Aidan O'Brien

The talk of War - War Front

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There’s been talk of War since Royal Ascot, when a certain stallion from Claiborne Farm did some trading on the European stock market. War Front, an 11-year-old bay son of Danzig, barnstormed the Royal meeting on opening day with two huge winners – first Declaration Of War in the Queen Anne, then War Command in the Coventry. This a few months after another sprog, Lines Of Battle, took out the UAE Derby in Meydan. And there was more to come. Declaration Of War pressed for placings in both the Coral-Eclipse and Sussex Stakes before sweeping, unexpectedly, the Juddmonte International a few nights ago (step aside Al Kazeem and Toronado). This Claiborne stallion was snatching and grabbing all over the place. But who the hell was he?

Aside from a son of Danzig, War Front was a pretty smart dirt horse in the US before his retirement. For 13 starts he had four wins and six placings, and though he didn’t notch a Gr1 in three seasons, he was second in two attempts, his best victory arriving in the 2006 Gr2 Alfred Vanderbilt Breeders’ Cup Handicap at Saratoga. On paper, he’s not a bad prospect. His dam, Starry Dreamer, has produced three other black-type winners in America, and his progeny are carving impressive family trees. For example, Declaration Of War is out of a half-sister to no less than Union Rags. At the time of writing, all this bodes well for War Front. The Danzig stallion sits equal fifth (within a swig of Megaglio d’Oro and Giant’s Causeway) on the American Graded Stakes standings, and eighth overall on earnings.

As a story alone, War Front is not much more interesting than any young gun staking his claim in the market (though he be doing it quickly). It’s his moves in Europe that have made everyone sit up and pay attention. Though a dirt horse himself, the stallion has had no problems producing turf smarts Declaration Of War and War Command. The former cemented his standing in the Juddmonte (a start in the Breeders’ Cup anyone?), while the latter is a close watch for the next 2000 Guineas. And these two, along with Lines Of Battle and a string of up-and-comers, have something else in common – the Coolmore colours.

Magnier, Tabor and Smith have done a Northern Dancer manoeuvre here and invested heavily in what looks like a goldmine sireline. War Front was bred by American Joseph Allen, raced and retired by him, but Allen has jumped squarely into the Tipperary camp, saying, ‘to stay ahead you need great partners, and these guys have been in the game a long time, and add so much to it’. Reportedly, Coolmore have a battalion of great mares earmarked for the European War Front invasion – Together, Misty For Me, Kissed – but I couldn’t help asking myself after the Juddmonte... could this stallion work in Australia?

Well, we’ve had lesser American stallions come to our shores. Animal Kingdom and Big Brown were top racehorses, sure, but they are young, unproven stallions. War Front could shuttle on a reputation similar to that of Bernadini or Medaglia d’Oro – proven at 11 years old. And, like Street Cry you might say, War Front has no allegiance to turf or dirt in the covering shed. With the alliance to Coolmore also, Joseph Allen (the Claiborne part aside) has a strong, experienced ally in the shuttling world. The only question is would Australian breeders come to the trough? After the Juddmonte, I’d be inclined to say they would.

All this aside, War Front is a fascinating horse to watch. He’s probably the most prolific US stallion to emerge from that nation in a long time, and that’s saying something because it hasn’t been easy for American stallions to peg their stake in Europe. But pegging it, he is. Beginning at a modest $12,500, War Front’s fee climbed to $15,000, then $60,000 and is currently $80,000 a serve. What’s it good for? Absolutely something you’d have to say!




Career-ended St Nicholas Abbey – A Tribute

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The thought of certain horses makes your blood rush, and St Nicholas Abbey is one of them. As a racehorse, he is a Breeders’ Cup Turf and three-time Coronation winner, a Dubai victor, a modern thoroughbred with almost £5 million in the kitty. But as an animal, he is a six-year-old son of Montjeu, a lithe bay horse with a high galloping action and rattling stride, a face narrow and refined as if Arab. He is a warrior down famous straights, has run into all sorts of famous names, and fame... well, it has come to him in all disguises since 2007. A Classics contender, a Breeders’ Cup hero, an Arc failure, a Frankel chaser, a Coronation legend.

A stricken racehorse.

