International spotlight: 2023 Epsom Derby

June 1st, 2023

The world’s original Derby (G1) at Epsom will be held on Saturday at an earlier post time than usual thanks to the FA Cup Final. American fans will have to tune in by 8:30 a.m. (ET) to watch the 244th running of the “Blue Riband.”

Fourteen runners have been confirmed for the 1 1/2-mile classic, with Auguste Rodin currently favored to extend Aidan O’Brien’s record total. The master of Ballydoyle has won the Derby eight times and sends out three contenders on Saturday.

Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby relies on Military Order, a full brother to his second Derby hero, Adayar (2021). Sir Michael Stoute, who scored his sixth victory with Desert Crown last year, supplemented Passenger into this year's edition. Two-time Derby winner John Gosden seeks another, but this time with son Thady as the co-trainer of Arrest – the final chance for jockey Frankie Dettori to rack up a third winner.

Let’s examine the field from the perspective of the major preps.

2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket

So highly regarded is Auguste Rodin that he inspired O’Brien to utter the phrase “Triple Crown” – a feat not accomplished since the legendary Nijinsky II in 1970. Unfortunately, that hope proved more the stuff of historical romance than reality when Auguste Rodin never factored in the first British classic of the season, the 2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket. Although he had a messy trip early, it was still a bitter disappointment that the favorite failed to pick up at any stage and wound up 12th behind Chaldean.

How harshly should we judge Auguste Rodin for that flop? Perhaps I’m too forgiving, but it was so far below his true ability that it qualifies as a toss-out/draw-a-line-through-it type race. By Japanese great Deep Impact and out of multiple Group 1-winning highweight Rhododendron, a daughter of O’Brien’s 2001 Derby star Galileo, Auguste Rodin has the pedigree. Additionally, his juvenile season, capped in the Vertem Futurity Trophy (G1), proves he has the class. Stablemate Little Big Bear, who likewise had a miserable experience when last in the Guineas, just rebounded at Haydock, underscoring the point that Ballydoyle runners can turn the page in a hurry.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the other Guineas alum who actually ran a decent race at Newmarket – Dubai Mile. His one-paced fifth over the Rowley Mile was the type of prep you’d expect for a colt wanting further. Indeed, he already needed at least a mile during his two-year-old campaign, when he mixed it up with future Epsom rivals. Just denied by The Foxes (see below) in last September’s Royal Lodge (G2) over the Guineas course and distance, Dubai Mile was all heart to prevail over Arrest in the about 1 1/4-mile Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1).

Dubai Mile, who handed now-retired trainer Mark Johnston a milestone 5000th win last August, will try to give his son and successor Charlie a Derby in his first year running the yard solo. Dubai Mile’s late sire Roaring Lion was a non-staying third in the 2018 Derby, but his Group 1-placed dam, Beach Bunny, is by 2002 Derby hero High Chaparral.

Since 2000, six Derby winners have exited the Guineas, and all had finished in the top three. Two were trained by O’Brien – Camelot (2012), who turned the rare classic double, and Australia (2014), who improved from a third at Newmarket.

Lingfield Derby Trial

After enduring a two-decade drought at Epsom, the Lingfield Derby Trial is back in vogue, with two of the past four Derby winners using that prep. Appleby’s Adayar looked a bit at sea when runner-up at Lingfield in 2021, but he learned from that warm-up and handled Epsom’s undulations much more effectively.

Thus it could be a significant pointer that Military Order outperformed brother Adayar by winning the Lingfield Derby Trial impressively. The caveat is that this year’s edition was transferred from the turf course to the Polytrack, but Military Order flashed serious talent to rack up his third straight win. Securing tactical position just behind the leaders, the Frankel colt had the gears and agility to drive through an opening on the rail to take command. Waipiro, no slouch himself, issued a stern challenge, but Military Order made a second move to put him away. Runner-up Waipiro pulled 4 1/4 lengths clear of the well-backed Circle of Fire, a one-time Derby hope for King Charles III.

Military Order brings a complete set of credentials to Epsom, making him perhaps the logical play at the price. If there’s one cause for pause, it’s the historical angle that full siblings haven’t won the Derby since the late 19th century, Persimmon (1896) and Diamond Jubilee (1900). But that strikes me as a red herring. There’s recent precedent for Derby-winning half-brothers, Galileo and Sea the Stars (2009), both produced by blue hen Urban Sea.

At the same time, Waipiro rates as a live longshot. By Australia (himself a son of Epsom royalty in Galileo and Ouija Board), the Ed Walker pupil was rerouted to Lingfield after he was scratched at the gate for the 1 1/4-mile Newmarket S. He could be readier for this second assignment at 1 1/2 miles. Half-brother Waikuku was a top-class miler in Hong Kong, where he famously floored Golden Sixty in the 2022 Stewards’ Cup (G1).

Dante (G2) at York

The Dante (G2) at York tends to be the trial with strength in depth, and this year’s renewal has furnished four Derby contenders – the victorious The Foxes, near-misser White Birch, inconvenienced third Passenger, and eighth Dear My Friend.

The Foxes, who had outkicked the aforementioned Dubai Mile in a tactical Royal Lodge, showed another change of gear in this more truly-run race. The Andrew Balding trainee traveled well off the pace before improving on the inside and pouncing. By the red-hot Churchill and out of the prolific producer Tanaghum, The Foxes is a full brother to Bangkok, who flopped in the 2019 Derby and proved to be a 1 1/4-mile specialist. But his relaxed style suggests that The Foxes will perform much better around Epsom than Bangkok did.

