A big field is set to go to post for this year's Epsom Derby and the race looks as competitive at this stage as the numbers would suggest. Indeed, several firms are currently going as big as 4/1 the field and--to put that into some context--the Derby favourite has not returned an SP that big since Dubai Millennium was sent off the 5/1 market leader for the 1999 renewal won by Oath.
The door is, therefore, open for a new star to establish themselves as the leading three-year-old of their generation, and the eyes are inevitably drawn to the Aidan O'Brien-trained runners, with the master of Ballydoyle seeking his fourth Derby victory in the last six years. The vibes from Ballydoyle suggest their number one contender this time round is CLIFFS OF MOHER, who put the finishing touches to his Epsom preparation in the Dee Stakes at Chester. He didn't impress everyone with the workmanlike manner of his success that day, but this will have been his primary target all along and he is expected to prove much sharper for the run. He should prove extremely difficult to beat.
Others to note from the O'Brien squad include Venice Beach, who led home a one-two-three for the trainer in the Chester Vase, and Douglas Macarthur, who did likewise when winning the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown. The former is beautifully bred (by Galileo and a half-brother to the top-class Danedream), and remains open to more improvement, while Douglas Macarthur has always been held in high regard by connections. The first three did finish in something of a bunch at Leopardstown, however, and it would be no surprise to see stablemate Capri reverse the placings over this longer trip, having been beaten just a neck when third last time.
John Gosden ended the Ballydoyle stranglehold on the Derby when winning with Golden Horn in 2015 and the market suggests the best of the home challenge is likely to emerge from his Clarehaven Stables once more this year. Cracksman is not considered in the same league as Golden Horn by owner-breeder Anthony Oppenheimer, but may not need to be in an open year and his experience of the track is a big plus. He knuckled down well when overhauling Permian to win the Derby Trial at this venue in April and that form could hardly have worked out better, with the runner-up then going one better in both a listed race at Newmarket and, the foremost trial for the Derby in Britain, the Dante Stakes at York.
The Mark Johnston-trained Permian was himself supplemented for this race at a cost of £85,000 on Monday and is expected to uphold the Dante form with runner-up Benbatl, who doesn't appear to be crying out for an extra two furlongs. Best Solution, on the other hand, gave the impression he would relish every yard of this trip when winning the Lingfield Derby Trial, and looks the leading contender for Godolphin, with impressive Newbury maiden winner Dubai Thunder likely to find this coming too soon in his development.
That is part of the fascination with this year's Derby, however, with an interesting mix of unexposed types and battle-hardened campaigners--Best Solution and Permian will be making their 10th and 11th starts, respectively, at Epsom--set to battle it out. Eminent still belongs in the latter category, despite being the only horse entered to have run in a Group 1 last time. He should find this test far more suitable than when sixth in a steadily-run renewal of the 2000 Guineas on that occasion and deserves another chance to confirm the promise of his earlier victory in the Craven Stakes on the Rowley Mile. Indeed, he was seemingly never stronger than at the finish when beating Rivet and Benbatl that day.
Along with Cliffs of Moher and Cracksman, the Martyn Meade-trained colt looks one of the three to focus on in this year's Derby. There is little to separate them in the betting and it will all come down to who takes the biggest step forward on the day, with CLIFFS OF MOHER favoured as he attempts to give Aidan O'Brien a sixth victory in the premier classic.
Win back CLIFFS OF MOHER in the Epsom Derby on Saturday