Mike de Kock has a mountain to climb, but his record suggests he loves mountaineering. On the face of it, taking on one of the more legitimate prospects of the dozen or so American Triple Crown aspirants of the past 36 years with a horse whose best shot in the first leg was a lacklustre eighth, seems a daunting thought. But we know better than to count De Kock out before he's done. Tactically, foxes don't come much smarter, and you can spot de Kock's reasoning a mile off.
American Pharoah goes into the race hot off two draining (but impressive) victories in the Kentucky Derby (10 furlongs) and the Preakness (9 furlongs,) and now in the space of 4 weeks, he has to take them on over 12 furlongs in the Belmont. Since 1973, only the phenomenal likes of Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) have managed it, and Affirmed had to beat Alydar to do it. De Kock must've asked himself, more than once, if the favourite is any one of Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Affirmed? Secondly, what makes the Triple Crown such an arduous challenge, is that to win the first leg, you already have to be at your absolute peak. Clearly the favourite was, and just as clearly de Kock's Mubtaahij wasn't. That means the favourite is likely to be a tired horse, though not necessarily any less determined. By contrast, Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum's Mubtaahij comes to the Belmont comparatively fresh, having skipped the Preakness. This narrative is familiar to Summerhill people. In 1979, Spectacular Bid, arguably the most talented of all Triple Crown candidates since Affirmed, was the victim of fatigue come the Belmont, and was run down by a horse who wound up his stud career with us, Coastal.
And then De Kock has his "killer punch", so familiar to South Africans. If there's a chink in American Pharoah's armour, it may be his stamina. There'll be no fitter horse going into the Belmont than de Kock's (history tells us that, as well as the three big gallops he's had in the past 10 days). So let's see what midnight our time on Saturday brings.
On the other side of the Atlantic, I was beginning to think I'd picked the poorest year in many to attend the English (Investec) Derby: all the "names" had come up short in their pre-race trials, and it was looking like a non-event. Until a man called Golden Horn pitched up for the Dante Stakes (Gr.2) at York a few weeks ago. There are not many pundits smarter than James Willoughby on English racing, and he thinks this horse could be the proverbial "one in a million", it seems.
It was a nondescript autumn day at one of Britain's least storied racetracks. Eight colts and geldings lined up for a maiden race over an extended mile. The action that followed was remarkable, and the stories of the two horses that made it happen are the most notable heading into Saturday's G1 Investec Derby at Epsom.
One horse, Storm The Stars, had already been closely involved in dramatic dealings. As detailed in the TDN the day after the Oct. 29 race last year, he had been the foal in-utero when the beautifully bred mare, Love Me Only, was the subject of a bitter dispute relating to her purchase for $2.1 million by Summer Wind Farm at the 2011 Keeneland November Sale.
By the time Storm The Stars lined up at Nottingham, he had already suggested he might make his own headlines one day. A highly promising second to the Aidan O'Brien-trained Aloft on his debut for skilled Newmarket trainer William Haggas, he had received a sizeable compliment when the winner went on to run second to Derby fancy Elm Park in the G1 Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster.
Small wonder, then, that Storm The Stars was only even money to get off the mark on his second career start. The only horse fancied to deny the hot favorite was a newcomer from John Gosden's yard who had impressed workout watchers on the Newmarket gallops. But Golden Horn looked to have lost his chance when blowing the start on a track that usually favors early pace, particularly in races like this one, run at a moderate tempo early. By the home turn, Storm The Stars was in the garden spot in third, within striking distance of two inferior speed horses and with clear sailing over the other five. Meanwhile, Golden Horn was at the back of the field, six lengths behind Storm The Stars and seemingly easy meat when the favorite was kicked on.
Those who have seen last month's G2 Dante Stakes at York, which has catapulted Golden Horn to Derby favoritism, may be able to guess what happened next. Despite being caught in traffic as Storm The Stars quickened in front of him, Golden Horn unleashed the kind of acceleration belonging to maybe one in 50,000 Thoroughbreds.
He ran Storm The Stars down in cold blood by the furlong pole, picking up the six lengths that he had trailed, in only about 200 yards. This astonishing burst earned him the kind of praise from the Timeform organization that is reserved only for exceptional athletic feats from the racehorse. From a technical standpoint, this is the point about what Golden Horn produced: so-called acceleration in European Flat races is often not quite as good as it looks, for race analysis is still not aided by the facility of electronically recorded split times. Often, horses look good cutting down foes who have tired, so that their relative speed is not so impressive by absolute measure.
Not so on this occasion. Timeform's own measurements caught Golden Horn at a speed 12.5% faster for the last three furlongs than for the race as a whole; if you do the maths (the race was over 1835 yards and took 106.69 seconds). If he only approximates the effect on Saturday, his opponents have no shot. You should come to the answer that Golden Horn averaged a hair under 40 mph for the last three furlongs, despite having to wait for a run, despite racing on softer ground than ideal and despite making his racecourse debut.
Now, Golden Horn won't reproduce the same absolute speed at the end of the testing Derby course, but he won't have to. If Golden Horn has an Achilles heel, it lies in the reason that his breeder, Anthony Oppenheimer, left him out of the Derby entries and had to pay the 75,000 supplementary fee after York: stamina. Could Oppenheimer or anyone select a mating capable of producing an individual with such a rare change of pace and who also stays a mile and a half?
Federico Tesio's remarkably insightful 1958 work, Breeding The Racehorse, serves to provide succour to this troubling thought for Golden Horn's backers. The prospect of whether a horse stays is not best considered by the convoluted or subjective determination of it 'keeping on well' or 'running on strongly' over shorter trips, but simply by its potential to cover the distance concerned at benchmark speed. We know that modern horses take distance better than their ancestors because they cover it in a faster time, is Tesio's counterpoint to the "good old days" school who said at the time that stamina was lost in the breed. (Tesio would not be impressed by recent developments in the U.S. Triple Crown, it may be assumed).
Can Golden Horn cover the Derby trip fast enough to win most renewals? On the evidence of York, there is little doubt he can. He wasn't stopping at the end of the Dante, for sure. What could defeat him is getting too far back in the run-for Epsom is a tricky course at
the best of times-and happening upon an opponent merely approaching his talent who who gets rolling down the famous Tattenham Hill first.
Could that horse possibly be the aforementioned son of the horse that ran down the current Summerhill stallion, Golden Sword, in the 2009 Derby, Sea The Stars? We left that humble Nottingham maiden as Golden Horn swiftly drew level with Storm The Stars a furlong out, throwing a sectional at him akin to a Joe Louis left-hook. Storm The Stars stood his ground. Not only that, he began a sterling rally that nearly carried him back to the front on the line.
Golden Horn was the better horse, is the better horse, for Storm The Stars has still not won at group level. But he took Golden Horn's best punch that day and came back at him, which no horse could do to the Derby favorite in the Dante. From a wagering perspective, Storm The Stars is an interesting 33-1 shot, especially as trainer Haggas has already won the Derby (Shaamit in 1996) and the Oaks (Dancing Rain in 2011) from a select number of runners over the Epsom mile and a half. But, as we have recalled, the story of Storm The Stars needs not be tied up with betting to make it noteworthy. And this is the world's most famous horse race, after all, the one after which the other Derbys are all named.
So, indulge me to recall Tesio in a similar way to singing the words of a favorite song: "The Thoroughbred exists because its selection depends not on experts, technicians or zoologists, but on one piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby.
Gold Circle/Post Gazette/Sky (p)