December 2, 2020

Kameko seeks classic double, O’Brien goes for record in Epsom Derby

The start of the Derby at Epsom (File photo from 2014 by Louise Pollard/Racingfotos.com)

Postponed a month but still hosted at its inimitable home of Epsom, Saturday’s Derby (G1) is already one for the history books thanks to the pandemic reshuffling. But the Blue Riband could be historic purely on racing merits, with 2000 Guineas (G1) hero Kameko going for the classic double, and Aidan O’Brien pitching in a sextet in hopes of a record-breaking eighth victory.

It’s perhaps a reflection of this year’s unorthodox prep calendar that neither Kameko nor any of the Ballydoyle battalion is favored in the 16-strong field. That distinction goes to French-bred English King, a first Derby runner sent out by trainer Ed Walker. Owned by Bjorn Nielsen, who is best known for his homebred Gold Cup (G1) three-peater Stradivarius, English King rocketed to the head of the market following a smart display in the Lingfield Derby Trial. The Newcastle maiden winner stepped up markedly and cruised to a handy score over Berkshire Rocco, subsequently second in the Queen’s Vase (G2) at Royal Ascot to Santiago, the next-out Irish Derby (G1) victor.

Yet there are a couple of caveats. Berkshire Rocco is a less accomplished stablemate of Kameko, so English King has a bit to find on the bare form. Although he traveled like a class act much of the way at Lingfield, there were a couple of times he didn’t look entirely at home on the course, prompting the question of whether he’ll recover as effortlessly around Epsom. English King also wasn’t helped by drawing post 1 on Saturday, but on the plus side, he picks up a master in Frankie Dettori. He sports a royal pedigree too, as a son of 2012 Guineas/Derby star Camelot and a close relation of Chicquita and Magic Wand.

The Andrew Balding-trained Kameko is trying to become the first since Camelot to achieve the Guineas/Derby feat. As a Kentucky-bred Kitten’s Joy colt who was purchased at Keeneland September for Qatar Racing, and ridden by Oisin Murphy, he’s evoked parallels with the similarly profiled Roaring Lion. Kameko has the stronger resume at this stage, romping in the Vertem Futurity Trophy (G1) that just eluded Roaring Lion, and finishing stoutly to overtake Wichita and Pinatubo in a stakes-record Guineas. Roaring Lion, who was no better than fifth in the 2018 Guineas, was a gallant if non-staying third in the Derby.

Kameko’s pedigree gives a bit more hope of staying the 1 1/2-mile trip better than Roaring Lion, a grandson of the speedy Santa Anita downhill maven Cambiocorsa. While Kameko’s dam, Sweeter Still, was a Grade 3-winning miler by Rock of Gibraltar, she was herself out of a mare by Belmez. The draw poses a conundrum: no horse has won the Derby from post 11 since the starting gate was inaugurated in 1967, but that smacks more of a trivia question than a meaningful stat. After all, post 10 has been the luckiest draw with 10 Derby winners.

O’Brien’s 3-year-old depth chart is more difficult to rank than usual, as the COVID-19 calendar prevented anything like a normal prep schedule. Indeed, the master of Ballydoyle himself confessed that it was a mystery going into last week’s Irish Derby. With O’Brien’s usual progression from start to start, the ostensible pecking order is subject to revision in the best of times, let alone now. Ryan Moore’s sticking with Mogul has made him the most-backed of the Ballydoyle entrants, and third choice to English King and Kameko at this writing. The 3.4 million-guineas Tattersalls October yearling was a notable 2-year-old, impressing in the KPMG Champions Juvenile (G2) before checking in fourth to Kameko in the Vertem. Fourth again to Pyledriver in his reappearance in the King Edward VII (G2) at Royal Ascot, Mogul made a move before flattening very much like a horse in need of the race. Last year, full brother Japan took a substantial move forward off his lackluster comeback to miss by a half-length in the Derby, and continued to improve through the summer. Mogul could be on a similar trajectory. Post 2 has yet to produce a Derby winner though.

Stablemate Russian Emperor comes off a Royal Ascot victory in the 1 1/4-mile Hampton Court (G3), picking up well to get up in time and looking as if he’d appreciate this distance. The son of Galileo and Australian champ Atlantic Jewel is the most race-fit of the O’Brien squad with three races under his belt this term, and that could be decisive. Seamie Heffernan regains the mount.

Vatican City made a terrific sophomore debut in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1), where he had a checkered passage but finished with a flourish for second to Siskin. One possible concern is that he’s a full brother to milers Gleneagles, Marvellous, and Happily. On the other hand, full brother Taj Mahal was a two-time winner of the Zipping Classic (G2) at this distance in Australia, and Vatican City keeps upset artist Padraig Beggy aboard.

Fellow Galileo Serpentine ran himself into the Epsom equation with an imperious wire job in a maiden on Irish Derby Day. The son of 2010 Oaks (G1) runner-up Remember When, herself a three-quarter sister to Dylan Thomas, was a new horse in cheekpieces.

