This is very much a Derby with a difference: one with overtures in 1987, when Reference Point justified his role as favourite for his owner/breeder, Louis Freedman.
It is nearly three decades since an old-school, British-based owner/breeder had the star turn for the Investec-sponsored Classic. And in a neat vignette of the shifting sands since Reference Point’s era, the horse in question must outstay his pedigree if he is to land the spoils.
The racing parish has grappled with the conundrum ever since Golden Horn outpaced his Dante Stakes rivals as though their limbs were encased in concrete. And extra spice came with Anthony Oppenheimer’s stated belief that his homebred colt is likely to find ten furlongs his optimum racing distance.
All of which leaves him in a curious position. Since most agree Golden Horn is the most naturally gifted horse in the race, defeat at Epsom will almost certainly result from Oppenheimer having been right all along.
We thought he would sell as a yearling at Tattersalls but there was barely a bid for him
But that is far from his mind as the 77-year-old scion of the De Beers family settles back in an armchair at his London home. He has unearthed a diamond from the pastures at his Hascombe And Valiant Studs, near Newmarket. Whichever way it cuts on June 6, the discovery is noteworthy in itself.
“The whole thing has been a bit of a shock,” Oppenheimer reflects. “We thought he would sell as a yearling at Tattersalls but there was barely a bid for him. Then we heard he was among John Gosden’s best two-year-olds, so we half-expected to see him running in something like the Middle Park. Now he is favourite for the Derby, which is quite a turn of events.”
It certainly is. Yet the sense of equilibrium with which he outlines Golden Horn’s achievements to date betrays little excitement. “Oh, my wife [Antoinette] is very excited indeed,” he replies. “I keep having to calm her down.
“If the horse is there on the day, if nothing has happened to him and the ground is not soft, I’m sure I’ll be a nervous wreck,” he continues. “But you get so many shocks breeding horses. When you win a big race your best mare will invariably drop dead the next day. That’s why I don’t get too excited.”
These are words redolent of owner/breeders of yore, the ones who almost courted disaster by their oblique pessimism. But then, breeding horses is exactly as Oppenheimer says. It’s just that it is so rare to sit before one these days that their lingo, like Latin, is all but obsolete.
Oppenheimer’s father, Sir Philip, started it all just after the war when he unexpectedly bought four yearlings at the Newmarket sales. “He met up with [trainer] Charlie Elliott, who was famously crooked when my father was a bit innocent,” Oppenheimer says. “But he soon went into partnership with Nicky Morriss [then owner of Banstead Manor Stud] and it went from there.”
Anthony Oppenheimer changed tack when he inherited the stud on his father’s death in 1995. Whereas Sir Philip put everything he bred into training, his son decided to sell the yearling colts in a bid to make Hascombe pay its way. Hence Golden Horn’s date with the auctioneer in October 2013.
As luck would have it, Golden Horn came up for sale the day after Oppenheimer had already reaped some handsome prices. “I decided to raise the reserve,” he reflects. “He was a fine-looking horse and when he was bought in, both John Gosden and William Haggas immediately asked whether they could train him.”
But for that, Golden Horn might have been racing in silks other than the distinctive red, white and black livery. Indeed, the stud has sold Classic winners before: the Coolmore partners bought both Rose Gypsy (2001 Poule d’Essai des Pouliches) and Footstepsinthesand (2005 2,000 Guineas) from the Hascombe yearling draft. And 1982 1,000 Guineas heroine On The House, the sole Classic winner to date to run in the Oppenheimer silks, failed to make her 10,000-guinea reserve when offered as a yearling in 1980.
Golden Horn hails from On The House’s distaff lineage; she is a half-sister to his third dam, Loralane. In part this is why Oppenheimer harbours reservations over Golden Horn staying the Derby trip.
A son of Cape Cross, Golden Horn descends from a line acquired by Sir Philip when he bought Hascombe – which he amalgamated with his Valiant operation named after his two children, Valerie and Anthony – and all its stock in 1965.
