The Derby at Epsom may have more competition these days for the title of the world’s greatest horse race, but the energy that radiates from the Coolmore racing and breeding operation directed at winning the 2405m G1 Classic at perhaps the world’s most unusual racecourse well illustrates its continual allure.
So, a late decision to send just Bolshoi Ballet in the direction of Epsom comes as quite a surprise – in fact it will be the first time since 2004 that Coolmore’s central racing figure Aidan O’Brien has fielded just one Derby contender as the great Irish trainer explores a record-stretching ninth victory. But that one contender will start as warm favourite in this unconventional racing arena, the first of its eccentricities being the extraordinarily demanding 41m climb over the first 1000m.
Bolshoi Ballet was a comfortable winner of April’s G3 Ballysax Stakes (2000m) but what really delighted the supporters of this son of Galileo was the mid-race and late-race acceleration that left his rivals gasping when returning to Leopardstown to record a six-length winning romp in May’s G3 Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial (2000m). O’Brien says of Ryan Moore’s mount: “He’s a lovely big but well balanced horse who won super at Leopardstown. We’ve been delighted with his work since. He has all the attributes for Epsom and we’re hopeful he will last the longer trip.”
Ireland also has the possible second favourite in Mac Swiney, hugely gutsy when leading from gate to wire and fending off his stablemate Poetic Flare for a short-head victory in the G1 Irish 2000 Guineas (1600m) at The Curragh last month. Triumph for Mac Swiney would be a proper family victory, being bred by his 79-year-old trainer Jim Bolger, owned by his wife Jackie and to be ridden by son-in-law Kevin Manning – a 54-year-old who remains right at the top of his game as he demonstrated last month when winning Newmarket’s G1 2000 Guineas (1600m) on Poetic Flare. Bolger along with many pedigree experts reckons that Mac Swiney, a son of New Approach who was trained by Bolger and ridden by Manning to win the 2008 Epsom Derby, is bred to thrive over Saturday’s (5 June) challenging course and distance.
Publicity surrounding the ascendancy of Irish-trained colts in recent times seems to have galvanised the incentive to keep this 242nd Derby prize at home. And four Newmarket-trained colts – Mohaafeth, John Leeper, Hurricane Lane and Third Realm, unbeaten between them in a total of nine races – all appear possible obstructions to Ireland’s Epsom Derby bandwagon.
Mohaafeth’s trainer William Haggas won the Derby back in 1996 with Shaamit, an event that helped kick-start his incredibly successful training career. Yet again maintaining a high percentage strike rate in 2021, Haggas says of last month’s runaway Listed Newmarket Stakes (2000m) winner: “I have plenty of confidence in my colt. Lots of horses run in the Derby with no hope but I’m only keen on having a runner with a proper chance. Ground expected on the fast side will be helpful. I don’t know for sure that he will stay the trip but you can ask the same question about Bolshoi Ballet.”
Mohaafeth will be partnered by Jim Crowley whilst the unexpected news that Frankie Dettori gets the ride on John Leeper, trained by Ed Dunlop and named after Dunlop’s late father, adds further bounce to the 2021 Derby. Despite racing much too keenly off a dawdling early pace, his decisive victory in Newmarket’s Listed Fairway Stakes (2000m) set this beautifully-bred colt in the direction of Epsom: “He’s by a world champion (Frankel) out of a world champion (Snow Fairy) and is named after my father. That’s pretty high pressure,” admits his trainer as he anticipates the tense hours leading up to Saturday’s Classic.