Where have all the British winners gone?

Irish thoroughbreds dominate the field for the Derby today – just as they do the roll call of recent winners. Chris McGrath explains how the Emerald Isle's trainers became the jewel in racing's crown

"The Thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians, or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby."

It is an immortal axiom of the Turf, proposed by a man who brocaded some of the most ornate talents in history from the tangled fabric of the thoroughbred gene pool. In Ribot and Nearco, Federico Tesio respectively bred perhaps the most accomplished runner and stallion of the last century.

The Derby is run for the 230th time this afternoon, and Britons can still take pride in its status as the lodestar for European breeders. But all chauvinism dissolves on closer examination of the dozen colts actually entering the stalls at Epsom. Eight are stabled in Ireland, and those trained on home soil can be backed at 20-1 or more.

So what is wrong? Where have all the British horses gone?

Trend or cycle?

In racing, the balance of power between Britain and Ireland usually reflects a broader economic ebb and flow. The Irish, for instance, endured a barren run in the Grand National between 1975 and 1999. Then, when the Celtic Tiger stemmed the tide of exports, they won it six times in nine years.

That would suggest an implicit superiority in Irish breeding, and they certainly benefit from stronger traditions of husbandry and horsemanship. So far as the Derby is concerned, however, there are far more specific issues.

In principle, there is no reason why a Derby colt should not be British to the core. Sir Percy, the 2006 winner, was bred at the Old Suffolk Stud and his owners, trainer and jockey were all English. But this made him an aberration from what is emphatically a trend – one that can only be turned into a cycle by dynamic renewal among those with pretensions to matching the Irish.

Why the Irish are dominating the Derby

The power base of Irish breeding is Coolmore Stud in Co Tipperary, founded during the 1970s by John Magnier with his father-in-law, Vincent O'Brien, the great trainer who died only on Monday, and the pools tycoon, Robert Sangster. The personnel have changed – the stud's racing stable, at Ballydoyle, is now supervised by Aidan O'Brien, while Magnier's principal investors these days are two former bookmakers, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith – but the aims remain the same. Breed or buy the best foals; turn them into champions on the track; send them home to Coolmore as stallions; count the proceeds; and reinvest in the next crop.

Very few competing at the elite level have been able to make commercial sense of this precarious sequence. Consider Coolmore's perennial rivals, the Maktoum brothers. Sustained by oil wealth, the Dubai royal family has only been able to follow its dreams by having no concern about making ends meet.

Magnier's acumen, in doing so, is such that he can single-handedly change bloodstock fashions. Coolmore has just lost two veteran champion sires, Sadler's Wells and Danehill. It so happens that the two best young stallions to emerge in their stead, Galileo and Montjeu, excelled over a mile and a half – a test of stamina that threatened the Derby with obsolescence only a few years ago, when speedier American pedigrees were finding commercial favour.

Since Galileo and Montjeu retired to stud, their progeny have won three out of four Derbys: Galileo through New Approach last year; and Montjeu through Motivator (2005) and Authorized (2007). Five of the 13 final declarations were sons of Galileo (one, South Easter, is a non-runner); two were by Montjeu, including Fame And Glory; while two others figured as bequests from Sadler's Wells. The field also includes a son of High Chaparral, who like Galileo won the Derby from Ballydoyle.

The big danger to the six O'Brien colts, Sea The Stars, admittedly represents one of the Maktoums' stallions, Cape Cross. But his mother is rather more distinguished, having already produced Galileo himself.

Does it have to be a monopoly?

Now that the bloodlines most likely to produce a Derby winner are concentrated at Coolmore, Epsom has been restored to its proper place not only for traditionalists – who, like Tesio, cherish its unique test of flair, stamina, conformation and constitution – but also for breeders whose priority is to make the game pay.

And if you can't beat them, why not join them? Coolmore needs its clients to succeed. You can send your mare to its stallions, or try to buy yearlings produced through other matings.

But that is not an option, apparently, for some of those trying to run rival operations – most notably the Maktoums.

True, this field represents a collective failure. There is no colt in the famous colours of the Aga Khan or the Saudi Prince, Khaled Abdulla. But the fact is that many of the most legitimate types nowadays tend to be absorbed by Godolphin, the Maktoums' elite stable.

And in recent seasons Godolphin has been shunted to the margins of Classic racing. In its early years, the innovation of wintering horses in Dubai seemed to have revolutionary impact, with Balanchine, Lammtarra and Moonshell winning three out of four Epsom Classics. Those foundations have crumbled, and the stable is without a British Classic winner since 2004.

Some wonder about changes in the training regime. Jeremy Noseda, Tom Albertrani and Eoin Harty have proved themselves top trainers since leaving Godolphin. Others, however, believe that the stock entering the stable has itself become inadequate – thanks in part to the Maktoums' decision, four years ago, to buy no more yearlings by Coolmore stallions.

Nobody has ever elaborated the reasons why, though a boycott was first perceived shortly after Sheikh Mohammed spent $9.7m (the equivalent of £5.3m at the time) on a yearling by Storm Cat – a champion American sire, in whom Coolmore had breeding rights – at an auction in Kentucky.

Only two yearlings had ever cost more, Magnier and Sheikh Mohammed each burning their fingers on one apiece. It is not an exact science, after all. Magnier, shrewd as he is, made the most expensive mistake of all in Florida the following May, going to a record $16m to deny his old rival a colt offered at a sale of young horses in training. (The animal made just three starts, winning none, before being retired in ignominy.)

Playing the long game

With such antipathy between the Turf's superpowers, Sheikh Mohammed has resolved to renew his stagnating empire on his own terms. Rather than pay for Coolmore pedigrees at source, he has spent huge sums buying proven runners in neutral hands to gain access to the precious genes.

During the winter, he was reported to have paid £6m for Kite Wood, a Galileo colt who showed promise last year for Michael Jarvis. He was switched to Godolphin and has at least made it to the Derby, albeit at 25-1 after a modest rehearsal at York last month.

Last year, the sheikh hit the Derby jackpot after buying the champion juvenile, New Approach. He left that colt with his original trainer, Jim Bolger, O'Brien's mentor and one of the first to recognise the potential in Galileo. The sheikh had also pounced for Authorized, when he retired to stud. In the meantime, he has been spending enormous sums on various stallion prospects in America.

Even if he has invested well, however, there will necessarily be an awkward hiatus until the new progeny enter training as two-year-olds – and then test their Classic calibre as three-year-olds.

A happy ending?

There are cynics who tell you that the fortunes made over the years by commercial breeders have turned the true purpose of thoroughbred racing inside out. They dismiss those who cling to Tesio's purist principle as deluded romantics. Racecourses are now mere catwalks. It is all about the big money at stud.

Thanks to the emergence of Galileo and Montjeu, however, there is a wholesome confluence between the interests of Coolmore and those of the Turf's most venerable institution. Magnier and his partners, remember, run six colts against each other this afternoon.

Pending regeneration among their opponents, it remains the only way of measuring the best against the best. And that, after all, is exactly what Tesio had in mind.

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