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Make A New Cult Every Day To Suit Your Affairs

With all the hoopla over Big Brown’s crack at the Belmont this weekend, you may have overlooked the fact that there’s another major mile-and-a-half race for 3-year-olds being run this Saturday — the Epsom Derby. The Guardian asked whether the race is still the premier racing event in Europe and enlisted Bill Oppenheim, one of the owners of likely favo(u)rite Curtain Call (and a fan of the race) to weigh in on the negative side; his response may seem very familiar to fans of American racing:

Take the two Coolmore horses, Giants Causeway and Rock of Gibraltar, both of whom were top-class milers who won races over a mile and a quarter. They would have been valued at €50m and €30m respectively when they went to stud. Galileo, who won the Derby, would have been valued at around €20m, which illustrates that even for the best potential staying sire there is a top limit. And Galileo is the ultimate success story — most Derby winners do not make overwhelmingly successful sires. There is no doubt that the miling division is more valuable as breeding stock than the mile-and-a-half division.

For me, what is needed to restore the Derby is its inclusion in more of an integrated European racing programme to reflect that racing has become more international in the past 30 years. If you took a logical progression, you could create a Triple Crown of the French Derby, the Epsom Derby and the Irish Derby that the fans and gamblers would care about as much as the breeders.

The difficulty in attracting sponsorship suggests that the whole of horse racing does not have the cachet socially that it once did. And yet, racing demographics should be very good; certainly to owners in America, you would be advertising Cadillacs. Part of the answer has to be that the industry must present a far better product for everybody, through a radical restructuring of prize money and a more international view to the calendar.

In the other corner, Marcus Tregoning, trainer of Sir Percy, the 2006 victor, argues that the race still maintains its prestige after nearly 230 years — but like Oppenheim, he laments the lack of a major sponsor:

And winning the race does prove the horse’s quality. Sir Percy won races over a mile and a mile and a half but he proved himself a champion when he won the Derby and that is why he had a block of mares queuing up for him. And you have to look at Galileo too, the 2001 champion, who has been doing extremely well at stud. For most owners and trainers in this country, the Derby is the race to win.

The race is far from dwindling in popularity and has actually increased its relevance to the public in recent years. There are far more people who go to the Derby now than there were 10 years ago. It should attract a top-class permanent sponsor, they just haven’t quite found the right one yet. It is an important choice because there is a lot of money involved; it is a massive prize and so it should be for a race of such significance.

Certainly, there is no lack of quality horses participating – most of the likely 17-horse field have earned the right to compete with the best of their generation. Aiden O’Brien’s five trainees make up the majority of the seven-horse Irish contingent, although Dermot Weld’s position seems stronger with Casual Conquest (pictured) – the same can be said for Jim Bolger with New Approach. It seems unlikely that O’Brien’s hot Henrythenavigator will start, given the forecast for rain and soft ground.

Godolphin will send out the American-bred Rio De La Plata with Frankie Dettori aboard but his backing seems somewhat lukewarm. I am keeping an eye on Tartan Bearer, trained by Sir Michael Stoute; he was impressive in his last win in the Dante Stakes (run on Preakness Day, by American reckoning). You can’t dislike a horse whose owner/breeder, Ballymacoll Stud, keeps his baby pictures online.

For those concerned that Casino Drive has only had two starts before the Belmont, you may want to reserve your opinion on how relevant that may be until after the Derby — Casual Conquest is also unbeaten in two starts (and was virtually unknown until about three weeks ago). There’s more than one way to win a middle-distance race…

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