The Curse of the Epsom Derby: why Anthony Van Dyck may have more than his own reputation to restore

Camelot and Ruler Of The World are exceptions to a very specific rule. Aidan O’Brien has trained seven winners of the Epsom Derby and these two, in consecutive years, were the only ones to remain in training beyond their Classic season and neither with sustained success.

It is therefore likely that Anthony Van Dyck’s swansong may well have been his luckless third in Saturday’s Breeders Cup Turf. We can hope that the outpouring of good feeling towards Khalid Abdullah, after he decided to keep Enable in training, sways Coolmore into giving their Derby winner another year. To my mind, there is unfinished business.

He won what appeared to be a sub-standard Derby, but three of his subsequent four defeats have come with either excuses, or flashes of significant and retained talent. The Irish Derby baffled viewers, sectional statisticians and pundits alike, though Anthony Van Dyck was possibly the sole member of the vanquished to escape with any amount of reputation in tact. Sovereign and Padraig Beggy had simply stolen the race from the front.

The King George was an almighty blip as he trailed in over 70 lengths behind Enable and Crystal Ocean, but he clearly wasn’t right that day and his thirds in the Irish Champion Stakes and the Breeders Cup have proved his wellbeing. In the former, fans can claim there is no shame in losing to Magical over an inadequate trip and we all saw the gap close on his chances in America this weekend.

He may still be the best of this generation’s middle distance performers and that is exactly what a Derby winner should be. However, despite his ability, Anthony Van Dyck has, to date, continued an extraordinary and excruciating record for the Blue Riband’s victors. None since Harzand have won another race after Epsom and even he only did so once.

This is a record more associated with the Grand National. Between Bindaree and Many Clouds, whose victories at Aintree came 13 years apart, no winner managed to do so again anywhere in the country.

It is understandable for this record to exist in association with the National. It is a gruelling contest, designed to drain the efforts of its equine competitors. Above all, it is a handicap for horses who generally run in such races and because of its extreme test and number of runners, the punishment in terms of ratings is severe. With virtually every other race on the calendar run over much shorter trips, the ratings increase can be too much to handle.

There is no such problem in the Derby. It is a hugely competitive contest, but as a stakes race, battled out by horses who will never understand what it is like to run in a handicap, not only should the best horse win, but even if they do not due to unfortunate circumstances, the winner should still be of a high enough standard to win again elsewhere.

However, it is just such unfortunate circumstances which have befallen recent Derby heroes. Wings Of Eagles nearly added the Irish Derby and was perhaps unlucky that he didn’t. Injury then prevented him the chance of progressing further. Similar problems affected Masar, who could not run again at three and returned as a shadow of the same horse at four.

The former may have been able to return had connections decided to. However, the Group One tag which automatically comes with having won the Derby ensures that a penalty must be carried in subsequent races below the level and encourages owners to target more of the top prizes available. It is improbable that a Derby winner will subsequently turn up in a bog-standard Group Three to pick up more black type.

Anthony Van Dyck can still end this hoodoo and it surely will not be long until another Derby winner restores some parity. But for now, the pinnacle of the British flat calendar has its reputation tarnished. Due to Enable’s success, Group Ones involving the older horses have far surpassed it for quality, drama and hype.

Some star quality is needed. Anthony Van Dyck may yet be the horse to inject some back into the roll of honour.

Middle Park is no Middling Matter

If Pinatubo’s connections (rightly) decide to declare him for the Dewhurst next month, flat racing’s fanbase will be treated to two spectacular juvenile races within the space of a few weeks.

Regardless of who were to oppose Charlie Appleby’s freakish colt at Newmarket, the race will be one to saviour simply to witness the phenomenon first hand once again. Whether he trains on or not, he will go down in history as a special two-year-old and should not be underestimated off the back of this.

His absence from the Group One Middle Park Stakes this week has left the door open for another prodigy to emerge. It also raises a debate: is it more enjoyable to watch a superstar demolish his rivals, or to witness a titanic tussle between a group of excellent equines who may not quite be top notch?

