'We've Always Dreamt of Winning the Derby': Alan Cooper on Passenger

Elektra Niarchos, left, and Alan Cooper, right, with Passenger after the Wood Ditton | Emma Berry

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The Niarchos Family has had no shortage of Classic success over the years, including at Epsom, where they won a memorably emotional Oaks with the Sir Henry Cecil-trained Light Shift (Kingmambo), but there is to date one omission from their roll call of big-race wins.

“We've always dreamt of winning the Derby. We haven't yet, but let's hope that Saturday can go the right way,” Alan Cooper, the operation's racing manager, told TDN on Wednesday. 

That dream could become reality if Passenger continues to show the level of improvement that persuaded the Niarchoses to supplement the colt for the Betfred Derby. Trained by Sir Michael Stoute, Passenger has an extra special element to him in that his sire, the dual Group 1 winner Ulysses (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), is also a Niarchos homebred and was trained by Stoute, while his female family traces back through the Niarchos operation for five generations.

Passenger was first seen in action in public during the Craven meeting at Newmarket, where he impressed plenty of onlookers with his three-length victory in the Wood Ditton Maiden over a mile. He then stepped straight into group company at York for the G2 Dante S., a race won last year by his stable-mate and subsequent Derby winner Desert Crown (GB) ((Nathaniel {Ire}), who was also making just his appearance on a racecourse at the time. Denied a clear run at a crucial stage in the Dante, Passenger eventually burst clear to finish a running-on third behind The Foxes (Ire) (Churchill {Ire}) and White Birch (Ire) (Ulysses {Ire}), both of whom he will meet again at Epsom. 

“He's a horse who probably surprised us a little bit in the Wood Ditton and he has just matured, physically and mentally, since his first racecourse experience,” Cooper said.

“The Dante was a very good education with hindsight. He didn't win but he learnt a lot from it. It's a great compliment to Michael and his team that we are getting him to Epsom.”

He added, “He's by our homebred stallion and the female family has been in the Niarchos family since the early 1980s, going back to Misinskie, who was trained by Peter Walwyn. Then the mare went over to be bred in America and had her breeding career over there.”

Bred by Will Farish III, Misinskie, by Nijinsky, features as the fifth dam of Passenger. Her daughter Ajman (Woodman) was bred under the Niarchoses' Flaxman Holdings banner but raced for Shadwell, who then bred Passenger's third dam El Laoob (Red Ransom). This branch of the family returned to the Niarchos fold when Passenger's grand-dam Pachattack (Pulpit) appeared at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale of 2011 with plenty of black type to her name and was bought for $1.2 million.

Also seeking a first Derby win is Charlie Johnston in his first season with a training licence in his own name since his father Mark stepped back. The trainer is likely to saddle two for the race, and there is a particular poignancy to one of those runners as Dubai Mile (Ire), owned by Ahmad Al Shaikh, is from the sole crop of the late Roaring Lion, who was himself third in the Derby won by Masar (Ire). 

The Group 1-winning juvenile was bought for €20,000 at the Goffs Orby Sale from his breeder Lady Chryss O'Reilly and most recently finished fifth in the 2,000 Guineas. 

“There's no horse in this race that we know is better than ours, on ratings we're right there with them all,” said Johnston. “He's a Group 1 winner who ran a good trial over an inadequate trip in the Guineas, so in that sense I think we've got a rock-solid profile.

“The fact he was a €20,000 yearling and a bit more unfashionable probably explains why he's 14-1 rather than 4-1. There's nothing in there that scares me or we have 7lb to find with. If he improves for the trip, which we all expect he will, then he goes there with a good chance.”

Johnston is also represented by the 100/1 outsider Dear My Friend (GB) (Pivotal {GB}) for Middleham Park Racing.

“He's our first runner in the Derby and we are going into it with our eyes wide open,” said Mike Prince of Middleham Park Racing. “He was well beaten in the Dante but we think the step up in trip will suit him.

“There'll be a few horses in the race who don't stay, there'll be a few horses in the race who don't handle the track and there'll be a few horses in the race who don't handle the occasion – hopefully we'll be there trying to pick up some of the pieces. There's good place money down to sixth and [the owners are] all delighted that we're rolling the dice.”

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