Around this time of year, we are reminded of the words of renowned Italian breeder Federico Tesio: “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.”
Whether or not Tesio’s statement is as true now as it was during his lifetime (he died in 1954) is debatable. As a recent study conducted by the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association stated, fewer horses are being bred in Britain to stay the Derby distance of a mile and a half and further. For many involved in the industry, it is speed – not stamina – that excites in the modern thoroughbred.
So has the Derby lost its lustre? For some, perhaps, yet the race retains its supreme desirability for a great many others. The purchase of Elm Park by Sheikh Fahad Al Thani, one of the Qatari owners whose investment has been such a huge fillip for racing on these shores, is evidence that the lure of Epsom holds true for the younger generation of racing devotees.
When it comes to the traditional owner/breeder, once a mainstay of our sport, the answer is unequivocal: victory in the Epsom Derby represents the pinnacle of achievement
When it comes to the traditional owner/breeder, once a mainstay of our sport, the answer is unequivocal: victory in the Epsom Derby represents the pinnacle of achievement. It is this sentiment that has seen Anthony Oppenheimer supplement his impressive Dante Stakes victor Golden Horn for the Classic on June 6.
Immediately after his York victory, it seemed the only person who remained unconvinced by the son of Cape Cross’s Derby credentials was Oppenheimer himself, believing his charge would be better suited by the less stamina-sapping French version, the Prix du Jockey Club, over ten and a half furlongs. After all, no-one knows the family and bloodlines better than the man who bred the horse in the first place. So did he need persuading to stump up the £75,000 required for a Derby day out?
“He obviously has to go for the Derby, for the prestige and everything associated with it,” Oppenheimer tells Julian Muscat in a must-read feature (The Big Interview, pages 36-40). “All of my life I’ve wanted to win the Derby. It’s what we all aspire to as owner/breeders. This could be my chance.”
No doubt whatsoever, then, despite first impressions, that Mr Oppenheimer would look this gift horse in the mouth and deny him his chance to shine on the biggest stage of all. How officials in Ireland must wish that owners and trainers viewed their own Derby with such affection.
The Curragh Classic has suffered with small, uncompetitive fields in recent years, dominated by Aidan O’Brien and Coolmore. Such has been the disillusionment with the situation that changing the distance of the race, to ten furlongs, has been discussed at board level and also within the European Pattern Committee.
Of course, there are other examples of race distances being changed: the Prix du Jockey-Club ceased being a 12-furlong Derby in 2005, when Shamardal claimed the prize. Plenty of horsemen in France, and elsewhere, would like that decision reversed.
Tinkering with one Pattern race, let alone a Classic, has serious implications for others that follow. Such a move at the Curragh could be potentially fatal for three-year-old representation in the ten-furlong Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, which follows a week after the Irish Derby. Last year’s Eclipse winner pocketed £255,000. The Irish Derby victor took home over £600,000. Which race would you go for?
In recent seasons we have seen races transferred between courses to facilitate the creation of British Champions Day, including the Champion Stakes, which moved from Newmarket to Ascot. Some said running the same event at a different track was serious enough to have an impact on the breed. I didn’t believe that. But a policy of changing the distance of some of Europe’s premier races certainly will.