It may, in hindsight, prove a distinct devaluation of the talents of the Middle Park field to declare them below the highest tier of juvenile. Within the line-up are three unbeaten colts, Earthlight, Mums Tipple and Siskin. The first and third are Group One winners whose form not only boasts the label of top-level success, but has a significant number of talented vanquished to suggest there is substance to it too. Meanwhile, Mums Tipple has put in a performance to rival Pinatubo, albeit in far lesser company, after an astonishing rout in a York novice contest last month.

Furthermore, three more horses in the field have been beaten by no more than two rivals. Monarch Of Egypt has fallen foul of Siskin twice, thus he has only ever lost a single individual. Elsewhere, Threat has been second in Group company twice before back-to-back successes and Lope Y Fernandez has seen Pinatubo waltz into the distance twice while only ever encountering Positive’s behind otherwise.

This is an outstanding race. Beastly performances like Pinatubo’s Ireland rout are a joy in small doses and it is wonderful to will a horse to maintain his/her unbeaten record. However, the pulse races faster when a Group One reaches a hoof-clattering crescendo with half a dozen chances still harboured within the final furlong.

I am already a huge admire of Pinatubo and long may he power clear of opponents and dazzle the thousands in Britain and Ireland. However, the Middle Park could well trump his National Stakes victory, or any of his future triumphs, for sheer spine-tingling, hair-raising thrills.

The aforementioned sextet all have their merits and selecting one to carry my money is no small task. Personally, I feel that LOPE Y FERNANDEZ is the value at around 12/1 for all he is significantly imperious to Godolphin’s new flag-bearer. He has bounced back with a Group Three victory over this distance in impressive fashion and he may just have been unlucky to bump into Pinatubo twice to date.

Whoever you follow, savour the race. It could prove superior to any flat contest in 2019.

2019 St Leger Preview

Since I’ve started previewing British racing’s showcase meetings two years ago, the St Leger is the only Classic in which I have chosen the winner on both occasions. Even within such a small sample, there is a running theme: both were Aidan O’Brien’s first string and both were second favourites for much of the build-up (Capri eventually went off a narrow favourite).

This year, one horse fits the bill of both once again. However, with an unbeaten favourite and a stablemate on the up, selecting is not as simple as following trends. Here’s a dissection of all eight runners for the final Classic of the season.

