Known as the Investec Derby these days, the Epsom Day is the most coveted of the five Classics and is arguably the most famous and prestigious Flat race in the world. With a purse of over £1.6 million, it is officially the ‘richest’ horse race in the UK and is also known as the Blue Riband of the turf scene.
The Derby is contested by the world’s finest horses so you would imagine that choosing a winner would be a difficult undertaking. The bookies don’t agree this year as 2,000 Guineas winner, Saxon Warrior, is the 4/5 favourite with Roaring Lion a distant second at 6/1 and the rest of the field is 10/1+.
The question is: Can Saxon Warrior be beaten? Before I try to answer, let’s first take a brief look at the history of the Epsom Derby.
A 200+-Year-Old Race
The first running of the Derby took place back in 1780, a year after the inaugural Oak Stakes. It was to be named after Sir Charles Bunbury or the 12th Earl of Derby and the former probably deferred to the latter. At least Bunbury had the satisfaction of seeing his horse, Diomed, win the first running of the race. The Derby’s distance was extended to 1m 4f in 1784 and while the starting point has been changed a couple of times, the official distance remains 1m 4f 10yards which makes it a test of stamina.
The Derby was the scene of the infamous drama that occurred in 1913. Suffragette Emily Davison jumped in front of Anmer, King George V’s horse, and died from her horrific injuries. In 1921, Humorist won the race but would found dead in his stable just three weeks afterwards. It later emerged that he had won the Derby with one working lung!
While Sir Gordon Richards finally won the race at the 28th attempt with Pinza in 1953, Lester Piggott had no such problems as he rode nine Derby winners during the course of his incredible career. There have been some memorable winners such as Sea Bird II in 1965 and Nijinsky in 1970. The latter was the last horse to win the Triple Crown of 2,000 Guineas, Derby, and St Leger in the same season.
Troy won the 200th Derby in 1979 and Henbit defied a fractured leg in the final furlong to hold off a late surge from Master Willie. The 1981 Derby saw the single greatest performance in its history as the tragic Shergar obliterated the field to win by a record 10 lengths. The legendary Galileo easily won the 2001 Derby and was the first of six Derby winners for trainer Aiden ‘O Brien.
Sir Michael Stoute’s Workforce ran the fastest ever Derby in 2010 with a phenomenal time of 2:31:33 as he destroyed the rest of the pack in an easy seven-length win. While the race has been won by hotly tipped horses in recent years, Wings of Eagles bucked the trend in 2017 as the 40/1 shot narrowly defeated Cliffs of Moher in what was the biggest Derby surprise in over 40 years.
Are Outsiders Worth a Look?
The answer in recent years is a solid ‘NO’. 11 of the last 12 winners have been in the top 3 of the betting market with Wings of Eagles the sole outsider winner last year. In fact, it is relatively rare for a long shot to threaten the places. Dragon Dancer was agonizingly beaten by a short head at odds of 66/1 in the 1995 race. At First Sight was 100/1 when beaten into second place by seven lengths in 2010 although Workforce did run the fastest Derby ever!
One thing these underdogs had in common was that they were both allowed to set a steady pace on firm ground and they held on for a top two finish. Terimon almost caused the biggest upset in racing history in 1989 when he finished second to Nashwan at incredible odds of 500/1!
Aside from last year’s surprise winner, you have to go back to 1998 to find a Derby winner at odds of above 7/1. In that race, High Rise stunned the field to win at odds of 20/1. In fact, he was the fourth winner in a row to do so at double-digit odds. However, things have changed in the last two decades and now, it is all about a combination of stamina and class.
At the time of writing, there are 16 entries and Saxon Warrior is the red-hot odds-on favourite. Camelot was the most recent of the 18 odds-on favourites to win in 2012. Can Saxon Warrior be beaten? Roaring Lion is the second favourite at odds of anywhere from 5/1 to 6/1 and every other horse is available at 10/1 or more.
Saxon Warrior was exceedingly impressive in his 2,000 Guineas win while Roaring Lion finished fifth, almost three lengths behind. The winner looked like he had a different gear to everyone else and is unbeaten in his four starts. It seems a foregone conclusion but are the trends also with the favourite?
- 19/21 winners last ran within the previous 35 days.
- 17/21 winners were in the top 3 in the betting market; 19/21 winners were in the top 4 of the betting market.
- 19/21 winners finished in the top two in their previous race.
- 20/21 winners had 1-2 season runs.
- 17/18 winners had at least one Group race win.
Saxon Warrior ticks all the boxes so looks a worthy favourite on paper. The chief concern about him is that of stamina. He has looked sensational over 1 mile but the extra half mile of the Derby will expose weakness if any exists. Roaring Lion won the Yorkshire Cup over 1m 2.5f so there is a possibility that the longer distance will suit him better than Saxon Warrior.
Young Rascal has wins over 1m 3f and 1m 4.5f, Hazapour has won over 1m 2f, and Knight to Behold has won over 1m 3.5f. While none of these wins were of the class shown by Saxon Warrior at Newmarket, there is a chance that the extra four furlongs will cause a major upset.