I was brought up in an era when the Derby was rightly regarded as one of the two greatest fixtures in the sporting calendar, rivalled in its appeal only by the FA Cup Final. It merited that distinction by virtue of the fact that virtually throughout its long history it had ranked as the most important event in a sport that claimed the attention of all levels of society – so important that every other nation where the sport flourished had established its own counterpart contest.

Recognition of the Derby’s lofty status as representing the very best of horseracing was strongly expressed in the media, which provided extensive coverage and celebrated it with appropriate front-page treatment. It was no longer customary for Parliament to shut up shop for Derby day, as it had for a long period in the 19th century, but it was impossible to be unaware of what was happening on Epsom Downs on that special day of the year.

Things have changed – to a considerable extent because of the crass decision to switch from a Wednesday, when it could, and often did, dominate the news agenda, to a Saturday, when it would inevitably have to compete for media attention with so many other summer weekend events. Did the wreckers never consider the possibility that the move might result in the race’s relegation to a much lower public profile, with miserable viewing figures on a minority TV channel?

A thrilled Aga Khan  leads in his fifth Derby winner, Harzand, ridden by Pat Smullen

A thrilled Aga Khan leads in his fifth Derby winner, Harzand, ridden by Pat Smullen

I fell in love with racing as a pre-teenager, the Derby quickly becoming the chief focus of my interest, but I can’t imagine any of today’s 12- year-olds following in my footsteps while newspapers routinely neglect the sport and fail to recognise the special significance of the race that has mattered more than any other for nigh on two and a half centuries. In 2016 I saw numerous references to the Derby as ‘the greatest Flat race in the world,’ a description which instead of promoting it actually insulted it. The very idea that there might be a race over obstacles to compare with it is preposterous.

But some of us know what the Derby really means, and for those professionally involved there is no doubt about it. It is the race that every breeder, owner, trainer and jockey wants to win, and the connections of this year’s winner were swift to acknowledge it.

In the case of the Aga Khan, Harzand’s owner/breeder, the victory was an achievement he had registered on four previous occasions, each one providing the spur to make repeated efforts to match the feat, while for trainer Dermot Weld and jockey Pat Smullen it was the realisation of long-nurtured dreams, adding success in the greatest race to career CVs that had hitherto seemed incomplete.

Twist of fate
It is remarkable to reflect that the Aga Khan, who will turn 80 in December, became involved in racing and breeding solely by mischance. He professed neither knowledge nor interest while his grandfather and father occupied prominent positions in the thoroughbred world.

HH Aga Khan III had raced three Derby winners – yearling purchase Blenheim (1930) and the homebred pair Bahram (1935) and Mahmoud (1936) – before the birth of his grandson, and there would be two more in My Love (1948), owned in partnership with his breeder Leon Volterra, and Tulyar (1952), who was registered as bred by the Aga and his son, Prince Aly Khan.

On the death of Aga Khan III in 1957, his grandson, not yet 21, was named to succeed him as spiritual leader of the ten million-strong Ismaili community; Aly maintained the family’s connection with the Turf. But in May 1960 Aly was killed in a car crash, which left his son as owner of one of the leading thoroughbred operations in the world, with dual Classic winner Petite Etoile among the horses in training.

There were decisions to make. Should the 23- year-old Aga Khan IV continue with a family enterprise that had been nurtured successfully over nearly 40 years, or should he disperse the stock? It seems likely that the performances of the horses in training made the decision for him.

Inside the first three months of his ownership, Charlottesville won the Prix du Jockey-Club and Grand Prix de Paris, Sheshoon took the Gold Cup and Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, Petite Etoile landed the Coronation Cup, and Venture was successful in the St James’s Palace Stakes and Sussex Stakes. The deeds of the horses inherited from his father and grandfather made him France’s leading owner in 1960. In Britain, where he had limited representation, he ranked fifth.

After a banner year for the stud, it was clear the Aga had taken over a going concern, so it made sense to persevere, but there was a lot for the novice to learn about the business of racing and breeding. Many doubted he would stay the course, finding the same sort of enthusiasm that had characterised the involvement of his forebears.

In fact, it soon became obvious he relished the challenge, and that, for him, it was less about upholding a family tradition than striving to match and exceed the achievements of his father and grandfather. He owned a fiercely competitive streak, and proved every bit as shrewd as them in his dealings as he pursued an expansionist policy.

The first runner of real distinction bred by the Aga was Silver Shark, winner of the Prix de l’Abbaye as a two-year-old in 1965, soon to be followed by Zeddaan and Kalamoun, father and son heroes of the Poule d’Essai des Poulains. His top performer in the 1970s was not one he bred, but was out of a mare he had bred and sold; that rarity was Blushing Groom, a champion two-year-old and crack miler bought as a foal for 16,000gns. Favourite for the 1977 Derby, he finished third to The Minstrel.

By the end of the 1970s the Aga’s bloodstock holdings had grown enormously

By the end of the 1970s the Aga’s bloodstock holdings had grown enormously. A scheduled auction of the stock from the late Mme Dupre’s Haras d’Ouilly was abandoned a few days before the due date, when it was announced the Aga had bought the lot by private treaty. He did a similar deal to take over what was left of the bankrupt Marcel Boussac’s formerly all-conquering stud.

A few years later the few mares remaining in Brook Holliday’s ownership joined the fold. While some in the industry queried the method in such apparent madness, the Aga argued that such transactions enabled him to tap into the accumulated wisdom of breeders who had competed at the top level over several generations. Those deals brought so much success to the expanded empire that nobody queried the similar deal that brought the Jean-Luc Lagardere mares into the broodmare band early in this century.

It is evident now that for all the achievements of Aga Khan III, his successor has comfortably surpassed them. The former bred only three Derby winners, one of those in partnership, whereas his successor’s score is five, one short of the record held since 1831 by the 3rd Earl of Egremont. Shergar (1981), Shahrastani (1986) and Kahyasi (1988) all hailed from families developed in the old Aga’s time, while Sinndar (2000) had his roots in the Boussac stud and Harzand traces to a root in the Holliday band.

My research persuades me that Harzand is the 85th individual Group 1 winner bred by the Aga. Totting up the tally of individual Pattern and Graded winners proved rather more arduous and time-consuming, and I wouldn’t swear to it that the 246 I found constitute an entirely accurate total. It hardly matters, as there will be plenty more to come. The Egremont record might yet be under threat.