Mid-last week, news trickled off the wire that St Nicholas Abbey had landed a ‘career-ending injury’ at Ballydoyle. It was the kind of news that floored horse racing, for this animal is one of the great sticking stories of our sport. Reports that he was injured wiped the King George of its banner entrant. But ‘injured’ didn’t quite cut what had happened in Tipperary. Nineteen screws, a plate in his pastern and a bone graft, and then word that colic complications had led to further surgery. How was it possible, I wondered, that I had never met this horse, but his fate had completely consumed my week?

It’s Tuesday evening as of writing, and St Nic, like his career, sticks on. It’s not surprising really. On the track, he had showed zero hints of tiring. He had sprung into 2013 with a clattering victory in the Sheema Classic at Meydan back in March, and followed it up with a history-making win in his third Coronation. But in a racing age where retirement falls at three for most of our ‘champions’, at the very most, four, this fellow, this six-year-old, was a blasting advertisement for training on. And his mileage said it all – twenty-one starts and five globetrotting seasons through Frankel, Snow Fairy, Danedream and Cirrus des Aigles, Sea Moon, Red Cadeaux, Nathaniel and Midday. An old-fashioned, well-seasoned marvel.

St Nicholas Abbey seems stained with that deep pot of Sadler’s Wells gold, the rare stuff that has lined the pipes of Europe’s best for decades. His damside is unremarkable. Leaping Water was an unraced English mare by the slick miler Sure Blade (who proved a pretty useless sire). She went to America for a brief stint, visiting mediocre stallions in matings that sounded nothing, until her half-brothers Aristotle and Ballingarry suggested she might do well on Sadler’s Wells. She did. Covered by Montjeu in 2006, she dropped St Nicholas Abbey on 13 April 2007, and he has gilted her name forever. Funny how a champion can do that. St Nicholas Abbey appears a one-hit wonder for Leaping Water, making him, as Tony Morris wrote in the ‘Racing Post’ back in 2009, ‘a faithful scion of the Sadler’s Wells tribe’.

If we can cling to recent optimism, St Nic will be a neon Montjeu at stud, and you can see why Coolmore has battled so hard to save him. But he was more to them than dollars and cents. He was a perennial, a stable favourite whose misfortune last week made Aidan O’Brien publicly sad, and that had nothing to do with him losing a King George favourite. Absolutely nothing.

There was something grand and glorious about unassuming St Nicholas Abbey, about his tremendous splaying stride, his narrow nose. And though the idea of a stricken racehorse is terrible, the picture of them on the ground unsettling because we know them at their strongest, their fastest, the idea of stricken St Nic was even worse. Somehow, this fellow, above most others, has really, really earned the oats of retirement.

(Picture above by author: St Nicholas Abbey before the 2012 Juddmonte)

When Racing Turns On Its Own: Camelot

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Okay. Let’s talk Camelot, because his fall from grace last night was spectacular. The Classic king of 2012 fell off his throne on the greatest public racing stage of them all - Royal Ascot - and Ballydoyle could only idle nearby and count the dollars, tens of thousands of them lost in stud value. The fall-out was horrendous. ‘Camel’ and ‘donkey’ fell about Twitter from some very credible sources. It was hard to read. And out there, on the lawns of Ascot before an audience adulating Al Kazeem, was left a lovely horse, a hero last year, with whom something had gone properly wrong.

Camelot’s rise to stardom began from his very first run in July 2011. His earliest record is a picket fence of perfect ones - first, first, first, first, first. The Racing Post Trophy, 2000 Guineas, the English Derby, the Irish Derby. And then Ballydoyle, in a gesture that was more sporting than greedy, courted history with the St Leger and found out why very few now chase that elusive Triple Crown. Camelot went down to Godolphin’s Encke in a slim finish that triggered the beginning of the end for him. And it’s been all downhill from there.

The horse headed into the Prince of Wales’s Stakes last night with redemption weighing far heavier than the nine stone in his saddle. Camelot had bombed in the Arc last October, came back in May this year with a first-up triumph in the Mooresbridge, only to lose the Tattersall’s Gold Cup to Al Kazeem three weeks ago. Where was the brilliance, the consistency that had so stamped his earliest days in racing? The dream, and we love the dreams in racing, suggested it would be all there at Royal Ascot last night, like the guns of Navarone. Camelot slid into favouritism, only to slide home a flat fourth.

Let’s look at the figures for a moment. There were 11 horses in the Prince Of Wales’s yesterday and Camelot was home in the first four. His record overall reads like this: 10 starts, 6 wins, 2 seconds. £1.926,569 in earnings. Three Classics, four Group One victories. In 10 starts he has been out of the first three only twice, yet the overriding stigma is negative: he comes from a shocking crop, he’s a hyped horse. Hype hype hype.