  1. Dashing Willoughby: Last year’s winner Kew Gardens took the Group Two Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot before triumphing at Doncaster three months on. Dashing Willoughby recorded a gutsy victory in that race back in June, but has been soundly beaten on both starts since, including when significantly further behind Stradivarius than Il Paradiso was a month after wards. He will probably stay better than most, but Sir Dragonet more than had his measure at Chester earlier in the season and a career record of 2/8 suggests his future won’t be spent in Group One company. 2/5
  2. Il Paradiso: Would never have been considered a Classic prospect this time last month and even more unusually, its taken a finishing position of third out of four for him to become the bookies’ third choice in this race. With the same weight allowance as the horse above, Il Paradiso forced the issue against Stradivarius and ran him to within a length-and-a-half. John Gosden’s immaculate stayer rarely does more than he requires, as evidenced today, but this Aidan O’Brien colt also finished alongside Dee Ex Bee, easily the second best stayer in Britain and Ireland this season. That is strong form and Padraig Beggy has proved himself a reliable man for the big occasion, judging the pace to perfection above Sovereign in this year’s Irish Derby. He may well move prominent again and look to expose any weakness in the favourite stamina-wise, a tactic both Capri and Kew Gardens’ jockeys used to perfection in the last two years. Very tempting. Too tempting. 5/5
  3. Logician: Unbeaten and doing all of the right things. Margin and comfort of the first three victories was what stood out as opposed to the quality of the contest, but he won likeably in the Great Voltigeur at York with Frankie not asking a lot at the end. There is a chance that the ease of that victory was exaggerated given his jockey’s semi-showboating in the final furlong. To me, it was more workmanlike than it may have been according to many reports. He still has star potential and there is no knowing the ceiling to the quality of his recent victory (runner-up Constantinople has since been sent to Australia). The St Leger has suited sure-fire stayers in recent renewals, however. Logician, for all his positives, might not be that. 4/5
  4. Nayef Road: Ran a rare howler when last of five in the Great Voltigeur. Before that, though, he had defeated Constantinople in brave fashion, sticking his neck out to win the Gordon Stakes. This trip is probably what he’s after in the long run and his third to Dashing Willoughby in his only attempt to date is good form. His price is not reflective of his best performances this season and he may be one for each-way multiples with class likely to run him out of victory. 3/5
  5. Sir Dragonet: The joint least inexperienced in the field with four runs. Wildly brilliant Chester Vase winner when scorching clear from off the pace on a slippery surface. Could not quite fulfil that promise in the Derby (though he was beaten less than a length that day), but his comeback was worryingly below par. An argument can be made that he needed the run, but he was more than effective on his racecourse debut, so fears remain that something else may be amiss. It could be that he needed further (that run was over 1m2f and he’s never faced shorter) and so the St Leger is a natural choice for this son of Camelot, a Leger runner-up. Nevertheless, enough doubts ensure that his stablemate is the more attractive O’Brien inmate. 3/5
  6. Sir Ron Priestley: The most progressive runner in the field and so it is impossible to rule out the necessary involvement to be a real player. Has won five times in 2019, seeing his mark go up 22lb with just a single blip coming at Royal Ascot in the middle. Took the step up to Group company in his stride at Goodwood three weeks ago albeit that race is nowhere near the quality that most of this field have contested in the past. Needs by far a career best and the transition from handicaps to genuine Group One company can provide a learning curve. Not the one for me today. 2/5
  7. Technician: Were it to rain, Martyn Meade’s charge could prove to be the forgotten grey in the line-up. Relished this new trip when defeating fellow soft-ground specialist Morando on such a surface in the Group Three Geoffrey Freer at Newbury last month. They pulled quite nicely clear of the remainder, although once more the quality has to be in serious doubt. The ground looks set to favour others before him, but rain would make Technician a similar each-way prospect to Nayef Road. 3/5
  8. Western Australia: Despite being the rank outsider, Western Australia is the only horse running this afternoon who boasts a place at the highest level. That came in last year’s Futurity Stakes as a juvenile at a massive price and he’ll need to replicate that level of surprise. He’s ultimately disappointed since being stepped up in trip, winning his first start beyond a mile-and-a-half in a Listed Navan race before finishing down the field in three latter outings. The level of his seventh to Twilight Payment at the Curragh is probably the most accurate to take in relation to his overall ability. That tells you all you need to know. 1/5

IL PARADISO’s form sets a standard given he may have genuinely tested Stradivarius’ resolve at Goodwood on his latest outing. His more certain stamina credentials highlight him as the danger to Logician and if setting sail with an advantage, he may prove too tough to reel in.

York Ebor: Day 4

The exceptional performance by Battaash was thoroughly clouded over by the loss of two recent greats earlier today. Roaring Lion succumbing to a second bout of colic was desperate given the promise of a long and healthy career at stud after his on-course exploits. As heartbreaking was the departure of Espoir D’Allen, the Champion Hurdler, who had so much ahead of him a the tender of age of five. The news itself is shocking, but we might not feel the full effects of either until well into the future.

The final day of the Ebor meeting will be run under somewhat of a gloom, though the handicap could throw up a couple of fairytale stories to brighten the mood. Furthermore, there is action at Goodwood, with the return of a promising three-year-old being a significant eyecatcher. Here are my day four choices.