Stablemate Amhran Na Bhfiann is a twice-raced maiden, but the 1.3 million-guineas yearling must have shown something early to get himself named after Ireland’s national anthem. His recent fourth at the Curragh has worked out with the top three – Tiger Moth, Dawn Patrol, and Order of Australia – filling out the Irish Derby superfecta underneath Santiago. And he’s bred for the role as a full brother to 2012 Oaks winner Was and three-quarter brother to 2008 Derby hero New Approach.

Mythical, the only Ballydoyle runner not by Galileo, is a Camelot colt whose career highlight is a third in last fall’s Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1). Fourth to Max Vega prior to that in the Zetland (G3), Mythical was a subpar fifth when returning in the Gallinule (G3). He exited that June 12 contest lame, and although fit to try his luck now, has questions to answer. Mythical did draw the statistically helpful post 10.

Rounding out the Irish challenge is Gallinule runner-up Gold Maze from the Jessica Harrington yard. A highly tried maiden, the son of 2015 Derby champion Golden Horn was third in the Beresford (G2) at two and most recently sixth in the Irish Derby. Like Amhran Ba Bhfiann, Gold Maze is trying to become the first maiden to land the Derby since Merry Hampton in 1887.

Aside from Mogul, the other eligible to improve off a King Edward loss is Mohican Heights. The David Simcock pupil was unbeaten from two starts as a juvenile, including the Stonehenge S., and entered Royal Ascot off a 10-month layoff. The son of 2014 Derby star Australia did his best work late in third, in what could be the perfect tune-up for Epsom.

King Edward winner Pyledriver has been an honorable servant for William Muir, but the suspicion is that he was benefiting from a pipe-opener ahead of Royal Ascot. The Harbour Watch colt was a rallying second in Kempton’s Classic Trial (G3) to Berlin Tango, formerly Kameko’s stablemate and now Hong Kong-bound. Note that Max Vega was also prepping at Kempton, where he wound up fifth.

Balding has an understudy to Kameko in Khalifa Sat, who upset Emissary in a tactical coup in Goodwood’s Cocked Hat S. Khalifa Sat had course experience, having broken his maiden there last season, and controlled the pace in a short field. From the first crop of Free Eagle, and a three-quarter brother to 2008 St Leger (G1) runner-up Unsung Heroine, he has no shortage of stamina.

Emissary, a half-brother to 2010 Derby champion Workforce, must find a good bit more to make history for their dam, the Sadler’s Wells mare Soviet Moon. If the Hugo Palmer trainee can do so, then Soviet Moon would join the exclusive club of mares to produce two Derby winners. The latest is Urban Sea, who gave us Galileo (2001) and Sea the Stars (2009). Emissary adds cheekpieces to help and picks up the services of Jim Crowley.

With co-trainers now officially approved in British racing, the father-and-son team of Paul and Oliver Cole will become the first such partnership to have a Derby entrant in Highland Chief. By the aforementioned Gleneagles but out of the Montjeu mare Pink Symphony, who earned her signature win in the 1 1/2-mile Give Thanks (G3) in 2011, Highland Chief used an unorthodox prep – a handicap. The Fitry Hay homebred successfully carried top weight of 133 pounds in a new event at Royal Ascot, the Golden Gates H. over 1 1/4 miles. Highland Chief is not just a handicapper though, as evidenced by his third in Pinatubo’s record-setting Chesham last summer. His flop in last fall’s Royal Lodge (G2) isn’t a true bill, since Pyledriver was an uncharacteristic last himself that day.

George Strawbridge’s homebred Worthily takes the plunge off a debut victory for John Gosden at Newbury, where the blueblood scythed through the field to make a strong first impression. By Point of Entry and out of the Diesis mare Vignette, he’s a three-quarter brother to 2007 St Leger hero Lucarno and 2012 Great Voltigeur (G2) scorer Thought Worthy – each fourth in the Derby in their respective years. They were both by Point of Entry’s sire, Dynaformer, as was another three-quarter sibling, 2015 British Champions Long Distance Cup (G2) winner Flying Officer. Whatever he does at Epsom should set him up for a productive season.

Gosden has a better chance of winning the Oaks earlier on the card with Frankly Darling, who stamped her authority all over the Ribblesdale (G2) despite pulling early. The Frankel filly, from the extended family of Golden Horn, is still learning her craft but remains a top threat with Dettori.

O’Brien’s Love is the narrow favorite after dominating the 1000 Guineas (G1), but the Newmarket form didn’t hold up too well at Royal Ascot. Stablemates Ennistymon and Passion (a full sister to Capri) were second and third, respectively, to Frankly Darling in the Ribblesdale.

Roger Varian is double-handed with Gold Wand and Queen Daenerys. The Golden Horn filly Gold Wand, just touched off by onetime Oaks hope Domino Darling in their mutual debut at Doncaster last fall, has dark horse appeal after duly obliging in a Newbury maiden. Queen Daenerys, another daughter of Frankel, was most recently second in the Pretty Polly at Newmarket.

Gosden’s Tiempo Vuela, a too-bad-to-be-true seventh as the Pretty Polly favorite, and Ribblesdale fourth Bharani Star from the Peter Chapple-Hyam yard conclude the eight-filly cast.