As a racecourse, Doncaster has had its nose put out of joint more often than it might care for in recent years.
Traditionally, the Town Moor track has opened the Flat season via its Lincoln Handicap meeting, and also closed the campaign, via its November Handicap meeting.
But the kudos of both events has been compromised by the decisions, albeit understandable ones, to delay the start of the Flat jockeys’ championship until the Guineas meeting at Newmarket in May and to create a grand, new finale to the season, Champions’ Day at Ascot. What’s more, the prestige of Donny’s main event of the year, the St Leger Festival has also been affected by clashes with Irish racing’s new Champions Weekend.
However, anyone who is led to believe the south Yorkshire course is losing its influence had better think again. Because its two big Group One contests, the St Leger and the Racing Post Trophy, are standing tall as arguably the two most important races of last season.
The quality and form of the Leger looked good at the time, but subsequent events have lent it an even greater glow, thanks to major Pattern victories for the likes of CRYSTAL OCEAN, STRADIVARIUS, REKINDLING, CORONET and DEFOE, who were all beaten by the winner, CAPRI.
Now the quality and form of the RP Trophy are shining like a beacon in the run-up to the Investec Derby at Epsom Downs on Saturday as we try to unravel the puzzle that will lead us to the 239th winner of the historic race. For the first two home, SAXON WARRIOR and ROARING LION, lock horns again and appear to be the standout colts in a fascinating, competitive field.
Only a neck separated them that day last October, yet the differential between them in the Derby market is comparatively vast, with Aidan O’Brien’s colt as short as 4/6 in some places and John Gosden’s grey as big as 13/2.
The reason for that, of course, is Saxon Warrior’s fine performance in the meantime to land the Qipco 2,000 Guineas, when Roaring Lion was two-and-a-half lengths behind in fifth. Since then, it has been all systems go at Ballydoyle for the winner to double up in the Derby and it must be said that he fits the profile of an Epsom hero perfectly. In terms of class, he is yet to be beaten in four starts, In terms of pedigree, he seems sure to stay as the son of Japanese middle-distance superstar Deep Impact out of a Galileo dam who is related to 2011 Oaks winner Dancing Rain. And in terms of physique, O’Brien has laughed off claims that, because he’s such a big-framed colt, he might not be suited to the twists and turns, ups and downs of Epsom.
Advocates of the devil might like to point out that the Guineas form has already taken knocks with disappointing runs by the fourth, Elarqam, and the sixth, Gustav Klimt, in last Saturday’s Irish equivalent. They might also like to point out that the speed and turn of foot Saxon Warrior showed when winning the Guineas suggested he was a more of a natural miler than a stamina-laden stayer, which he might need to be if the ground rides Soft this weekend. They might also might like to point out that his dam, Maybe, did not handle Epsom too well when a well beaten favourite in the 2012 Oaks.
Advocates of reason might be taken more seriously than the devil’s disciples if they asked if it was not worth, at the prices, taking the favourite on with Roaring Lion? The evidence so far points to there being little between the pair when they are at their peak, which Gosden’s charge certainly was not in the Guineas after what the trainer described as “a hard winter” for him. He most certainly was at his best, however, 12 days later when unveiling a textbook performance to land the Dante Stakes at York. Enjoying the move up to 10f, he travelled all over a useful field, cruised into contention and quickened clear from the furlong pole.
The Dante is generally regarded as the strongest of all the Derby trials, and this was unquestionably the classiest performance of all the Derby trials this spring. His turn of foot had also come to the fore at Doncaster where I am convinced he would have beaten Saxon Warrior but for drifting badly left, caused partly by jockey Oisin Murphy getting over-excited and applying unnecessary force from the saddle, unbalancing his mount. Roaring Lion did tend to drift left again in the Guineas, but the calm and composed way Murphy, who I rate highly, guided him home at York suggests all lessons have been learned.