Goodwood 2:05 – SKARDU

Both Duke of Hazzard and Beat Le Bon have improved for the milder weather recently, but Skardu’s form at Group One level is top drawer. Third and fourth in the British and Irish Guineas, he wasn’t beaten far in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot either when late rain may have hindered him more than the other principles. Given he’s only had five starts to date, he should have further progress in him and a layoff should pose no problems given he opened his season with a victory.

York 2:25 – EMINENCE

With Ryan Moore returning to a bit of form recently, Eminence looks the soundest bet in the three-year-olds’ Ebor equivalent. He has been far from disgraced in some top handicaps this summer and, in hindsight, has shaped as if a couple of extra furlongs will see him in an even better light. He is only up 1lb for a good third at Goodwood when not having the clearest of passages having travelled well and the likes of First In Line, Almania and Universal Order all have to prove their stamina upped from a mile-and-a-quarter.

York 3:40 – MUSTAJEER

I cant tip King’s Advice because I’ve already missed out on all of his victories to date and it’ll be the kiss of death if I do. Nevertheless, this could prove the bridge too far even with his penalty ensuring he’s 1lb in, as the Ebor is different gravy with only 8lb covering the field. Mustajeer was fourth in this off the same mark last year when quietly ridden and has since become a runaway Listed winner as well as having placed at Group level behind Master Of Reality over this trip. His recent fifth in a Curragh Group Two was far from a disgrace as he finished upsides the useful Southern France off the same weight. This year’s Ebor renewal has ceiling 3lb higher than last and so Mustajeer carries less weight than twelve months ago and now its more certain that he’ll relish the journey, a more aggressive ride could be in store, throwing him right into calculations.

Goodwood 3:50 – MANUELA DE VEGA

Though she’d have got nowhere near Enbihaar at Goodwood, Manuela De Vega was never the most handily placed in the Lillie Langtry at the beginning of the month. That she ran on for a clear second confirmed her stamina was not the issue that day. These are calmer waters she shares in this Group Three, with Sir Ron Priestley stepping out of handicap company, Promissory wildly unproven, Dal Horrisgle already defeated soundly at this level and Blue Gardenia surely not up to scratch. She would not be out of place in a St Leger field at this stage and her form in Group Ones should mean she’s the one to beat.

York Ebor: Day 3

Enable has been truly glorious and her departure from our racetracks is bittersweet. We won’t see too many mares as great as her in our lifetime.

The feeling of loss was counteracted by a more successful day yesterday and the momentum will hopefully enable us to build on day three of the Ebor meeting. Here are my Friday selections.

1:55 – CARADOC

This is a leap in class for Ed Walker’s charge and while both Eynhallow and Genetics are tempting, the continuation of Oisin Murphy in the saddle and the increase in distance could bring about the necessary improvement in this field. His 5lb penalty for a recent victory means he carries 1lb less than he should officially and he was strong through the line when winning most recently. He has had excuses for both his defeats this season and his breeding gives further confidence that he should be even better over a mile-and-a-half.

2:25 – DEE EX BEE

I’m sorry. I know Stradivarius always wins, but this might finally be the time he finds one too good. As the Lonsdale Cup is a Group Two as opposed to a Group One, Dee Ex Bee is in receipt of 3lb. He’s been found wanting for a turn-of-foot by Stradivarius the last twice, but he is one of the most formidable opponents John Gosden’s exquisite stayer has faced. Falcon Eight also presents a tempting alternative as he is unproven, but the weight swing gives Dee Ex Bee a fighting chance if Silvestre De Souza can make this a stern enough test of stamina. He was unable to lead latest and didn’t go fast enough at Royal Ascot, but with knowledge comes power. 4/1 is too appealing given how little there has been between them. It just depends how much Stradivarius still had in reserve. I’m chancing there was less than appeared.

3:35 – MABS CROSS

The billing of this year’s Nunthorpe as a two-horse clash between Battaash and Ten Sovereigns baffled me. The former has a strike rate of 1/6 at the top level and was easily disposed of in this last year, in spite of his talents while the latter surely wants a tough six furlongs rather than a speedy five. Mabs Cross may have only maintained her form rather than improving upon it this term, but she was beaten a hair’s breadth in this last year. Her defeat by Battaash at Ascot should not be cause for concern as that form is almost identical to last year’s King’s Stand which she reversed in fine style in this and she has become a Group One winner since. She has every chance of going mightily close.

