Hanson: Spot play for the 2024 Derby at Epsom

May 31st, 2024

Those of us with an historical bent might equate Saturday's 2024 edition of the Derby (G1) at Epsom with that of the 1966 Kentucky Derby. It's still the Derby, and the winner will be a good horse on the day if not a potential great, but it's simply not the race it might have been.

Attrition has cost this running of the Blue Riband at least two potentially spectacular individuals, both campaigned by Godolphin. Arabian Crown, a dazzling winner of the Classic Trial (G3) at Sandown, met with a setback in preparation for Epsom, while stablemate Hidden Law tragically broke down immediately after triumphing in the Chester Vase (G3) and could not be saved.

In 1966, Hall of Fame colt Buckpasser was knocked out of Kentucky Derby contention due to a quarter crack, while the brilliant Graustark suffered a career-ending injury in his final prep, the Blue Grass S. That left Kauai King as the 2-1 favorite for the Derby, which he duly won, but his overall record left no doubts that the two best colts in the crop did not line up against him in Louisville.

Whether the parallels between the two races stay true and give the edge to current Epsom favorite #4 City of Troy remains to be seen. But there are definitely concerns with taking such a short price on him following his dull performance in the 2000 Guineas (G1).

City of Troy's stablemate, #11 Los Angeles, enters undefeated from three starts, including a pair of solid Group wins at Saint-Cloud and Leopardstown. He looks the horse to beat, from this view. However, in a seemingly open renewal on paper, I'll look farther afield for a price.

You have to go back more than 80 years to find a Derby winner that also won Epsom's nominal Blue Riband Trial, which is run over 1 1/4 miles in late April. This year's Trial hero, #3 Bellum Justum (20-1), has a lot of class questions to answer on Saturday, but the ability he showed that day in coolly handling Epsom's unique contours points him out as one that won't have the course as a ready-made excuse.

Although needing four starts to break his maiden, the son of Derby winner Sea the Stars has since won two straight, and he's beaten capable if not Derby-quality runners in his last two in Group 2-winning sprinter Inisherin and Chief Little Rock, the latter a potential Irish Derby (G1) type.

Trainer Andrew Balding, whose father won the 1971 Derby with the great Mill Reef, has been knocking on the door at the Derby over the past few years with extreme outsiders. Hoo Ya Mal finished second in 2022 at odds of 150-1, while Khalifa Sat occupied the same slot in the head-scratching pandemic edition of 2020 at odds of 50-1. He's obviously a decent judge of who might fit here even when punters find them virtual no-hopers.

With all the main players, perhaps save Los Angeles, having notable drawbacks, Bellum Justum is the one I'm hoping can continue his recent forward progress. It seemingly won't take a superstar to win this Derby.

After Forest Fairy finished unplaced in the Oaks (G1) on Friday, my English betting bankroll stands at $736. My win play on Bellum Justum in the Derby will be for $37.