it had to happen. With no clear contender for next month’s blue riband Epsom Derby, it was almost inevitable that York’s Betfred Dante Stakes – the most illustrious and informative of the trials for the big race – would be landed by the sole horse, Golden Horn, which did not hold an entry in the celebrated Classic.
However, the manner of the unbeaten colt’s victory on the Knavesmire, swooping past stablemate Jack Hobbs Group One victor Elm Park with apparently effortless ease under a confident William Buick, suggests that winning trainer John Gosden and owner Anthony Oppenheimer will be thinking again.
They initially entered Golden Horn in the Prix du Jockey Club, the French Derby, because South Africa-based diamond magnate Oppenheimer was convinced that this potential champion would not stay further than 10 furlongs – yesterday’s trip. However, his long-striding horse was not slowing down at the winning post and left a visible impression that Epsom’s unique mile-and-a-half test will be within his stamina range.
After all, there is only one Derby and the supplementary entry fee of £75,000 is more than offset by the Dante first prize of £90,000-plus. It is a gamble that makes sense – nine horses have completed the Dante and Derby double, including the Gosden-trained Benny The Dip in 1997.
And Buick should know what it takes to conquer Epsom – he was second there two years ago aboard Libertarian, who had been an unheralded Dante winner for North Yorkshire trainers Karl and Elaine Burke.
“That was a very good performance from a very good horse. He keeps progressing,” eulogised the former graduate of Northern Racing College.
“He switched off well. It was a very good race, an even pace and he’s a very exciting horse. To ride a horse like this is what it’s all about, he’s got so many gears – it’s just point and shoot. He’s come forward from Newmarket (Feilden Stakes) and that was only his third run, so you could see a lot of improvement.”
Outsider Lord Ben Stack, trained by the aforementioned Burke team, set the early gallop as Andrea Atzeni struggled to settle Racing Post Trophy winner Elm Park following a lengthy lay-off, with Jack Hobbs always prominent under Frankie Dettori.
As Jack Hobbs and Elm Park, the eventual second and third, looked to assert and battle out the finish, Buick was still motionless as he asked Golden Horn to go through the gears and show the type of blistering acceleration which had so impressed connections on the Newmarket gallops.
Typically, the winning trainer was not blowing his own trumpet after his Dante one-two – a magnanimous Gosden, a trainer of great patience, has been at pains to point out that neither Golden Horn and Jack Hobbs is the finished article and will improve further with greater physical maturity.
And, while he said the Derby dilemma was one for the victorious owner – “it’s a nice problem to have” – he did note with characteristic shrewdness that the first three home had pulled at least 13 lengths clear of the remaining four runners who had all headed to York with lofty reputations.
“The owner has been very firm with me that he’s a mile-and-a-quarter horse and he told me that all along, so we will see,” said Gosden, whose yard is in a rich vein of form after top filly Star Of Seville had booked her place for the Epsom Oaks when winning the Tattersalls Musidora Stakes 24 hours earlier. “The jockey felt he finished strongly today. He’s a horse who has really come on since he won the Feilden Stakes.
“His work on Friday was superb. I told William to tuck in at the back and go to sleep as he has a good turn of foot. He had a dream trip, but ‘Jack’ was rather wide all the way and then babyish and wondering what to do. Frankie said he was waiting for him to tell him, so I’m delighted with his run and I think the third horse Elm Park gives you a very solid benchmark of form. He’s a Group One horse and the fourth was a long way back.
“I’m sure Mr Oppenheimer will have a think about whether he wants to stump up the £75,000 or not to supplement. That’s his business, not mine. Golden Horn is a well-balanced horse and he’s neat, whereas Jack Hobbs is a big, rangy boy – they are different types. I can see the logic in supplementing him, but it’s not my money.”
While the Golden Horn team do not have to reveal their hand until June 1 when Derby declarations close, Epsom remains very much on the agenda for Elm Park, with trainer Andrew Balding thinking the lack of a prep run had been telling. He said: “He just got a bit tired. Andrea said he thought he had it won but in the last furlong he just tired on him.”
Aidan O’Brien fielded both Ol’ Man River and John F Kennedy but both were outpaced when the race began in earnest, finishing second to last and last of the seven runners respectively. He confirmed Epsom is now off the agenda for the pair.
“There’s obviously something amiss with both of them at the moment,” said the trainer, who revealed that he would not take up Lester Piggott’s suggestion and run 2000 Guineas winner Gleneagles in the Derby.
However, the bookmakers have no doubts. William Hill spokesman Jon Ivan-Duke said Golden Horn was 2-1 clear favourite for the Epsom Derby with Jack Hobbs second in the betting at 4-1.
They’re enticing odds. For, if William Buick is right, and he was the lucky jockey in the saddle, Golden Horn could well become the champion that racing needs to ignite the 2015 Flat season.