4:50 – VITRALITE

The three horses chasing hat-tricks at the head of the market all have factors against them. Vitralite was most recently fourth despite conceding lumps of weight all-round in a novice event won by Mubtasimah (receiving 12lb from selection.). She has won since and was far from disgraced earlier today off a mark now 1lb higher than Karl Burke’s runner. Back at a mile, where he won so convincingly on his second start (he also won on debut), 94 is not the harshest mark for his handicap bow given the promise of those first two victories and he’s a sizeable price on what he’s shown to date.

York Ebor 2019: Day 2

Enable day has happened far more regularly in 2019 than 2018 and even though she runs only in a four-runner affair tomorrow, this particular outing for John Gosden’s wondermare should be savoured more than any to date. As she eyes a third successive triumph in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe in the autumn, this may prove Enable’s penultimate racecourse start.

She’ll face stern enough opposition from Magical, but the Yorkshire Oaks is a race best left alone from a punting point of view. A few others on the card are far too tempting, however. Here are day two’s selections.

1:55 – LIBERTY BEACH

John Quinn has trained a couple of fleet of foot fillies among the juvenile ranks in the last two years. Signora Cabello lit up the turf last season and Liberty Beach is matching her impressive footsteps this time around. There’s every chance she may surpass her stablemate as she’s been highly impressive the last twice and shaped with real promise regards stepping up in trip when taking Goodwood’s five-furlong Molecomb Stakes on her latest start. She’ll face stern competition from James Tate’s Under The Stars, who may have improvement in her, but so, at this stage, does Liberty Beach and she’s worth following while on this hot streak.

2:25 – RAYONG

Show Me Show Me certainly improved upon his previous form when running an excellent third at Goodwood last time, but Rayong has been given some heady assignments in his young career to date. He’s been thrown into pattern company the last thrice and not been disgraced on any of those starts, running on with credit at Sandown and, most recently, in a French Group One. As such, six furlongs could make him the one to beat and I’m surprised he’s not the favourite here given he receives weight from the two currently ahead of him in the market.

3:00 – BLESS HIM

Within the top five in the market are Kynren, Baltic Baron and Firmament, all of whom are far from prolific winners. Vale Of Kent is not off the kindest mark, whereas, Bless Him is. David Simcock’s gelding is another not particularly used to winning, but he is less experienced and he runs off 92, his lowest mark for over two years and the previous lowest he won off. There were excuses last time when he didn’t enjoy the step up to 1m2f, but back at a mile, where he was second on his last start off 1lb higher, he should go close even in a competitive race.

4:15 – SEARCH FOR A SONG

Dermot Weld’s filly is one who has been on my radar for a while. She was defeated by Trethias in a Group Three on just her second start, but easily overturned that running in the Irish Oaks, in which she finished a highly promising fourth. Both Frosty and Frankellina retain potential, but there is a chance that Search For A Song could take higher order than Listed company in the future. The trip is no issue and as long as inexperience is no barrier, she should be a class above.

The Tour Championship’s new format: Engaging or Enraging?

As a racing enthusiast, the PGA Tour’s new system for their series finale has encouraged me to take a closer look at the world of golf.

For those unfamiliar, the Tour Championship is now staggered to reward those who have performed to their best at crucial points during the season. The leader of the season-long FedEx Cup, which dishes out points depending on the strength and necessity of the tournament, starts at the top of the leaderboard while the chasing pack have to close over the course of the four days.

This ensures it is more transparent as to who has claimed victory. Last season, Tiger Woods, before his emotional Masters triumph, claimed the tournament win at East Lake to crown an incredible comeback. However, for those watching without guidance, he had not triumphed in the overall FedEx Cup. He had too many points to make up on eventual winner Justin Rose, who had finished in a share of fourth at this particular event.

