Daryl Carter gives his thoughts on the contenders for the Epsom Derby
The Epsom Derby takes centre stage this weekend, with 16 declared to go to post on Saturday. Unsurprisingly Irish master trainer Aidan O’Brien holds a strong hand again this year and will be looking to land this race for the sixth time in ten years.
It's worth starting at the head of the market and ante-post favourite ENGLISH KING (best price 5-2) looked sensational when running out a ready winner of the Betsafe Derby Trial Stakes at Lingfield in early June. The son of Camelot easily brushed aside Berkshire Rocco to land the same race won by Anthony Van Dyck in 2019 before he went on to Derby glory. The runner-up gave the form a boost at Royal Ascot when chasing home subsequent Irish Derby winner Santiago and the pair pulled more than eight lengths clear of the field. The Epsom Derby favourite produced excellent figures on the clock in a truly ran affair, recording blistering sectional times and a fast final furlong figure of 11.87s. The trial proved to be a useful blend of speed and stamina and was even more impressive when compared to the earlier Oaks trial on the card, recording an overall time three seconds quicker. Connections of English King made the decision early last week to remove jockey Tom Marquand who has ridden English King in his two career victories to date and replaced him with dual Derby-winning jockey Frankie Dettori. There are lots of positives about this favourite who is yet to feel the full force of a jockey’s urgings and at this stage, it is very difficult to find chinks in the armour.
He does, however, have stern opposition and that is headed by this year’s 2,000 Guineas and dual Group 1 winner KAMEKO (best price 4-1) who has improved with each start. He battled well to run down Wichita in the first classic of the season and recorded the fastest time in Guineas history by 0.36 seconds. A winner of three of his five starts and he is likely to improve off the back of that effort. Andrew Balding’s colt will be race fit and is the only horse in the field who has previously won a Group 1 race. It’s easy to argue that he represents a little bit of value in the market given his CV but he is yet to run over further than 1m. He is by Kitten’s Joy (9f) out of a Rock Of Gibraltar (9f) mare and that would hold stamina doubts over this 1m4f trip and he is likely to be over-bet given the nature of his recent victory.
A more significant danger to the favourite may come in the form of RUSSIAN EMPEROR (best price 7-1) who is the more fancied runner for the Aidan O'Brien battalion. He comes here fresh off the back of an excellent victory in the Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot where he was held up for a late charge and came with a strong run to mow down two rivals inside the final furlong. He will need to take a step forward on that form and it could be argued that the two behind him in the Hampton Court Stakes who have chosen to swerve this engagement did too much too soon. However, he clocked some impressive figures inside the final furlong. He did enough to suggest that this trip would suit and given his powerful connections he shouldn’t be underestimated.
Aidan O’Brien also holds the next two spots in the market with the impeccably bred MOGUL (best price 7-1) and Irish 2,000 Guineas runner-up VATICAN CITY (best price 8-1). The former has been highly disappointing in his last two starts given how highly rated he is by the Irish contingent. He ended his two-year-old campaign with a 3rd behind Kameko at Newcastle in the Group 1 Vertem Futurity Trophy over 1m but better was expected on seasonal return when a well-supported favourite for the Group 2 King Edward Stakes at Royal Ascot, yet he only managed 4th. His breeding suggests that this trip is where he will be seen to best effect but he is yet to show those signs on a racecourse. At Ascot, he tired late on and there is every chance he may come on for the run as the stables runners typically do. However, he did hold his head high in the closing stages when asked a question and now rates a risky proposition at the prices. The latter ran extremely well to finish second in the Irish 2,000 Guineas after being short of room and has a progressive profile. He stayed on strongly that day but again another who has question marks over the trip having contested races over 7f and 1m on his three starts to date and is passed over.
The English dominate the middle of the current market and is headed by HIGHLAND CHIEF (best price 16-1) who showed plenty of promise at two and confirmed that when scoring in the Golden Gates Handicap at Royal Ascot on his first start over 1m2f. He stayed on powerfully that day under top weight and this trip could unlock further improvement. He perhaps lacks the star quality of a Derby winner but is unexposed and has a likeable attitude and it wouldn’t be difficult to envisage him hitting the frame. PYLEDRIVER (best price 16-1) is another who has shown improved form this term landing the Group 2 King Edward Stakes in impressive fashion at Royal Ascot having the previously mentioned Mogul in behind. The form has taken a knock with the runner-up well beaten in the Irish Derby last weekend but it was such a comfortable success it can probably be over-looked. He pulled away inside the final furlong giving the impression there is more to come and although he is not bred for this trip, he races like one who will appreciate it. He does, however, lack the star quality to win a Derby and likely found a good opportunity at Royal Ascot and others in here have more pressing claims.
MOHICAN HEIGHTS (best price 20-1) is one that is bred for this trip and has plenty of scope for improvement despite being behind Pyledriver at Royal Ascot. He wasn’t seen to best effect that day when held up too far off the pace but he came with a thundering late run to grab third. David Simcocks’ runners have all improved for their first run this term and that could be the story for Mohican Heights who is a well-balanced three-year-old that will appreciate this stern test of stamina and holds valid claims
There is slight doubts around Aidan O’Brien’s runners but he is a masterful tactician and his runners can never be written off. English King looks a strong favourite and the most likely winner and given I currently sit on a large ante-post price with the favourite my vision is slightly blurred here. However, he does offer little value at the current prices. Given only three favourites have won the race in the last ten years (Camelot, Australia and Golden Horn) it may be worth playing the each-way game at this stage and that would be with Mohican Heights at 25/1 or bigger.