2024 Epsom Derby Analysis: More than a tale of two cities

May 31st, 2024

One year after Aidan O’Brien conjured up a dramatic form turnaround for Auguste Rodin at Epsom, it defies belief that the master of Ballydoyle could do it again in Saturday’s Derby (G1). 

City of Troy is now cast in the Auguste Rodin role, as the superstar juvenile who was beaten pointless in his 2000 Guineas (G1) return, and bids for redemption here. Yet City of Troy is a different type, prompting doubts about whether the precedent holds.

Crossroads for City of Troy

The son of Triple Crown champion Justify pummeled his foes in last season’s Superlative (G2) and Dewhurst (G1) on the front end. City of Troy’s hallmark was the ability to sustain his high cruising speed over seven furlongs, pulling away by daylight in the closing stages.

Thus in the 2000 Guineas, City of Troy appeared to be right where he wanted to be, in the vanguard early, only to fold to ninth, beaten 17 lengths. Contrast that effort with Auguste Rodin’s total no-show in Newmarket’s 2023 classic. Because Auguste Rodin was simply never in it, with a modicum of trouble, it was easier for me to toss his Guineas.

But City of Troy was in it to halfway, and that opens up a different series of questions. If it’s too soon to declare that he hasn’t trained on from two to three, perhaps he didn’t inherit as much stamina as supposed?

His full brother, Bertinelli (now called Unbelievable in Hong Kong), has won over 1 1/4 miles and placed in both attempts at about 1 1/2 miles, but he never had the precocious pizzazz of City of Troy. Their dam, the Galileo mare Together Forever, scored her signature win in the 2014 Fillies’ Mile (G1), although she is herself a full sister to 2018 Oaks (G1) heroine Forever Together.

While City of Troy is eligible to put forth a better effort second off the layoff — in keeping with the pattern of Ballydoyle runners — his forward running style doesn’t often work in the Derby. And he’d have to be a very strong stayer indeed to pull it off. Drawing the dreaded post 1 complicates the task, so Ryan Moore might have to change tactics and try to throttle him back to conserve energy on the uphill climb. That adds another variable: whether City of Troy can switch off early and still pack a closing punch.

Buoyed by his perfect juvenile season, and the extraordinarily effusive hype from O’Brien, City of Troy was the longtime antepost favorite for the Derby. Bettors lumped on again in a forgiving mood after Newmarket, but now he’s finally on the drift in light of Thursday’s draw. 

Los Angeles to supplant Troy?

Another O’Brien pupil, the undefeated Los Angeles, is shortening in the market. One of four by 2012 Derby star Camelot in the line-up, he belongs to the family of all-time greats Sea the Stars and Galileo.

Los Angeles hinted that he could become a prime classic prospect by winning well in his Tipperary debut last September. Connections must have expected an educational run, as he went off at odds of 13-2. He did race a bit lazily, but got the message in plenty of time to score with something in reserve.

Next seen in the Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1), Los Angeles again had to be rousted in the middle stages. It must still have been a case of focus because he certainly had a lot left, staying on best over the very soft going to edge the streetwise Islandsinthestream (who had been chasing Henry Longfellow in Curragh features). Third-placer Illinois has been put in his place this season, as discussed below, but Ramadan (fourth) and Bracken’s Laugh (fifth) have progressed. 

It’s significant that Los Angeles returned victorious in the May 12 Derby Trial (G3) at Leopardstown, defying the Ballydoyle trend. Other than breaking slowly, he was more mentally engaged in the race itself, and he always looked like wearing down free-running stablemate Euphoric.

With improvement forecast second off the bench, especially stretching out to 1 1/2 miles, and his effectiveness on all sorts of ground, Los Angeles has the right profile. The lone negative is that post 4 is a bit further inside than ideal too.

If the “City of Angels” is well poised to topple City of Troy, it wouldn’t be right to reduce the 2024 Derby to a tale of two cities.

Can Godolphin win with its third-best candidate?

Despite Godolphin losing its two premier hopes, ill-fated Hidden Law and the sidelined Arabian Crown, Charlie Appleby still has a logical player in Ancient Wisdom. By Dubawi, who has yet to sire a Derby winner, and from the family of mile legend Goldikova, Ancient Wisdom brings fine juvenile form along with a few caveats.

