ANDREW BALDING’S surname is synonymous with racing. His father Ian trained the legendary 1971 Epsom Derby winner Mill Reef; his late uncle Toby saddled Highland Wedding and Little Polveir to Grand National glory before nurturing a young AP McCoy, while his sports presenter sister Clare needs little introduction.
Now Andrew has a chance to cement further his burgeoning reputation when stable star Elm Park – last year’s Racing Post Trophy winner – puts his Epsom Derby credentials on the line in tomorrow’s Betfred Dante Stakes, the traditional centrepiece of York’s curtain-raising three-day May meeting.
This race, named after Yorkshire’s last winner of the Derby 70 years ago, has the potential to illuminate an otherwise lacklustre Flat season and reaffirm its reputation as the definitive Derby trial thanks to the presence of John Gosden’s progressive pair Jack Hobbs and Golden Horn, who are defending unbeaten records.
In contrast, Aidan O’Brien’s two intended runners – John F Kennedy and Ol’ Man River – both have reputations to rebuild after failing to live up to Ballydoyle’s hype and hopes.
Elm Park also has a point to prove after a workmanlike racecourse gallop at Newbury prompted the horse’s withdrawal from the Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket 10 days ago. Though the official reason given was firm ground, York’s lush turf will certainly benefit the colt who is a son of Balding’s triple Group One winner Phoenix Reach and was owned by a racing club linked to the trainer’s Kingsclere stables before being purchased by Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Racing empire.
“Whatever he does at York, I think he will come on for the run. If he performs up to our expectations at York, I think he can have a big impact on the Investec Derby,” said Balding, who spent two of his formative years learning his trade with Lynda Ramsden in North Yorkshire before teaming up with his father.
“From the Spring of his two-year-old season, he was going very well and when he had his first run at Sandown in July, we thought he would run well. He just showed his inexperience that day, but when the penny dropped it took David Probert virtually to the railway fences to pull him up.
“After his debut, the rest of last season is history. He had to dig deep when he won the Royal Lodge at Newmarket, as he was still quite inexperienced and had to cope with quicker ground. The form seems to have been franked from most of the races he ran last year and there is enough collateral form to point to Elm Park being a high-class horse. His trial at York will tell us more...it is going to be a very competitive race.”
York – and the Dante – holds happy memories for 42-year-old Balding who often likens his steady rise in prominence to the fortunes of his beloved Southampton Football Club.
“We won the Dante Stakes with Bonfire in 2012. Bonfire was Group One-placed as a two-year-old and had been due to run in the Dee Stakes at Chester but the ground came up too soft so we went to York instead.
“Bonfire struggled with the proximity of York and Epsom, but I don’t think it will be a problem with Elm Park as he has a very different constitution.
“Elm Park stayed a mile well last year and his sire Phoenix Reach stayed a mile and a half so certainly 10 furlongs should be well within his grasp. We won’t know about a mile and a half for Elm Park until he runs in the Derby, but on his pedigree he should be fine.
“Elm Park is a rangier horse than his dad Phoenix Reach. But like him, he has no mental complications. His work rider Steve Woolley has been here for many years, going back to my father’s time here when he rode horses like Dashing Blade, Selkirk and Phoenix Reach. To have staff who provide such continuity is just invaluable.
“It was plan A to go for the Guineas so it is always a bit frustrating to have to go for Plan B, but the ground was just too fast and jarring for him at Newmarket.
“Being a Group One winner, the Guineas and the Dante were the only two options. There does not appear to have been anything overwhelming from the trials so far. There is very often a horse you notice that was staying on in the Guineas but there doesn’t seem to be anything from that race this year. It seems everyone is turning up at York.”
John Quinn’s stable star The Wow Signal has been retired to stud after suffering an injury prior to the 2000 Guineas. Owned by Al Shaqab Racing, it is a major disappointment to the Malton trainer following the colt’s success last year at Royal Ascot and then the Grade One Prix Morny.
“He is a very special horse. We will miss him very much, but I look forward to training his offspring in the future,” said Quinn.
Al Shaqab racing manager Harry Herbert said: “It is always disappointing...his two-year-old form has emerged as some of the best in the world.”