Last Saturday’s Epsom Derby was a fascinating race, but the result has led to claims of tactical genius from Aidan O’Brien. Was it really a stroke of genius to go slow, to get the favourite Dawn Approach pulling, or did they get lucky?
To credit Aidan as the brains behind a plan that was masterfully executed, some pretty big assumptions have to be made. Firstly that he, or the combined Coolmore brains trust, decided that if they went an even pace for 2 or 3 furlongs, and then took a pull, that Dawn Approach would pull hard enough to ruin his chance. I find that far-fetched in the extreme. Yes horses stepping up in trip from 8 to 12 furlongs can often pull, but was the percentage chance of it happening on Saturday, really high enough to outweigh the downside if he didn’t? A steady pace was only going to suit the horse with the most speed, and surely nobody could realistically have hopped he’d pull as hard as he did.
Dawn Approach settled lovely in the 2000 Guineas, yes it was only over a mile, but in the lead up to the Derby I never once heard him pulling being put forward as a concern. Indeed it was the opposite, everyone including his trainer, ventured that it was his calm nature and lazy racing style that gave him every chance of getting the trip. I follow some good racing minds on twitter and none of them voiced any concerns that he might pull hard. Did the Coolmore crew really disagree so much with everyone else, and even if they did, were they right to do so?
Coolmore tactics in big races have often proved a talking point afterwards. When they win, like they did on Saturday, it seems the consensus is that they got it right. It’s all very results orientated. It seems many hold the belief that if you win you’re right, and lose your wrong. A bit like the poker player who calls an all in preflop, with pockets tens, to a 4 bet from the biggest nit ever. The nit, as he always does when he 4 bets, turns over aces, but our hero gets lucky when he flops a set. Despite the fact he was only getting 6/4 odds, and very likely had less than 20% chance of success, he’ll claim he was right to call, because he won. He wasn’t. He made a bad judgement based on the info he had.
Sectionals tell us the pace for the first few furlongs was decent enough, not to fast, but definitely not slow, they then slowed it up till the moment Kevin Manning couldn’t hold Dawn Approach any longer, and let him stride on. The first 4 furlongs of the Derby trip are mostly uphill, and if ever you needed to settle a horse that might pull, that would be one of the easiest places to do it. The horse was also pulling well before they slowed it up, so if their master plan was to jump, go, and stop, then it wasn’t the plan that worked, unless they also managed to convince the rider on Mirsaal to give him a nudge after a furlong. Dawn Approach was taking a slight hold up to that point, but you wouldn’t have been too worried, and I’d have expected him to settle soon after. The bump lit him up however, and from that moment on Kevin Manning was a passenger. You can’t give them credit for getting the favourite to pull, when he was out of control well before they slowed the pace up.
I think the jockeys on the Coolmore horses on Saturday, are just as likely to have been instructed to test Dawn Approaches stamina by going a good pace, and actually messed up by going too slow, than the alternative put forward by many, which is that what happened, was planned to the nth degree. After all, Ballydoyle messing up pace wise in big races, is so common I almost expect it. How many times have we seen a listed class horse tear off in front, get ignored by the rest of the field, and the fast pace he was supposed to ensue never materializes.
For a pacemaker to be effective in a top group one race, he needs to be capable of winning at least a decent group 2 himself. Otherwise if he sets off at what would be a decent gallop for the favourites, he will be going too fast for his own ability, and as such the others can safely ignore him, and set whatever pace that suits them. In recent running’s of the Arc, Ballydoyle horses have been regulars at the front of the peloton, they weren’t dictating the pace though, as its easy give horses like Robin Hood, Ernest Hemingway, and Red Rock Canyon a good lead, before you need to worry about reeling them in.
Look at the ride Flying the Flag got in last year’s National Stakes, or what Johnny Murtagh did on Soldier of Fortune at the Breeders Cups a few years back. Rides like these are common, and would have you questioning whether the jockeys on board have any idea what pace their going at all. Another possibility is that they are so restricted by the tactics given, that they don’t get to use their judgement in a race. If the instructions are to sit 2nd and kick on 3 furlongs out, they have to carry it out, regardless of how fast they’ve gone. Johnny Murtagh is a prime example, I lost count of the times he went to fast, or kicked for home too soon when ridding for Coolmore, but yet I can’t recall many similar rides, either before, or since he had that job.
Aidan O’Brien is indeed a genius, but while he gets an A+ for training racehorses, and his employers get an A+ in the breeding sheds, between them they often have to repeat the Tactics Exam in the winter. In my opinion Ballydoyle get it wrong in the big races, at least as often as they get it right. On Saturday I think they got their money in when behind, but got lucky, and flopped a full house.