The minds who invented The Derby were fiendish minds. I love their fiendishness, and thank them across the almost two hundred and fifty years since they came up with the idea. It really did come from a dinner and then a party. I suspect drink was taken. The race was named on the flip of a coin. I doubt the gathered company knew they were starting the most famous, most coveted, most idiosyncratic flat race in the world.
Every year, when I think of The Derby, I wonder that any horse can win it, ever. You need so many qualities, an almost impossible package.
The horse has to have power and balance. The cambers of Epsom are brutal. At the beginning of the race, the course climbs swiftly to a height of about twenty double decker buses. The first thing these fine thoroughbreds are asked to do is slog up a hill. Then, as they crest the rise and catch their breath, the ground drops away from them. For a long way they are galloping flat out downhill.
Have you ever galloped down a hill on a half-ton flight animal? I’ve trotted my sweet mare down hills and even that is pretty hairy. She is fourteen years old, was slow as a boat when she raced, and is now a poised dowager duchess who teaches children to ride. But even so, trotting her down the Tarland Way is an act of trust. The ground falls away in front of me and I have to sit back and trust her completely to find her footing like a mountain goat. I imagine doing that perched over the withers of a race-fit colt, bred to be the best of his generation. I can’t even imagine what that must feel like, and imagination is my business.
You need a kind of brute strength too. The cambers and turns lead to jostling for position. A horse might get bumped in to, thrown off his stride. In a big field you can get boxed in, and a horse might have to forge his way out of the melée.
You need the tensile balance of a dancer. As the terrain shifts under him, that horse must stay perfectly balanced, change his legs, keep his body together, maintain his rhythm.
You need courage. Those horses are being asked the biggest question of their young lives, and they need proper guts.
You need speed, but you need stamina too. It’s a long mile and a half, so the thoroughbred has to stay, but has to have the quickness to put on a burst of velocity and fly to the line.
You need manners. From the moment the horse comes into the paddock, to being saddled up, to parading in front of the stands, to the hurly burly of the race itself, that horse is going to be asked a huge amount of questions. The polite horse says yes, of course. If you get a horse who is saying no, no, no, a huge amount of energy is going to be wasted. Some of the greatest of the greats have got away with being tricky, because they were so much better than anything else. Nijinsky was famously complex, but he could still skitter about the paddock and then go out on the track and boss his field. All the same, courtesy is a huge advantage.
A lot of people think having intelligence helps too. The intelligent horse will take all the jamboree in his stride, looking about with interest rather than becoming overwhelmed by the spectacle. And with intelligence comes temperament. A horse who is easy in his skin, at home with himself, will take the wild preliminaries with sanguine grace and save his power for the moment the starter lets him go. Sheer talent is not enough. There was the sad sight of Dawn Approach boiling over so that even the soothing hands of Kevin Manning could not reassure him. A brilliant horse threw away his race, because the occasion was all too much for him.
Epsom is a roiling cauldron of humanity. Very few courses have an antic infield. At The Derby, there is not only the seething crowd in the stands, but over the other side of the course there is a funfair, massed ranks of gleaming buses, and a roaring party. Horses used to the gentle heath of Newmarket will never have seen anything like it in their lives.
And, of course, you need raw talent. You need the diamond brilliance that comes with three hundred years of breeding. You need that extra special something, that sprinkle of stardust, the mysterious element that makes you catch your breath.
All that, in one ravishing equine mind and body. That is why whoever wins The Derby is a horse of horses.
I’ve no idea which shining star will emerge today. It’s an impossible Derby. There are more question marks than I can shake a stick at. I can make a good case for at least ten of them. I would not be at all surprised if something scooted home at 40-1. It’s that kind of year.
I’m not going to try and be clever. There’s no point poring over the form. I’m going to have two little love bets. I’m backing the horses that I want to win. I’m on Permian, even though I think he might not quite be top, top class. But he’s tough, and courageous, and willing, and he tries, and he’s improving all the time. He’s got a fighting heart and a lovely mind. And I’ll put a little bit on Eminent, although I’m not sure he’ll stay. He’s a very bright horse, and he’s a Frankel, and he’s got great power and scope, and he’s absurdly handsome. I love the way he goes about his business, and he, like his trainer, is a great gentleman.
The Derby. It’s bonkers. Those fiendish minds really did come up with something for the ages.