2024 EPSOM DERBY

Sunday Times 2nd June.

He is no wooden horse. City Of Troy had looked like a hollow thing in the 2,000 Guineas but but restored much of his sky high reputation and took that of Aidan O’Brien  through the stratosphere by making this a 10th Derby win for the trainer.

In truth he finished second, beaten a couple of lengths by the outsider Voyage who had  unshipped jockey Pat Dobbs stumbling in the first stride after the start.  The riderless horse made the race a rather unsatisfactory spectacle which may prevent us giving the winner his full due. As it was he crossed the line a decisive couple of lengths clear of the Lingfield Derby trial winner Ambiente Friendly with the O’Brien second string Los Angeles a further three lengths away in third. City Of Troy was back, his trainer’s genius further confirmed, but superstar status? That will take a bit more.

It’s important to say these things as you see them. First sight of City Of Troy in the paddock was a disappointment. His looked lean and slight compared to the others. Sure he moved to post beautifully as always but dropped out at the back of the field he needed a bit of stoking from Ryan Moore before he sliced impressively through the field and then again required some driving and a few cracks of the whip before seeing off Ambiente Friendly who was not helped by the loose horse.

With so many millions in stud value at stake one had to harden one’s mind against the superlatives laden out by the connections afterwards about the winning colt and his unbeaten American Triple Crown winning sire Justify. But eventually the shere detail and the extraordinary humility of Aidan O’Brien’s explanation began to win even this old cynic over.

He began by reciting his usual “it’s all down to the others in the team who do all the work” recital before going through the Pelmanism of all the staff involved, but then he continued with a “mea culpa” I have never heard in over half a century on this beat. “We knew that the Guineas went totally wrong,” O’Brien said. “I made mistakes training him and that’s the bottom line. We discussed it before, there were stones that I didn’t look under that I should have. He was too fresh, he was unprepared, he blew up in the stalls when he went in, that’s just the reality of it. The lads, everybody, we all know the facts and we speak about them all the time, and we learnt from it.”

At first it seemed some sort of mock self-obeisance but later he elaborated in fascinating detail. He explained that after giving City Of Troy a couple of weeks rest he put him through the starting stalls at home equipped with a heart monitor which shot up to 240 beats a minute. “I feel relieved really,” said the trainer,  “because what we had thought was an explanation was true. We put him in the stalls again and the heart rate was better and we kept on to be sure. He wasn’t just a two year old. I had treated him with too much respect. I had not been hard enough through the winter and it was a mistake not to put him through the stalls before the Guineas. The fault was all mine but if you don’t make mistakes you don’t go forward.”

Ryan Moore was winning his fourth Derby, his third with Aidan O’Brien and was keen to explain away the apparent hesitancy of City Of Troy before his admittedly clear cut success. “It’s the first time he’s run around a bend and hopefully there’s plenty more to work on,” he said. “He was going to win very easily and then with the loose horse in front of him, he was still a bit unsure, but he galloped out strong. He quickened well and kind of waited so you’d have to be delighted with what happened today.”

So what looked an open Derby turned out to be the result we all expected before the season began. But it is dangerous to let one day be the proof of all. City Of Troy came good again but he needs to do that a second and a third time to deserve the hype now heaped upon his head. The original plan was to move on to tackle the best of the Americans on the dirt in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga but one imagines he will need another race, probably in the Eclipse before taking such a transatlantic risk.

O’Brien was very firm in his statement that this was the best of all his Derby winners and City Of Troy was unquestionably a better two year old than the likes of Galileo and High Chaparral. Yet the hope all along was of a horse to rank alongside Frankel, Dancing Brave and Nijinsky. The doubts still linger. The first sight of slightness needs to be banished by the power of those final long striding images to make this a champion of the highest rank.

Whether City Of Troy goes on to become the legend his connections so fervently hope is for the fates to decide. What we already have is a very special memory. That of Aidan O’Brien, head cocked on one side, eyes earnest as ever behind the dark glasses, humble in the greatest triumph of his unique career. “It just goes to show,” he said, “that in horseracing, in sport, in life you never know what’s around the corner and what might happen, so you always try to learn from your mistakes.” Would that more great men could speak like that.

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