A measure of how far Gosden’s colt has progressed this season can be gauged by his seasonal bow in the Craven Stakes at Newmarket, where he was hammered nine lengths by MASAR and White Mocha. By the Guineas, he had reduced the deficit with the former to three-quarters of a length and by the Dante, he had completely reversed the deficit with the latter, thumping him more than 11 lengths.
My only reservation about Roaring Lion deepens with every drop of rain that falls in Surrey. As a son of Kitten’s Joy out of a Street Sense mare, he has a US-based pedigree that screams top of the ground. Although he has run well on a surface with give in it, I fear genuinely Soft would put too much of a strain on his ability to stay this 12f trip.
Such stamina question-marks hover over the Derby every year, although it is a mystery why so many pundits are dismissing the claims on this score of the aforementioned Masar, flagbearer for Godolphin. He’s the son of one Derby winner, New Approach, out of a dam who is closely related to two others, Sea The Stars and Galileo. He might have lost more races than he has won, but he’s undeniably smart and a horse who, remember, started favourite, ahead of Saxon Warrior, for the Guineas.
Even if Masar doesn’t get home, the 2018 Derby is curious in that so many of the runners appear sure to stay. Both YOUNG RASCAL and KNIGHT TO BEHOLD have already proven their distance credentials by winning trials at Chester and Lingfield respectively, while DEE EX BEE, runner-up in the former race, looked a much better animal than previously, as was always expected, for a step-up in trip. Indeed, as a horse who was unlucky at Chester when bumped by Young Rascal and pushed very wide, and one who has already proven himself at Epsom, Mark Johnston’s raider appeals as an each/way proposition.
Similar comments apply to Knight To Behold, the best horse ever trained by Harry Dunlop and one who has Epsom writ deep into his pedigree. He’s a son of a Derby winner, Sea The Stars, while the dam is a sister to a Derby third. Even the trainer is a son of the mighty John Dunlop, who saddled two Derby victors in his pomp. Interestingly, Knight To Behold beat KEW GARDENS at Lingfield by a similar distance to that with which the O’Brien colt dished out a beating to Dee Ex Bee last October. Kew Gardens did pull off a shoe that day, though, and I would expect him to step up markedly at Epsom.
In-form handler William Haggas, who trained Shaamit to Epsom glory way back in 1996, has made it clear that Young Rascal is considered best on decent ground, although he is improving fast and is owned by Bernard Kantor, boss of race sponsors, Investec.
I suspect the same ground preferences apply to Dermot Weld’s HAZAPOUR, another colt with powerful Epsom credentials on his page, given that the dam is a half-sister to Harzand, who won the great race for the same connections two years ago. The Aga Khan-owned colt improved massively on what he had achieved before when quickening smartly to land one of Ireland’s most important Derby trials, the Derrinstown at Leopardstown three weeks ago.
This is a race that has been farmed by the O’Brien battalions for many years and yet his three representatives, who may all re-oppose at Epsom, DELANO ROOSEVELT, THE PENTAGON and NELSON, were firmly put in their place. Weld has booked Frankie Dettori for the ride on Saturday and Hazapour has attracted shrewd money all week, which is not surprising considering The Pentagon was the third horse home in that race we began this analysis with, the Racing Post Trophy. Furthermore, Nelson, a tough cookie who is one of the few guaranteed to relish any mud on the Downs, was only a neck behind Roaring Lion in the Royal Lodge Stakes at HQ last autumn. Piece all that form together, and there is a very persuasive case to be made for Hazapour if, and it’s a big if, Soft ground does not blunt his speed.
There’s no doubt the rain has put the cat among the pigeons of the chances of many of the challengers to Saxon Warrior’s apparent invincibility. At the same time, it has merely strengthened the view of those who consider O’Brien’s colt to be a certainty, en route to a crack at that elusive Triple Crown, via the Leger, which would bring us, ever so neatly, back to Doncaster.
INVESTEC DERBY (Saturday 4.30)
1 ROARING LION
3 SAXON WARRIOR
4 KNIGHT TO BEHOLD
INVESTEC OAKS (Friday 4.30)
1 WILD ILLUSION
2 GIVE AND TAKE
3 PERFECT CLARITY