This will test every ounce of Frankie Dettori’s considerable and well-chronicled riding skill. His mission is to win Saturday’s Epsom Derby aboard favored English King from Stall (Gate) No. 1.
In English racing, that’s on the outside rail. At Epsom, it’s the Stall of Death. That stall hasn’t sent out a winner since Oath conquered his 15 counterparts in 1999. For Dettori to win his third Derby and crown English King with one of England’s most coveted racing titles, the task is anything but simple.
Winning the Epsom Derby rarely is. Dating to 1780 and run at Epsom Downs in Surrey, the £500,000 Derby is England’s richest horse race — even with its 2020 purse slashed by two-thirds. It’s also the country’s most prestigious and historic, with such painters as Theodore Gericault to John Alexander Harrington-Bird chronicling the race as art. Limited to 3-year-old colts, the 1 ½-mile race typically runs the first Saturday in June, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As you would expect, the winner’s roll is replete with aristocrats up and down the peerage. Only one British monarch: King Edward VII, however, owned a Derby winner – Minoru in 1909.
Demands Begin the Moment the Gate Opens
Winning the Derby requires royal skills, especially from Stall 1. The 12-furlong race places demands on a horse he’ll never see anywhere else. Once out of the gate, horses ascend a rise as they turn slightly right over the first quarter-mile. The pack heads inside before quickly descending to Tattenham Corner.
That’s when things get interesting and where Dettori earns his keep. Getting English King out quickly gives him more options in terms of path and avoiding bottlenecks. But after Tattenham Corner is where tired horses bottleneck. One wrong tactical decision and victory disappears in a blur as escape paths disappear and you get boxed in along the rail.
Since 2003 22 horses started as favorite or joint-favorite from the outside stall in a 12-furlong Epsom race. Only three found the winner’s circle. And those three all competed against fewer than 10 horses. The eight favorites leaving Stall 1 in a 12-furlong race against 10 or more competitors since 2003 are 0-for-8.
“I’m not bothered at all,” English King’s trainer, Ed Walker, told the Racing Post. “Stall one has produced winners and we’ve got a fairly experienced jockey on board to navigate his way round, so I’m not worried.”
English King Possesses All the Power
And yet, English King is your 5/2 favorite. The Lingfield Trial winner has the stamina and the speed to conquer Epsom. When you compare English King to last year’s Lingfield Trials and Derby winner, Anthony Van Dyck, English King would have beaten Anthony Van Dyck by 30 lengths at Lingfield.
Even with all that – and Dettori, fresh off another Royal Ascot riding title – there are plenty of other options. They start with Kameko (4/1), the 2000 Guineas winner and the only Group 1 winner in the field. Oisin Murphy, who piloted Kameko to that dominant win at Newmarket, grabs the reins again.
Two questions follow Kameko to the starting gate: Can he navigate that extra half-mile? He’s more a pace horse who isn’t bred for this distance. And can he become only the third horse in the last 30 years to pull off the Guineas-Derby double?
The O’Brien Factor Plays it’s Usual Part
Should you think otherwise, there’s three other intriguing selections. The first is Mogul (11/2), the A-lister from Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien’s eight-horse armada in the 16-horse field. The favorite in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot, Mogul finished a poor fourth. He also lost to Kameko last November and doesn’t have the tactical speed the Derby demands. Even with O’Brien’s go-to rider, Ryan Moore aboard, a total underlay odds-wise.
Then, there’s O’Brien’s Russian Emperor (13/2). One of three Royal Ascot winners returning to the fray two weeks later, the Hampton Court tackles his third race in four weeks, a big ask for O’Brien seeking his record eighth Derby win.
That brings us to another Royal Ascot winner: Pyledriver (16/1). He pulled one of Royal Ascot’s most memorable upsets of the meet winning the King Edward VII Stakes, but he’s coming off a woeful effort in the Irish Derby. He needs a quick early pace for his perfect trip.
The pick: Russian Emperor. In a fairly wide-open race, he brings the least baggage and most value to the gate.