Sixth Epsom Derby triumph for Sir Michael Stoute brings dreams of greatness

Sunday June 05 2022, 12.01am, The Sunday Times

Dreams matter. For more than 200 years, less than three midsummer minutes on Epsom Downs have had the capacity to put horse and jockey into legend. That’s the challenge the Derby sends and the good news is that Desert Crown just might be up for meeting it.

For this, just the third race of the colt’s still unbeaten career, was a triumph not only of itself but of what might be yet come. The inexperience showed only in the jig-jog tension and white flecks of sweat before the start. In the race, it was mastery, not callowness, that was on show. To claim the higher echelons of sport you need to be that bit quicker, stronger and more adaptive than the others. Desert Crown’s Derby journey was just that.

Richard Kingscote, for whom yesterday’s ride earned him a place at the top table, was able to jump his partner out of the stalls so fast that he could decide his own position. Bar one temporary blip at the top of the hill, he was then in command. In the straight, it was dream time.

Ahead of him greatness waits. Galileo, one of the finest of this century’s Derby winners, had actually had three runs before scoring in not dissimilar fashion in 2001. He followed it up with the Irish Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, before becoming the most fabled sire of modern times. If Desert Crown scales those next two logical targets he, too, may take his place up in the Derby’s own Valhalla.

For this is what is on offer. No other major modern event has a gallery of heroes stretching two centuries back. The measurements stretch to Ormonde, Gainsborough and Nijinsky; Archer, Donoghue and Piggott; Porter, Darling and O’Brien: matching them cannot come lightly.

For Desert Crown, the tests come soon. By the end of this season and, if the financial siren call of stud can be avoided, after next, he has the chance to establish the clear superiority he showed yesterday.

For 34-year-old Kingscote, the slow climb to this first and highest peak has to be followed by similar ascents. But for 76-year-old Sir Michael Stoute, this sixth and sweetest and most poignant of his Derby wins, is only confirmation that legends live on. Poignant, because it was achieved without the presence of his long-time partner, Coral Pritchard Gordon, and sweet because, with the passing of the years and the burdens of his grief, there were suggestions that his glory days were now behind him.

But here was reassurance that the genius had not lost his touch. In 2010, Workforce set the race record with a similar preparation. Other trainers just shake their heads in admiration. His achievement is especially welcome because the Derby has to work against an ebbing tide. Up until the 1930s, it was the greatest single event in the sporting calendar. When I first came here as a boy to wave a flag at Tattenham Corner in 1953, it was the climax of the Coronation week. When I presented it on television in the 1970s and 1980s, it was still a massive gathering. But it is a bit different now.

On Saturday, there were green spaces at Epsom where once were crowds. And the event did not lead all the sporting pages or reports. The pull and the excitement cannot be as wide as before, but it should still be treasured for what it has.

For, of course, the Derby is not what it was. But for one more June afternoon, what Desert Crown, Kingscote and Stoute put together at Epsom could still stake a claim to being, at least, somewhere near the centre of the sporting universe.

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