Geoff Lester talks to John Gosden about his Investec Derby hopefuls
WHILE Barcelona are lucky enough to have both Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez for tonight’s Champions League final against Juventus, John Gosden hopes that a few hours earlier at Epsom his own potent striking force, namely Golden Horn and Jack Hobbs, might have what it takes to lift the greatest prize in Flat racing, the Investec Derby.
Gosden, who enjoyed “a one-in-a-million experience” with Benny The Dip on the historic Surrey Downs in 1997, said: “I am fortunate to train what look to be two major players. Both are laid-back characters. Jack is the more guaranteed stayer and improving all the time, but Golden Horn is the finished article and, though there is one box that he has not yet ticked off – stamina – we are quietly confident that the mile-and-a-half will be within his compass.”
Sir Anthony Oppenheimer, Golden Horn’s owner-breeder, has a policy of keeping the fillies and selling the colts, but he put a reserve of £200,000 on his Cape Cross colt at Tattersalls Yearling Sales and, when nobody was willing to meet his demands, he was happy to take him home.
“One bid and he would have been on the market, and who knows where he might have ended up,” observed Gosden. “I trained the dam’s first foal, Eastern Belle, who was a Listed winner, and happily Sir Anthony agreed to send Golden Horn to me.
“Similarly, Jack Hobbs could have been and gone. He was bred by Willie Carson and we bought him at the sales for 60 grand, but he did not race until December 27 last year. And, though it was only a maiden at Wolverhampton, the Aussies were on the phone the next morning trying to buy him.”
Gosden, eloquent, articulate and self-confident, as one would expect from someone who trained in California for the Hollywood set for 11 years, describes Jack Hobbs as “a big, leggy boy – like a teenager who is just learning how exciting life can be."
It is noticeable how much more optimistic the trainer has become about “Jack's” ability to handle the unique undulations of Epsom after the colt stretched his legs on the Downs at the Breakfast with the Stars morning, but one still senses that he wants the heavens to open.
There are no such worries for Golden Horn. Assessing his strengths, Gosden said: “He was impressive when winning his maiden first time out at Nottingham, where, having been green early on, he flew up the straight. And he thrived physically through the winter, so much so that I entered him for the French Derby in February.
“He won the Feilden well and was even more impressive in what looked a hot Dante Stakes at York, so immediately the pressure was on to supplement him for Epsom, at a cost to the owner of £75,000.
“Sir Anthony has always been adamant that 10 furlongs would be Golden Horn’s optimum trip, but he acknowledged that he hit the line strongly at York and, being the sportsman he is, it did not take him long to give us the green light.
“He knows the pedigree inside-out and I am sure that if Golden Horn’s petrol gauge runs out at the two-pole he will say to me ‘I told you so’, but that’s fair enough. He has agreed to give it a go, and I congratulate him for that.”
It has been well documented that Golden Horn did a super piece of work at Newmarket on the Friday before York. However, Gosden is quick to put the record straight and reveal that Frankie Dettori did not desert the Feilden winner on the Knavesmire, but was instructed by the trainer to ride Jack Hobbs instead.
Gosden explained: “I don’t like running two horses against each other in these trials, but the Dante suited both and I wanted to get Frankie’s opinion of Jack Hobbs at this level, so it was my decision which he rode. It was all about educating the horse.
“Golden Horn is the more professional – Jack Hobbs is a work-in-progress and might not reach his peak until he is four or even five – and I knew Golden Horn would be fine whether we went to Chantilly or Epsom.
“It’s been great having Frankie riding for me again on a regular basis this season and it would be something of a coming home party if Golden Horn won.
“We go back a long way and he has often popped around for a chat when his career has hit bouts of turbulence, but all his old hunger came back this spring, and when he is on his A-game there is nobody better.”
Gosden, who calls the decision to sell 50% of Jack Hobbs last month to Godolphin as “common-sense”, knows only too well that at Epsom punters might as well throw the formbook out of the window. “If your horse does not act on the track he is history,” he said.
“Epsom is what makes the Investec Derby the ultimate test of the thoroughbred. The track rises 150 feet and then drops 150 feet, horses have to cross roads, paths and cope with cambers. They need balance and agility and – above all – tactical speed and stamina, while if they don’t relax on that early uphill climb there is no way they will get home.
“Things have changed for the better since the days of The Minstrel , but Derby Day still remains as much a mental test as a physical one.”
Besides 1997 Derby winner Benny The Dip, eight of Gosden’s other 16 attempts finished in the frame, though he concedes that “a few were all at sea on the track, including Western Hymn 12 months ago.”
He said: “Benny actually loved every second of it. He also won the Dante and, while the breeding experts doubted whether he would stay at Epsom, we decided to play the bold card and Willie Ryan took the race by the scruff of the neck at Tattenham Corner and they held Silver Patriarch by the skin of their teeth.”
Gosden had waited 31 years to put a family debt right. His late father Towser trained 1966 Derby hero Charlottown as a two-year-old but was forced to relinquish his licence through illness during the winter of 1965.
“I had struggled the previous few years, not least because Darley’s breeding operation was in its infancy, but thanks to one old man from Ohio [Landon Knight], who had just the one horse trained in Europe, we were able to enjoy a day none of us will ever forget.”
He might just have another one 18 years on.