With this year’s Investec Derby just over two weeks away, Newmarket is a hive of activity as the world’s most prestigious flat race draws ever closer.
While trainers finalise their preparations for Epsom, breeders in the same equine parish are plotting the creation of future contenders.
Trainer John Gosden, who saddled last year’s winner Golden Horn, has only recently unearthed another genuine contender in last week’s Dante Stakes winner Wings Of Desire.
"He is a lovely horse who is extraordinarily laid-back,” says Gosden. “He does not really bother about anything and his favourite habits are eating and sleeping. He looks great and has taken everything in his stride. He did a lot of steady preparation during the winter and is learning quickly.”
Only time will tell whether or not the son of Pivotal has had enough racing experience to do himself justice at Epsom on what will be only his fourth racecourse start, but Gosden knows what is required to land the most famous race of them all.
"The thing about the Derby is that you need a particular type of horse – one with great balance and agility, a lot of tactical speed and who also stays.
"But you do need speed – you cannot just slog around with one that stays well.”
The importance of Derby success to breeders
Just a short distance down the road from Gosden’s Clarehaven Stables, his former inmate and last year’s Derby winner Golden Horn is settling into his new life as a stallion at Sheikh Mohammed’s Dalham Hall Stud.
The four-year-old not only won the fastest Derby on record but was also rated the best horse in the world on turf last year.
“It’s every breeder’s goal to breed a Derby winner,” says Sam Bullard, Director of Stallions at Dalham Hall Stud. “Particularly as there is only one each year!”
In fact, it was Federico Tesio, one of the most influential breeders of thoroughbreds last century, who went even further than that in stressing the importance of Derby success to breeders.
“The Thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians, or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby," he said.
“If you base your criteria on anything else, you will get something else, not the Thoroughbred.”
Bullard is thrilled that Golden Horn’s owner Anthony Oppenheimer agreed to sell a 50 per cent share of his star to Sheikh Mohammed and allow him to join the impressive roster of Darley stallions.
“There were many reasons we were so keen to try and get Golden Horn to come to us,” says Bullard. “The primary one was obviously because he was such a brilliant racehorse who won last year’s Investec Derby in emphatic style.
“However, he’s also by our own Cape Cross who stands under our Darley banner. Cape Cross is one of the biggest influences in breeding Derby winners in recent years and we were desperately keen to get his son to come and stand here.”
Bullard admits that there are plenty of factors to consider when it comes to plotting a potential future Derby winner.
“It’s not just about the stallion although, of course, that is hugely important,’’ stresses Bullard.
“Obviously you have to have the right mare, but don’t forget the importance of the farm the foal is raised on. Golden Horn himself was raised at Mr Oppenheimer’s Hascombe Stud where plenty of other really good racehorses began their days.
“Then of course it matters how they are reared and ridden. That can have a huge impact on how they turn out as racehorses.”
Potential Derby winner
As for Golden Horn, Bullard has already seen enough even at this early stage to think that he is capable of siring a potential Derby winner.
“There are many things about Golden Horn that make him stand out.
“Physically he is a very well put together racehorse with sound limbs and is very-well balanced – all attributes which allowed him to handle Epsom’s unique undulations, not to mention Tattenham Corner.
“We are really hopeful he will be able to pass those traits onto his sons and daughters so that they can follow in his hoofprints.”
Bullard also feels Golden Horn’s sound temperament is an important attribute he will hopefully pass on to his progeny as they one day head to the amphitheatre of noise and bustle that is Epsom.
“The big stage requires the right temperament in any sphere and the Derby is no different.
“There are just so many people at Epsom and there are plenty of opportunities for horses to boil over in the preliminaries.
“Golden Horn handled the whole occasion last year impeccably and that’s a fantastic attribute to hand on.”
Jimmy George from Tattersalls, who have sold six Derby winners since 2000 and three of the last four, is another who believes there is simply no other race like the Investec Derby.
“Turning up at Epsom on Derby day with a runner is as exciting as it gets. It’s a magical race run at an extraordinary course,” says George.
“That is the reason why so many of the worlds’ leading racehorse owners come to the Tattersalls October Yearling Sale.”
Midterm problems not insurmountable
Back to this year’s renewal and Sir Michael Stoute faces a race against time to get Midterm to Epsom after he picked up an injury in the Dante Stakes.
“We have found he was sore in a hamstring behind,” says Teddy Grimthorpe, racing manager to owner Khalid Abdullah.
“It has been isolated to that and obviously that has to come right for him to run in the Derby.
“It is not insurmountable or else we would have pulled the plug already.
"At least it gives us some explanation of why he was so disappointing. We have to wait quite a few days and like everything we have got to be sure, so it will be a last-minute decision.
"Firstly, he has to be sound and secondly he has got to please – which is slightly difficult as he is not a great worker so it is hard to gauge how he is going.
"If he is lucky, he will become sound and do enough work to please Michael and then he will head to Epsom.”
As the clock ticks, some Derby dreams sadly fade while others haven’t even yet begun.