So where did it all go wrong? Well, let’s start with the Irish Derby back in July 2012. Ballydoyle headed there out of goodwill alone, and over terrible going that didn’t suit him at all, Camelot slashed out a very hard-earned victory over Born To Sea. It was one of those wins that you like to see in a young horse, when it’s taken to him and he fights back to draw away by two. But at what cost? Six weeks later, Camelot couldn’t find that extra neck to run past Encke in the St Leger. And I’ll never forget that night. Deflation and shock portioned evenly with sympathy for the Coolmore clan and the good of racing.

Last night, I watched the horse closely. Camelot is such a glamourous thoroughbred, put together like synchronised swimmers. He is graceful in the neck, light on the forehand, beautiful at the eye. He has a face cut straight from marble. He made the rest of the field, Al Kazeem included, look plain. But looks don’t win Group races, and John Berry, via Twitter, was spot on. ‘His sweat today suggests signs of wear and tear.’ Camelot had reached the gates a foaming mess. Yes, something was amiss. This wasn’t the horse of 12 months ago.

Ballydoyle must be blamed for one thing: they talked this horse up until the sun went down. As Camelot cleaned up the Classics last year, Aidan O’Brien had declared him ‘the best he’s had in his yard’, and that was a mighty call given the arsenal that has powered through the Tipperary yard in the last decade. Did he mean it? Probably, because at that stage he was handling robust Camelot who had turn of foot, staying power and closing speed. How was he to know it would disappear? And regardless of what critics say about last year’s three-year-old crop, Camelot could only defeat what he ran into. By the time the horse was meeting older opposition, it’s fair to admit something had gone terribly wrong.

I cannot remember a more polarising thoroughbred. People love Camelot, but many more hate him. And they hate him because of the stable he’s attached to, because of the excuses they think have been made for him. They hate him because they loved Frankel, and they hate him because they feel cheated - a Classic winner that has lost the ability to win. But I was ill last night reading the Twitter feeds. I hate seeing racing fans turn on a horse. As much as Animal Kingdom was a bigger picture than the Queen Anne, as much as So You Think was probably better than his loss to Rewilding, so is Camelot more than the troubled puzzle he has become.

O’Brien says he is keeping the faith. Perhaps he’s been too soft with the horse, he said. Perhaps the colic surgery (in the off season) has taken more off him than we know. But O’Brien can’t win. He says too much, he’s making excuses. He says nothing, he’s got nothing. Regardless, they are pressing on with this lovely, embattled Montjeu horse, suggesting they have no plans to despatch him off to Mike de Kock. But the reality is that, as much as So You Think could claw back only some of his reputation with his outgoing victory in the St James’s last year, it will take something like a victory in the Arc de Triomphe to restore Camelot to any sort of glory. And on the state of play, that probably won’t happen. But there is one thing that writing ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Shannon’ has taught me: there is always, always more to a horse’s canvas than mere results.

Frankie And The Lost Kingdom of Camelot

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Oh boy. I love this racing game when it throws a curve ball, a perfect hook that knocks us all out of the playing park. Tonight it came in the shape of the Italian fantastico Frankie Dettori. The Godolphin gun will pilot gorgeous Camelot in this weekend’s Arc de Triomphe. You heard it folks, up off the floor now.

Where have the old days gone, the days of the Irish and the Arabs punching it out around the world’s sale rings, of stable rivalry so close and exhausting it was like a film script? Au revoir, say I. Frankie stepping up for Camelot is the most exciting headline racing has had in a while. It’s part two of Aidan shaking Sheikh Mohammed’s hand in Meydan back in March, of Coolmore shipping horses to Dubai for the first time in so many years. It’s modernity and simple mathematics - an awesome three-year-old and a seasoned, incomparably stylish and brilliant jockey. Quel magnifique.

Camelot is humming in neutral at the moment, questioned after the failed St Leger bid, questioned over questionable form lines. He is, without doubt, the smartest three-year-old going around in my opinion. As Frankie told RacingUK today, Camelot didn’t just win the Derby. He spread-eagled the Derby field. In my eyes, the horse put up a gallant fight in the Leger, and I found all sorts of holes in Joseph’s ride. Scores of people have disagreed, claiming the colt is simply not good enough. We’ll see.