The question is whether The Foxes can confirm the Dante form against a couple of up-and-comers, especially considering the rather bunched finish. White Birch (no connection to Peter Brant’s nom de course) rattled home from last and missed by only a neck. Based in Ireland with John Joseph Murphy, the son of blueblood Ulysses validated the merit of his previous win, a 22-1 upset of the Ballysax (G3) at Leopardstown.

Stoute’s aforementioned Passenger, also by Ulysses, performed admirably on the step up from his April 20 debut victory at Newmarket. If he hadn’t been stuck in traffic at a crucial stage, he arguably could have finished nearer than a dead-heat third with O’Brien’s Continuous, who runs in Sunday’s Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) (G1). Stoute obviously saw enough to warrant supplementing Passenger, and the Niarchos Family homebred is eligible to be wiser if still lacking overall experience.

Dear My Friend, a stablemate of Dubai Mile from the Johnston yard, chased the pace before dropping back. Having scored his stakes win in the Burradon S. on the Newcastle Tapeta, he’d need to find much more to factor here.

Since 2000, the Dante has produced six Derby winners. Stoute was responsible for three of them (and if you go back to 1986, you find another in Shahrastani).

Chester Vase (G3)

Arrest, who was outbattled by the implacable Dubai Mile in last fall’s Criterium de Saint-Cloud, returned with an imperious display in the Chester Vase (G3). Under confident handling by Dettori, the son of Frankel appeared keen in the initial phase, but soon settled into a tracking second before delivering the coup de grace a long way out.

O’Brien’s Adelaide River was best of the rest, 6 1/2 lengths back in the strung-out field on soft going. Hence the Saint-Cloud form was neatly duplicated. Adelaide River, a distant third behind Dubai Mile and Arrest in France, was almost the identical margin adrift at Chester.

The question is whether Arrest can deliver the same kind of performance on much quicker going at Epsom. He has the big, rounded action of a horse who enjoys at least some give in the ground, although he did break his maiden on good-to-firm at Sandown.

Conversely, Adelaide River has a license to be better on faster ground. Yet another by Australia, he’s out of Could It Be Love, a War Front half-sister to Uncle Mo who placed in the 2018 Irish 1000 Guineas (G1). Adelaide River kept encountering softish going in his stakes attempts, yet has run creditably every time. That makes him something of a wildcard at Epsom, if the conditions lift him to another level, and he doesn’t get used up in the pace. He was good enough, though, to win first time out for O’Brien at Dundalk last summer.

Since 2000, only two Chester Vase grads prevailed at Epsom. Both were O’Brien pupils, including Wings of Eagles, the runner-up at Chester who sprang a 40-1 upset in the Derby.

Derby Trial (G3) at Leopardstown

You have to go back to the turn of the millennium to unearth Leopardstown’s Derby Trial (G3) winners who won at Epsom, and they were all exceptional – Sinndar (2000), Galileo, and High Chaparral. Sprewell has to buck a 20-year trend against horses coming out of the race formerly sponsored by Derrinstown Stud.

An 8-1 chance fresh off his March 26 maiden score for Jessica Harrington, Sprewell rallied to a three-length decision over Up and Under. The latter is still a maiden, but he had been a close second to White Birch in the Ballysax. Favored Proud and Regal, who had a fine Group 1 record at two, was a lackluster third, and he didn’t exactly boost the form when subsequently seventh in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1).

Aside from uncertainties about the form, Sprewell adds more variables regarding Derby conditions. He’s yet to race on anything better than soft, and both of his wins have come with heavy in the description. At the risk of over-interpreting, Sprewell also appeared more authoritative at Leopardstown than at undulating Naas. On the plus side, sire Churchill has been on a roll of late, and dam Lahaleeeb, the 2009 E.P. Taylor (G1) winner, has produced runners with greater stamina than she had.

Dee S. at Chester

Not since Stoute’s Kris Kin (2003) has the 1 5/16-mile Dee S. delivered a Derby winner, as Epsom candidates often run in the same circuit’s Chester Vase. San Antonio will try to defy that stat for O’Brien.

Bred on the emerging cross of Dubawi over Galileo, San Antonio figures to stay, especially since his dam, Group 3 scorer Rain Goddess, was second to Enable in the 2017 Irish Oaks (G1). The hesitation is whether he’s advanced enough at this stage. Only the third choice in the Dee, San Antonio capitalized with an advantageous on-pace trip in a messy race.

His running style also hints that he could help with pace duty for stablemate Auguste Rodin, who’s always been Ballydoyle’s number one. (To be fair, the same can be said of Adelaide River, who has shown tactical foot in the past.) Still, if he has the stamina I suspect he does, San Antonio could hang on for a share.

The road less traveled

Artistic Star sports a 2-for-2 record and a fine pedigree, as a son of leading Derby sire Galileo and Australian Group 1 vixen Nachita. But he’s making his stakes debut in the Derby. Other than Serpentine in the pandemic-scrambled 2020 calendar, Shaamit (1996) was the last Derby winner previously untested in stakes company. At least Artistic Star has gotten a race under his belt this term, unlike Shaamit, and he represents an awfully shrewd trainer in Ralph Beckett.

King of Steel will try to emulate Shaamit from a different angle, as he returns to action without the benefit of a prep. Yet the Roger Varian trainee was all dressed up for the Dante, only to be scratched when acting up at the gate. An impressive debut winner at Nottingham, King of Steel was last seen finishing seventh behind Auguste Rodin in the Vertem Futurity Trophy. Owner Amo Racing has been rewarded for aiming high before; the 50-1 maiden Mojo Star was second in the 2021 Derby.