After a one-paced third behind eventual classic winner Rosallion in the Pat Eddery S., Ancient Wisdom appreciated going up to a mile in the Autumn (G3) at Newmarket. Soft ground also helped the colt who has an exaggerated, rounded action, as he powered well clear and left Ambiente Friendly toiling in third.

That made Ancient Wisdom the favorite in the Futurity Trophy (G1) on heavy going at Doncaster. Although he churned on to win, he appeared caught for speed at one stage, and his performance was workmanlike rather than the stylish display you’d hope to see for a premier Epsom candidate. His rivals’ subsequent form has been a mixed bag (more on that below), making the bare result worth treating cautiously.

Ancient Wisdom didn’t clarify the picture in his comeback, barely snaring second in the Dante (G2) behind the impressive Economics (who is skipping the Derby). The quicker ground was a factor, with Appleby warning pre-race that he’d want rain to ease the going. Even allowing for that, however, he was outpaced before staying on.

There’s no faulting his attitude, but a Derby winner typically shifts gears with greater alacrity than we’ve seen so far from Ancient Wisdom. Hitting a flat spot before picking up would be costly around Epsom. He’s not the most fluent mover either, so the cambers of this track might be more challenging for him to navigate.

Macduff’s admirable character

The honest and true Macduff could be underappreciated since he has yet to win a stakes, but he exits a second to Godolphin’s Arabian Crown in the Sandown Classic Trial (G3). The blueblood son of Sea the Stars, out of a half-sister to Kingman, stands to benefit from a more contentious pace around Epsom.

From the same Juddmonte/Ralph Beckett tandem as Westover, the 2022 Derby third who went on to romp in the Irish Derby (G1), Macduff similarly hinted of potential at two. He justified favoritism in the nick of time in his Newmarket unveiling, placed second as the favorite in the Ascendant S., and kept on for fourth in the Royal Lodge (G2) won by Ghostwriter (the eventual fourth in the 2000 Guineas who runs in Sunday’s French Derby [G1]). 

Macduff wasn’t able to emulate Westover’s success in the trial at Sandown, but arguably chasing down Arabian Crown was a taller order. He has the advantage of being a calmer, cooler customer than Westover, and that can serve him well on Derby Day. Beckett, who has a few proper chances in the Oaks Friday, could be going for the classic double on Saturday.

New best Friend?

Ambiente Friendly wasn’t on the radar before his conquest of the Lingfield Derby Trial. When third behind Ancient Wisdom in the aforementioned Autumn, Ambiente Friendly had gone a bit too hard early setting the pace. The James Fanshawe trainee was a non-threatening fourth in his Feilden S. reappearance.

At Lingfield, removing the hood that he’d worn in his prior starts may have helped at least as much as the step up in trip. Nestled just behind the leaders, Ambiente Friendly was still cruising on the bridle in the straight, traveling best of all, and the 8-1 chance duly drew off unextended.

Ballydoyle fielded the second and third, Illinois and The Euphrates, who had previously filled the minor placings in their Ballysax (G3) return. Considering that O’Brien’s horses have been improving second time out, Ambiente Friendly’s comprehensive win over them stacks up as a stronger piece of form than the Ballysax, won by the 50-1 Dallas Star. The sour note is that jockey Callum Shepherd lost the mount despite his performance at Lingfield, and Ambiente Friendly has to get acquainted with Rab Havlin.

An upwardly mobile colt to go to war with

On paper, the Lingfield result undermined the form of Epsom’s Blue Riband Trial S. won by Bellum Justum. Finishing unplaced at Lingfield were Defiance and Arabic Legend, the respective second and fourth to Bellum Justum earlier at Epsom.

Regardless, Bellum Justum’s considerable upside suggests that we shouldn’t be too strict in assessing the form. Note that the third-placer from the Blue Riband Trial, O’Brien’s beaten favorite Chief Little Rock, definitely took a leap forward to dominate the Gallinule (G3).

Bellum Justum figures to improve with maturity and distance, as a Sea the Stars colt, but trainer Andrew Balding revealed that he has even more reason to come on from his prep. The King Power colorbearer had a setback that interrupted his training for the Blue Riband Trial, so he was some way short of peak fitness. Bellum Justum traveled with his customary zest and kicked on strongly, establishing that he handles Epsom’s unique gradients.