Tactically, Ballydoyle couldn’t have chosen better. Frankie is like the modern melt of Jim Pike (grace), Lester Piggott (tactile brilliance) and Darby Munro (goes for the hole). He is the most gifted rider on the circuit. In his hands, I suspect Camelot will move like a 360, and if there’s acceleration there, Frankie will extract it. If there’s petrol left, he will drain it. Camelot won’t know what’s hit him (figuratively). And with 25 successive Arc rides in his ass pocket, you’d have to think Dettori will have the colt right where he should be. We rarely complain that this man gets it wrong in running.

So, has it fallen into Frankie’s lap to restore the lost kingdom of Camelot? If you were going to pick a jock to do it, he would be it (Johnny Murtagh would work too). Of course, there will be critics. Without Nathaniel and Danedream and Snow Fairy, people will say it isn’t the strongest Arc renewal, and they’ll pour that out if the game colt wins. If he loses, he won’t have lost much. There are some older heavyweights lining up, and the St Leger already wiped a flawless record.

Tonight, we roll around in a match made in heaven. And respect to Dettori. It’s an honour, he said, to be asked to ride the Guineas and Derby winner. His humility is impressive. The underlings of change are pretty strong in this story, for everyone is wondering how Godolphin feel about this news, about how their stamped rider has plunged into enemy territory. Is Frankie, in this freelance guise, open season, so open he’s riding for Coolmore after seven years? Apparently so, and I think it’s fabulous.

For History. For Glory. God Damn It.

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It was hard to watch, and even harder to swallow, like a peg going down your throat sideways. He was running for history, this glorious colt, for renovation of racing’s oldest concept. Camelot was running for a perfect record, for perspective that greatness can be shared. And it all went wrong in the straight.

Commentators have reworked the replay into the night, disagreeing about jockey error from young Joseph or Camelot simply not being good enough. Aidan said he stayed on rather than quicken, and quicken was just what Camelot needed to do to catch Encke. The light-blue horse had gone too far too nippily. It was off-the-couch stuff, fist-wrenching, heartbreakingly infuriating. God damn it (and all the expletives that followed).

There were nations behind this horse. Legions of fans took to Twitter last night to cheer on his bid for history. It meant something to horse racing, that this race was embedded with old fashioned value and made topical with the emergence of this three-year-old. John Francome said Camelot is no ordinary horse, but he was ordinary today. I don’t think that’s fair. You have to look a bit closer at the obvious.

If the kick wasn’t there, there was a reason for it. Was it distance, or jockey error? I can’t fathom why Joseph parked him on the rail and failed to let him fan out in the straight. When he did find room, he did settle, and he did eat into Encke’s advantage. He did leave the rest of the field behind, for not a single other runner went with him. That extra two and a bit furlongs, it obviously counts. And the margin at the end was not even a length, but the defeat was great. It made that length feel like 10 or 12, for a sport was deflated. All around the world, people had cheered for him not because they were Camelot fans, and not because they were Coolmore fans. Because they were racing fans, and Camelot was in pursuit of something special this season.

The twitter reactions were curious, some measured and respectable. Others ridiculous. Someone called the colt ‘a hack’, which made me tune right out. If you can prime a horse from an undefeated two-year-old campaign to win the 2000 Guineas, English Derby and Irish Derby, good for you. But until you do, shut it. And then there was the expected vitriol about Frankel, and I have only one thing to say about that. Frankel is the best horse going around, by a long, long way. But when he shirked the Arc for another unchallenging jaunt up Ascot’s straight, he lost me some. In horse racing, effort is everything. So well done Camelot for trying. Well done Coolmore for giving us that spectacle.

Racing is a game of opinions. Of the St Leger, there were a thousand different opinions on how it was won and lost. Picking holes in a wonderful racehorse for losing is unsporting and unsightly. It happened to Black Caviar when she barely got there at Ascot back in June, and it has happened to Camelot now. In Camelot’s case, I suspect that much of the slur comes from an anti-Coolmore sentiment, and how annoying that people can’t ignore the politics and enjoy an amazing animal. It will happen again, probably every time this horse strips for contest. What a shame.

Thankfully, the cheers of good fans could be heard loud and clear last night, from the sell-out crowd at Doncaster to the hundreds that ‘watched’ on Twitter, many, like me, into the small hours of Sunday morning. There were some fascinating observations kicking around, like what will happen to the integrity of the St Leger now that it has undone a remarkable three-year-old. There was talk of Encke and the Arc, and something about ‘you’re kidding’. There were the discussions about where Camelot would go next, and who might tackle the Triple Crown again, if ever. I suggest it will be a long time if someone does.