The new format does away with confusion. If you are at the top of the East Lake leaderboard at the end of the week, you have won both the tournament and the FedEx Cup. No need for calculators to tally cumulative points and determine whether victory is enough given so-and-so is in fifth place.

As such, Justin Thomas, the FedEx Cup’s leader, begins the week at -10 and holds a two shot advantage from the off. The impetus on those behind is immediately to chase, which should, in theory make things more exciting. Second place begins at -8, third at -7, and so on until sixth position. Those between six and ten in the standings will start at -4, 11-15 at -3, 16-20 at -2, 21-25 at -1 and 26-30 at even par, just as they would an ordinary week. Only the top 30 qualify for a position in the field at East Lake and those who have snuck in must work even harder for the $15 million (yes, 15 million) prize money for the champion.

The format works like a handicap would in racing, which enthrals me immediately. It’s a slightly crooked handicap: for example, Brooks Koepka, the no.1 player in the world, starts in third with only three shots to make up, whereas, in a handicapper’s paradise, he’d be at the bottom of the pyramid having to forge his way up.

Koepka’s position in the standings raises two issues. The first being that the likes of Charles Howell III and Jason Kokrak, who just about qualified and must open their first rounds at level par, are almost out of the equation for victory from the beginning. With the greatest of respect, it is doubtful they can make up seven shots on the world’s current best, let alone any number of shots on 25 of the 30-strong field.

Psychologically, there is a negative impact on those who between 26th and 30th in the FedEx standings. Last year, though they would have been up against it to claim overall victory, the journey to do so would have felt less daunting, with a simple, overall triumph being all they could do to get close, or, with luck falling their way, win the Cup themselves. This year, the tax of closing ten shots may appear insurmountable from the very first tee.

The second problem with Koepka’s position is that he has been indisputably golf’s best player of the year and yet he is only third. He has won three times, twice on tour alongside his major triumph in the PGA. Thomas, atop the standings, has won just once, that being this weekend at the BMW Championship.

Once again, the uninitiated can only be baffled by this bizarre arrangement. The BMW is a prestigious tournament, but no major and it is the only title Thomas has claimed in the 2018/19 season. Yet, because it is a FedEx Cup playoff event, the points awarded are far greater than in a regular season event, or even a major title, in order to encourage competition for the final few spots in the field and to continue form throughout the year.

Nevertheless, there is an awkward skew and the likes of Matt Kuchar and Rory Mcilroy, who have played admirably and consistently since the beginning of the year, find themselves adrift of Patrick Reed, who has only won one event, like Thomas, in the playoffs, and Patrick Cantlay, whose runner-up finish to Thomas promoted him to second in the FedEx Cup. This is clearly unfair and the playoffs, at least, don’t seem necessary.

This alone does not diminish the Tour Championship’s format, however, although the aforementioned psychological effects are even more intriguing when it comes to scoring. Some players thrive upon protecting leads: Thomas, for instance, has won seven of the ten tournaments he has won when holding a lead going into the final round. Others, meanwhile, enjoy the thrill of the chase, hunting down those boasting a lead by playing aggressive golf.

If you are one of those at -1 or -2, say, you have to go out and attack pins, wherever they are positioned, from the outset in order to claw back the artificial deficit. If this does not suit your game, or if you make an early mistake, you can almost be ruled out from the very start, which potentially lowers the competition before it has even really begun.

Alternatively, those from -5 upwards may consider approaching the opening stages more conservatively in the knowledge that they have been blessed with an advantage. Again, this could work negatively for someone like Rory Mcilroy, who is at his best when asserting from the outset.

As long as Thomas does not get away too quickly, the handicap-esque format could prove a hugely exciting watch. It could, however, lead to a spread-eagled field and drama involving only a handful of players. It is a grand idea, though and I hope for the PGA’s sake that it is a success.