Sixteen colts are still in the running for the Derby at Epsom on Saturday after Passenger, third home after a tricky passage in the Dante Stakes at York this month, was added to the field at a cost of £85,000 at the five-day declaration stage on Monday morning.
The question of which of them will set off as favourite, however, may not be resolved until the off-time of 1.30pm, as four horses – Military Order, Auguste Rodin, Passenger and Arrest – are currently priced between 7-2 and 6-1, with Arrest in particular likely to attract support on the day as he will be Frankie Dettori’s final ride in the Classic.
And the Farewell Frankie factor is just one among a multitude of storylines – actual and potential – attached to this year’s running of the original and best Derby, which will be the 244th in all since Diomed took the spoils in 1780.
Sir Michael Stoute became the oldest trainer to saddle a Derby winner when Desert Crown obliged favourite-backers last year, and will extend the mark to 77 years of age if Passenger, who did not see a racecourse until mid-April, gives the Niarchos family a first Derby success.
Success for Military Order would also be historic in its way, as he is a full brother to Adayar, the winner in 2021, and two brothers have not taken the Derby since Diamond Jubilee, in 1890, followed up the success of Persimmon four years earlier. Dubai Mile is a live 16-1 chance to give Charlie Johnston a Derby win in his first full season with a licence, while Sprewell would be a hugely popular first winner for 76-year-old Jessica Harrington.
But there are unwanted threads to the story too, including a train strike on both days of the Derby Festival meeting which seems certain to have an impact on the attendance, and an unusually early 1.30pm off-time, as just the second race on the card, thanks to the FA Cup final moving from its usual mid-May slot and kicking off at 3pm, a knock-on effect from the winter World Cup in Qatar.
And there is also the likelihood that protestors from Animal Rising, the group that disrupted the start of the Grand National last month, will be at Epsom to attempt something similar, with the ultimate aim being to stop the Classic taking place for the first time in its history.
This is despite the Jockey Club being granted an injunction at the high court on Friday which would make demonstrators personally liable for damages, and potentially even subject to imprisonment for contempt of court, if they encroach on the course or parade ring.
There was a distinct sense during Friday’s hearing that both the Jockey Club and Animal Rising, which sent four “observers” to the high court including Dan Kidby, one of its founders, were jockeying for position, in much the same way that most of the riders will hope to be settled within striking distance and one off the rail as they round Tattenham Corner on Saturday.
There has already been a significant degree of engagement between the Jockey Club and Animal Rising, including a meeting on 11 May at which the two sides chatted over doughnuts.
Kidby and Nevin Truesdale, the Jockey Club’s chief executive, also spent 10 minutes in deep discussion outside Court 10 in the Rolls Building on Friday, after the Club’s application for an injunction had been granted.
Kidby subsequently said that “I really do believe that Nevin and his team do care for animals, just like I do”, while also confirming that the injunction will not make the slightest difference to the group’s plans and aims this weekend.
Truesdale, meanwhile, called for Animal Rising to abandon any attempt to disrupt Saturday’s race, and insisted that the Jockey Club, which also owns Aintree, “will never tolerate a repeat of the illegal disruption we saw on Grand National day”. Which is, of course, what you would want and expect him to say, but is likely to have as much impact as the 50 hastily erected signs around the length of the Derby course, to warn activists of the injunction to stay off the track.
So, we will just have to see what unfolds this weekend. Epsom will do everything possible to prevent, or at least minimise, disruption to its most famous race, while a – very small – group of objectors will do what they can to stop it happening at all. But my guess would be that Animal Rising’s chance of succeeding in its ultimate aim is vanishingly remote, and that, as with the previous 243, the main point of interest around this year’s Derby will be the identity, and price, of the winner.
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