Although it took him four tries to break his maiden at two, Bellum Justum ended his season on that high note at Newmarket. He beat a pretty smart colt in Inisherin, who’s gone on to win two of his next three including the Sandy Lane (G2). 

Voyage to continue Hannon’s classic momentum?

Not that far from ancient Troy is the Golden Horn, and it’s ironic that another hopeful has a connection of sorts to the neighborhood. Golden Horn, the superb winner of the 2015 Derby, sired the once-raced wild card Voyage.

Trained by Richard Hannon, who just sent out the exacta in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1), Voyage was much the best in his sole start at Newbury. That April 19 novice has produced a couple of minor next-out winners, but the third was well beaten at listed level, and fourth Mr Hampstead lost again (albeit in a decent Chester maiden).

Aside from the obvious class and inexperience questions, Voyage has to mind his racing manners. He pulled hard early at Newbury, forcing Pat Dobbs to move sooner than intended, and he can’t get away with that at this level. Out of a Galileo mare, Voyage is a half-brother to Grade 3 scorer Plein Air, dam of Monday’s Hollywood Gold Cup (G2) hero Mr Fisk. 

Futurity Trophy alumni re-opposing Ancient Wisdom

Futurity Trophy third-placer God’s Window, who started out so promisingly last season, has gone the wrong way in his recent preps. Since galloping over two overmatched rivals in a Nottingham novice April 20, he trailed the quartet in the Dee S. at Chester and faded to fifth in the Dante at York. Excuses are ready at hand for both. He put himself out of position with a poor start at Chester, and then made the opposite error when going too fast on the lead at York. 

As a beautifully-bred Dubawi colt from the John and Thady Gosden yard, God’s Window can turn his form around. It would be a braver call to say that can happen at Epsom, but he did draw the statistically favorable post 10. 

Futurity Trophy fourth Deira Mile and fifth Dancing Gemini have come back to perform well this term. Both are bred for Epsom, as Camelot colts out of mares by Derby heroes. 

Dancing Gemini, representing Epsom-based Roger Teal, aims to become the first locally-trained Derby winner in more than 90 years, since April the Fifth (1932). Out of a mare by Australia (2014), Dancing Gemini just missed in a blanket finish in the French 2000 Guineas (G1). 

Deira Mile, whose dam is by New Approach (2008), has a lot more to prove on form. Still a maiden at the end of 2023, Deira Mile broke through in an April 22 Windsor novice for Owen Burrows. He adds cheekpieces in hopes of bridging the gap with the principals. 

Beware big longshots for Al Shaikh, Amo Racing

Deira Mile races for the Green Team Racing affiliated with Ahmad al Shaikh, who has Sayedaty Sadaty running in his own colors. Al Shaikh has had two big-priced longshots run second in the Derby, 50-1 Khalifa Sat (2020) and Hoo Ya Mal (2022) at 150-1. 

A stablemate of Bellum Justum’s from the Balding yard, Sayedaty Sadaty has acquired the virtue of consistency in his past three. He was third in an Epsom conditions race, followed by seconds in the Burradon S. on Newcastle’s Tapeta as well as the Newmarket S. The form doesn’t stack up, but that hasn’t been an issue for the charmed al Shaikh silks before.

Kia Joorabchian’s Amo Racing likewise has had Derby runners-up at big odds. Mojo Star (2021) was a 50-1 maiden, and King of Steel was a 66-1 shot when just caught by Auguste Rodin last year. Amo Racing’s hopes are the aforementioned Dallas Star and Mr Hampstead. 

Dallas Star upset the Ballysax at 50-1 in his first start since switching to Adrian Murray, a substantial improvement from his juvenile form. Mr Hampstead is a thrice-raced maiden, but he’s by Galileo out of Ken McPeek’s classy filly Daddys Lil Darling, who ran off before the 2017 Oaks and had to be scratched.

Abdulla al Mansoori’s pair of Tabletalk and Kamboo have lovely pedigrees, but they have a mountain to climb off minor wins on the all-weather. Tabletalk is yet another by Camelot, while Kamboo is by Awtaad (sire of U.S. turf star Anisette) out of a sister to classy stayer Mahler.