there will be one three-year-old that might earn the right to contest an Epsom Classic. And here they are, just a dozen of them, finally lining up for the Investec Derby.
The hot favourite is Jan Vermeer, still a peripheral contender just a fortnight ago. In the meantime, luck and judgement respectively have stripped the field of two outstanding contenders, both housed in the same Co Tipperary stable. St Nicholas Abbey, favourite for eight months until producing a poor gallop just eight days ago, was scratched on Tuesday after a muscle problem was diagnosed in his hindquarters. Less accountably, to those jealous of Epsom's reputation, the unbeaten Cape Blanco is instead being sent to Chantilly tomorrow, for the Prix du Jockey-Club.
Its abbreviation to 10 furlongs makes it anomalous still to refer to that race as "the French Derby" but here, seemingly, is disturbing evidence of the dividends. In previous years, the men behind Ballydoyle have thrown everything at Epsom and left Chantilly to the reserve corps. Last year, but for Sea The Stars, Aidan O'Brien would have given them the first four in the Derby. So the diversion of Cape Blanco, an unbeaten son of Galileo, is perhaps expressive of a shift in the trade winds.
It would be quite something, then, were the finish to be fought out today by Workforce and Coordinated Cut, second and third to Cape Blanco in the Dante Stakes at York last month. The trainers of both felt they had sufficient grounds to persevere to Epsom, though the case made for Workforce requires far less optimism.
He looked all over the place at York, through a combination of inexperience, discomfort on the firm ground, and the bit slipping through his mouth. That Sir Michael Stoute remains eager to run has emboldened heavy support for the colt in recent days. For want of any other evidence, however, punters are confined to that leap of faith. Almost certainly a Group One performer in the making, this big, laid-back colt may not be quite equal to the dazing contours of Epsom on only his third start.
Nor is he guaranteed to stay, which used to be the first way to separate sheep and goats. Since the emergence of Montjeu and Galileo that has become less of an issue, though it restricts the credibility of Al Zir, who would otherwise be of interest under Kieren Fallon.
While Buzzword may outrun his odds, Godolphin's premier candidate is unmistakably Rewilding. Success today would be a spectacular vindication for radical changes in strategy and personnel – notably in leaving horses like this with André Fabre, in France, until barely a month ago. Whatever credit might become due to Godolphin's rookie trainer, Mahmood Al Zarooni, the colt's grounding has been left to one of the great achievers in Turf history.
Rewilding (4.00) won his debut on these shores in terrific style and, while the strict form is pretty tame, he had made a very promising resumption in much stronger company in France. With another furlong sure to suit on pedigree, this progressive colt looks the each-way value.
For Jan Vermeer looks a short price now, almost as though he has absorbed the chances forfeited by St Nicholas Abbey and Cape Blanco. After a setback in the spring, his reappearance was delayed until just 13 days ago, and while it was impossible not to admire the manner of his success, again it was hardly the most exacting of company. His ability can sooner be judged on a dominant Group One performance in France last autumn, albeit over a small field in soft ground.
It is possible to quibble over his stamina, with a good deal of speed in his maternal pedigree, and it remains to be seen if he has the agility for Tattenham Corner. Conceivably, he might have preferred a few days more to recuperate after his comeback. Essentially, however, Jan Vermeer arrives in the race with a persuasive profile and is readily preferred to Midas Touch, who can improve over the longer trip but has not convincingly demonstrated due class. Like Coordinated Cut, he may prove more of a Leger horse.
Bullet Train arrives on the upgrade, which is just as well because the form of his trial success at Lingfield remains inadequate. His most obvious asset is his trainer's long experience in bringing emerging three-year-olds to the boil for Epsom. Azmeel, likewise, is respected primarily for his connections rather than his achievements to date, while Ted Spread, the other Chester winner, may keep on more purposefully than his odds allow.
Unquestionably, this is a lesser race than appeared likely a few days ago. Harsh though it sounds, O'Brien could have run the first four in the betting then, in a private sweepstake, and it might have looked a better field. But it is seldom possible to identify a vintage Derby in advance. The race can hardly be in crisis, a year after producing one of its very greatest winners. Sea The Stars, moreover, didn't even start favourite. On corresponding grounds, Jan Vermeer is passed over in favour of the better odds about Rewilding.
Our experts' 1-2-3
2. Jan Vermeer
3. Bullet Train
1. Midas Touch
3. Jan Vermeer
1. Midas Touch
2. Bullet Train