I was an avid reader of the Tiger comic from the date of its first issue in September 1954, soon recognising that my life would be incomplete without a weekly update on how the career of Roy Race, dashing young centre-forward for Melchester Rovers, was progressing in the strip that featured on the front page and continued inside. It was riveting stuff for a ten-year-old, and no doubt there were tens of thousands like me who could hardly wait for the next issue.

My enthusiasm lasted something over three years, and early in 1958 Mrs Rogers at the paper shop expressed surprise when I told her I wanted to cancel Tiger and switch to an alternative publication. She was even more surprised when I told her I wanted to replace it with the Sporting Chronicle Handicap Book. Needless to say, she had never heard of it, and I dare say I belonged in a tiny minority of 13-year-olds who knew what it contained.

She was even more surprised when I told her I wanted to replace it with the Sporting Chronicle Handicap Book

What it contained, most usefully, were last week’s results and the following week’s programmes. I don’t recall a lot of editorial matter, but I do remember a lot of advertisements for bookmakers and rogue tipsters. For me what mattered most was that I could follow the form from the start of the Flat season, but it also had the virtue of being in a conveniently small format; it could be hidden within a lot of my school text books, so I could read it while I was supposed to be studying a piece of Latin prose or whatever.

I was now two years into what would become a lifetime’s fascination with racing, and I had laid the foundations of a library on the subject, but the books I had acquired had come from second-hand shops and were mostly of a historical character. The Handicap Book would, I hoped, bring me up to date and further my knowledge in weekly instalments. And it did.

Just how it was I became convinced that Hard Ridden would win the Derby I really can’t recall, but that was the opinion I formed from my illicit studies. He had won the Irish 2,000 Guineas by four lengths, and, so far as I was concerned, that was a first-class Derby trial. His chance seemed even more obvious once Alcide, favourite after his runaway Lingfield victory, had suffered a strained stomach muscle that caused him to be scratched. The strange thing was that nobody else seemed to fancy Hard Ridden.

On the day of the race – a Wednesday, of course – I took bets from my school chums and actually told them all that I believed Hard Ridden would win. That was a smart ruse, as they all reckoned to know better than me, and though the wagers were all in coppers, I had a skinner. Hard Ridden didn’t just win, he scooted up by five lengths. I assumed the role of smug prophet for a couple of days, before my longshot Oaks selection finished way down the field.

Ignorance pays off
Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise. My temporary blissful state had been attained, it seemed, because I had yet to acquire even the most basic appreciation of bloodstock breeding. Everyone else had ruled Hard Ridden out as a serious Derby contender because his sire, Hard Sauce, had been a sprinter. Hard Sauce’s racing career had been over long before I became interested in the game, and I was entirely ignorant as to his accomplishments and the distances over which he ran.

Hard Ridden and jockey Charlie Smirke in the Epsom winner's circle

Hard Ridden and jockey Charlie Smirke in the Epsom winner’s circle after landing the 1958 Derby

Once I had acquired and devoured a copy of Sir Charles Leicester’s Bloodstock Breeding, in 1960, I was bound to concede that if I’d known before the 1958 Derby what I’d later learnt from that book, I would not have made Hard Ridden my selection. Sprinters were not meant to sire Derby winners, and my supposed prescience had been nothing but a fluke.

But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and over the next 50-odd years, as I accumulated more knowledge and experience, plus a smattering of genetics, I reckon I’ve almost come full circle. Hard Ridden was by the sprinter Hard Sauce, but so what? Hard Sauce was himself by Ardan, who won 16 races, including the Prix du Jockey-Club, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and the Coronation Cup. He notched two victories in the Prix Kergorlay over 15 furlongs and was disqualified and relegated to third after finishing first over the same distance in the Grand Prix de Paris.

There was clearly the potential for stamina in Hard Sauce, although he never exhibited it; he was not bred to be the July Cup winner – never raced beyond six furlongs – that he turned out to be. As for Hard Ridden, he was out of a mare by Admiral Drake, winner of a Grand Prix de Paris and half-brother to Derby hero Bois Roussel.

It is intriguing to note that Hard Ridden fetched only 270gns as a yearling at Ballsbridge and might well have been cheaper still. Trainer Mick Rogers bid for the colt, believing that he would be able to pass him on to Sir Victor Sassoon, who had raced Hard Sauce and now had the stallion at stud, only to realise that his opponent in the bidding was Sir Victor himself.

The English Classics closed at the yearling stage in those days, and it is fascinating to note that Hard Ridden was entered in the Derby and the St Leger but not in the 2,000 Guineas. There was an early indication that his connections did not expect him to take after his sire in terms of optimum distance.

I am inclined to think that after digesting all those facts about Hard Ridden’s background, I might have made a plausible case for his chance in the Derby – one more reasoned than my original fluke!

I have to wonder what the genetic test for optimum racing distance, now seemingly much in vogue, would have shown in Hard Ridden’s case, if it had been available. When 2,000 Guineas winner Galileo Gold’s test reportedly showed him to be a C:C – code for very unlikely to last the Derby distance – Hugo Palmer was quoted as saying that Epsom would not feature on the colt’s schedule, but just a few days later Harry Herbert, racing manager for the owner, stated that a bid had not been ruled out.

I am reliably informed that there have been cases of C:C horses staying a mile and a half at the highest level, I am aware that some geneticists believe there is a more reliable marker than the one used in the Galileo Gold test, and I just can’t persuade myself that any single gene might represent the factor governing stamina limitation.

The notion of a ‘speed gene’ strikes me as preposterous. I don’t believe we yet have the science to answer the question definitively. Indeed, the question itself seems to be flawed if it takes no account of that crucial and undefinable quality we recognise as class.

I don’t believe we have the science to answer the question definitively

Traditionally we have made judgements over stamina from observation of the horse in competition and our interpretation of its pedigree. All very rough and ready, of course, with plenty of scope for alternative opinions, but I’d be inclined to prefer the view of a sound, experienced judge to what I consider the dubious and inadequate science currently available.

The way I read Galileo Gold’s pedigree suggests that a mile and a half would not be his optimum distance. There is nothing in the top half to promise adequate stamina, and as his dam was probably the slowest daughter Galileo ever got, I suspect he is not the potent factor he appears to be in many other pedigrees. There is stamina further back, his third dam being a half-sister to Montjeu, but that is too far back for my liking.

For my money, I would not totally rule out his chance of getting the trip, but I have to feel there would be stronger contenders for Derby honours.