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.

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