Among the mares was 15-year-old Tessa Gillian, runner-up in the 1,000 Guineas and Coronation Stakes, and already dam of a pair of talented two-year-olds in Test Case (Gimcrack Stakes) and Gentle Art (Richmond Stakes). The speed gene was thus already evident.
Tessa Gillian subsequently threw On The House’s dam Lora, whose grand-daughter, the mile Listed winner Nuryana, bred Coronation Stakes heroine Rebecca Sharp. Another of Nuryana’s daughters was Golden Horn’s dam Fleche d’Or, who never ran – and who was sold for 62,000 guineas at the 2012 Tattersalls December sales.
“It is a Classic line from way back,” Oppenheimer says. “The best members of the family were milers, which is why it never entered my head to put Golden Horn in the Derby as a yearling. I’d felt for a while that no member of the family should run over more than ten furlongs. We’ll see what happens, but perhaps that has been a mistake.”
Although two more of Nuryana’s progeny, Mystic Hill (by Caerleon) and Hidden Hope (by Daylami), won the Lingfield Derby Trial and Cheshire Oaks respectively, Oppenheimer does not offer them in mitigation.
The unfinished sentence is manifestation of a Derby dream that has enchanted every owner/breeder before him
“Mystic Hill was not a top-class horse,” he says. “He actually ran in the Derby and finished sixth [behind Shaamit in 1996], but Golden Horn is a cut above him. The family isn’t a staying one but if Golden Horn settles as he did at York, it will be a tremendous advantage. He obviously has to go for the Derby, for the prestige and everything associated with it.”
Evidently, Oppenheimer made his reservations known to Gosden at an early stage. So much so that the trainer metaphorically put one arm around his patron’s shoulder and took him on an unexpected journey.
“Before the Fielden Stakes [over nine furlongs at Newmarket] Gozzie asked me whether I thought the horse would stay nine furlongs and I said I thought he was a miler,” Oppenheimer recalls. “But he won his only two-year-old race over a mile, so I thought it was worth having a go.
“When I said that, I could see Gozzie smiling away quite happily, because he obviously felt the horse would have no problem staying that far,” he continues. “Then, having won the Fielden, I thought the Dante [over ten and a half furlongs] might be too far, but the way the horse settles, I thought: ‘Let’s see.’
“And I was pleasantly surprised, especially when he finished the race strongly, and now I find myself thinking he should be fine over another half a furlong. That takes us up to 11 furlongs, and beyond that, well…”
The unfinished sentence is manifestation of a Derby dream that has enchanted every owner/breeder before him – including his father, who came closest when Pelerin, trained by Harry Wragg, finished fourth behind Henbit in 1980 after missing the break.
“It’s not easy to win any Group race not confined to fillies if you sell your yearling colts,” he says. “My father put all his homebreds into training, but if I didn’t sell mine, I couldn’t keep the stud going.”
By way of evidence, he outlines the costs associated with running his 290-acre farm with its 28-strong band of broodmares, two of which are stationed in the US. And when he tots it all up – the veterinary bills and staff costs comfortably exceed £500,000 – he needs to recoup £1.5 million annually to foot the bill.
“People say to me I could sell horses in training, rather than yearling colts,” he says, “but for that you’d need to have three or four quite useful horses every year. That’s quite a gamble. I don’t think the bank manager would be terribly keen on it.”
Some would argue that stumping up £75,000 to supplement Golden Horn to the Derby field represented a significant gamble in itself. To Oppenheimer, however, there was never any doubt, despite his reputation for prudence in financial matters.
When it came to adding Golden Horn to the Epsom mix, there was only ever going to be one outcome. “All of my life I’ve wanted to win the Derby,” he says. “It’s what we all aspire to as owner/breeders. This could be my chance.”
Whatever the outcome, Golden Horn’s domination of the preamble gives rise to a potentially pleasing symmetry. It was exactly 50 years ago that Sir Philip bought the land on which this exciting horse was reared. A Derby triumph would commemorate the landmark perfectly.