By Emma Berry
EPSOM DOWNS, UK–Asked to hold up nine fingers to represent his number of wins in the Derby, Aidan O'Brien laughed as he deliberately counted out each one. Two more–and let's face it, he's only 53 and shows no signs of stopping–and he will need to borrow a hand from someone else to keep tally.
Only last weekend, O'Brien's record of Group or Grade 1 wins reached 400. Now it stands at 401, and the most recent addition is arguably the most important of all for the wider racing world. The 243 runnings of the Derby that have gone before have not been without controversy. From the ringer Running Rein in 1844 to the tragic death in 1913 of the suffragette Emily Davison, who threw herself under the King's horse, the Derby's history has its share of skulduggery and scandal.
In 2020, of course, it was run a month late with barely anyone at Epsom to watch the procession of Serpentine (Ire) as Covid wrought havoc on sporting events. This year, with the racecourse and its enclosures reinforced by a ring of steel barricades and uniformed officers, it took place once more, in 2m 33.88s completed largely without incident, but under immense duress in its build-up.
Serpentine had served an important reminder, just as the 40/1 shot Wings Of Eagles (Fr) had done three years earlier, that it is never wise to rule out a challenger from Ballydoyle when it comes to the race that is still arguably prized more highly than any other by the Coolmore team. In Auguste Rodin (Ire) we had an entirely more obvious winner, though even he came here with a question mark dangling over his head after the bitter disappointment of the 2,000 Guineas. The sages always say that the Guineas is the best Derby trial, but presumably that is usually in reference to a horse who has been a running-on fourth rather than one who was beaten 22 lengths into twelfth place.
Auguste Rodin has also had something of a poignant weight of expectation on his shoulders from the early days. One of only 14 foals in the final crop of Japan's hugely influential Deep Impact (Jpn), he had been the subject of high praise from the far-from-hyperbolic Ryan Moore, according to O'Brien.
“The hype of expectations was there straightaway,” he said. “He was measured, measured, measured all the way, and he was ticking the top of the measurements all the way. And then he came to Ballydoyle and I remember Ryan sitting on him in the February as a two-year-old, and saying, 'This is very special'. And then the bar is even higher.”
O'Brien continued, “I think this is the most important horse [for Coolmore] ever, because he's out of Rhododendron, who is one of the best, if not the best, Galileo mares, and he's by probably the best Japanese stallion ever, and we know what is after happening with the Japanese breeding, and we know about our own breeding, and he's after connecting the two of them together. This horse has everything: he has temperament, he has movement, he has a personality.
“I think he's the most important horse we've ever had because he's bringing the two continents together. We've always said he is the most special horse we've had in Ballydoyle.”
Fans of Galileo might have something to say about that last statement, but, as O'Brien pointed out, his first Derby winner features as Auguste Rodin's damsire in a cross which we have already seen to good effect in his fellow Ballydoyle Classic winners Saxon Warrior (Jpn) and Snowfall (Jpn). A similar blend will be on display on Sunday in the Prix du Jockey Club when Moore partners Continuous (Jpn), who is by another son of Sunday Silence in Heart's Cry (Jpn) and is out of Fluff (Ire), a full-sister to Saxon Warrior's dam Maybe (Ire).
The Coolmore mating planners have clearly not been shy in patronising the best that Shadai's stallion roster has to offer. Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the Derby, Coolmore's MV Magnier said, “Aidan was very confident of winning. He thought that he would just bounce off the ground, and yet again he got it right.
“I just want to say a big thank you to the Yoshida family for everything they have done. They have looked after us and our mares very well and we are very grateful to them.”
Magnier also made reference to the extensive–and expensive–security operation which was in play at Epsom over the two days to safeguard the participants from the actions of protestors.
“The job that the Jockey Club and Nevin Truesdale has done is a great credit to them,” he said. “They've done a very good job and they've worked very hard and I'm just glad nothing has happened.”
That was a sentiment widely echoed by those at Epsom on Saturday. It is a desperate state of affairs that one of Britain's most historic sporting events, enjoyed by tens of thousands in person and millions more on television, could be held to ransom by a small group of activists with dubious claims to having the best interests of animals at heart. The Covid year aside, this was the most muted Derby in living memory, as a collective holding-of-breath took place on the Downs as the runners headed to post.
As a precautionary measure, the horses had been saddled in the racecourse stables and were in the parade ring for a shorter amount of time than usual. Understandable in the circumstances, but a shame for those gathered at the parade ring who love to spend time observing the physiques and, often more crucially, the demeanour of the runners prior to the biggest test of their young lives.
Following arrests during early-morning raids on houses, Derby day appeared to be proceeding without incident and, despite much grumbling as to the early start time to avoid a clash with the FA Cup final, this was in the end perhaps a mercy, so as not to prolong the trepidation.
A loud cheer went up as the 14 runners sprang from the gates on time, but within seconds a male protestor had somehow breached the lines of security along the rails on both sides of the track to burst onto the course. Moments later a woman tried to jump the fence from the grandstand side but, like her predecessor, was swiftly brought down and handcuffed.
In the winner's circle as the presentations were concluded, Brian Finch, chair of the racecourse and an Epsom local, congratulated those connected to Auguste Rodin and admitted to a huge sense of relief that the race had been run without significant incident.
“The pressure has come from knowing that you have a potential issue but not quite knowing where that issue will manifest, so you stay planning for multiple events, which in turns puts pressure on the team,” he said.
“But I applaud everybody for pulling together. It's been effective. Everyone wanted to make sure that the 244th Derby actually happened and went off as close as possible to 1.30pm and we achieved that.
“Our teams will stay vigilant until the day is over. We owe it to the sport to protect the Derby, and to all the people who came before us. They took us through 243 years, through wars and everything else that went in between.”
The promotional banners inside and outside the course boasted of the Derby being 'historic, unmatchable, eternal'. The first two are undeniable. The third, we hope, is a claim we will not have to abandon any time soon.