There are few races I can remember in which I was emotionally, overwhelmingly invested.
Sea The Stars’s Arc in 2009 was one, and this race was another. And it wasn’t just because Camelot was racing with the banner of history tied to his browband. It was because he had illuminated himself, in the way he won the English Derby, even down to the way he paraded. You can’t quite explain why you fall in love with some horses. You just do.

So, Sunday morning in warm, breezy Sydney and life goes on. It always does. But my heart is somewhere on the Doncaster straight still, somewhere near the rail about two out from home.

The Quest For Camelot

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Quest for Camelot… it was a movie in 1998, a cartoon about a whip of a girl on a quest to save the kingdom of Camelot. It had nothing to do with a racehorse. But couldn’t one be creative and make it about a racehorse with, say, a cameo by John Magnier? Ballydoyle’s Camelot in the starring role, with the whip of a lad Joseph O’Brien on a quest to win the English Triple Crown. What are they saving? The integrity of the St Leger, of course.

Camelot’s pursuance of the Triple Crown has been fascinating. When he snatched the Derby in vigorous fashion back in June, I read all sorts of criticisms about Ballydoyle pointing him to the Leger. It was the easiest route, many said, the best way to avoid Frankel. It was a plodder’s race, Coolmore was copping out. In fact, I suspected back then that ‘the lads’ held the Triple Crown in very, very high regard. And when you’ve won virtually everything else, why wouldn’t you. Not since Nijinsky had a horse earned the elusive title, and where did Nijinsky come from? Well, from the bowels of Ballydoyle.

The St Leger may well be a plodder’s race these days, and that’s not Camelot’s fault, but if the Arc or the Eclipse were the final leg of the Triple Crown, I get the impression that Ballydoyle would be pointing their horse there. I don’t believe they are protecting Camelot’s unbeaten record, and aren’t we sensitive to that this season (Frankel has been sprayed with all sorts of reproach for his unambitious four-year-old campaign, especially given that defeat is clearly a pipe dream). And if, as Aidan O’Brien hinted this week, Camelot trains on next year, clearly they are not cotton-wooling his record.

Which begs the question. Why has the horse absorbed all this criticism on the way to the St Leger? Has the Triple Crown become so obsolete in European racing that a champion three-year-old, on the road to racing’s oldest grail, must defend why he is heading there in the first place?

The son of Montjeu is a magnificent animal, and Coolmore have done all the right things with him. Undefeated two-year-old sent out for the three-year-old classics. He won the Derby running away, pulling up somewhere down the road to London. He hated the going in the Irish renewal, but rallied and won it by two. Camelot is a horse of gravel and guts, of simple class and undeterminable talent. It’s simply unfortunate that Frankel is kicking around too… Phar Lap and Peter Pan, anyone?

Only two horses since Nijinsky have won the Guineas-Derby double. They were Nashwan and the immortal Sea The Stars. Neither horse progressed to the St Leger, and given the lure of the Arc de Triomphe, you can see why. There is a lingering myth that the Leger wiped Nijinsky out for his Arc bid, and probable cause behind it. Couple that with the unfashionable distance of the race in today’s breeding chain and you’ve got yourself a very elusive target. Bravo Camelot for even going there.

The Staggering Camelot

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I was one Australian out of so many to welcome in the witching hours of Sunday morning watching the English Derby. There were Twitter feeds coming in from all over the world, people just like me riveted to the television screen, the Racing Post open on the Macbook, the iPhone buzzing somewhere under the couch cushions. Cheering home St Nicholas Abbey in the Coronation was a good start. Now come on Camelot, I was thinking, do the deeds for Ireland.

When the pictures began to come in from the Epsom paddock, I was amazed by the horse I was looking at. Ballydoyle wouldn’t know how to turn out an average-looking racehorse, let alone an average-looking Classic winner. But boy oh boy, Camelot was stunning. And stunning in that way that little girls dream of... long, full tail, unusual facial splashes, elegant curve of the neck, legs as straight as organ pipes. Whoever it was that said ‘my kingdom for a horse’, he surely had this horse in mind.

As Camelot cantered his prelim like a Nijinsky (the ballet dancer), I was left thinking about the horse Nijinsky, who was the last thoroughbred to clinch an English Triple Crown. Funny that all this talk of Triple Crowns was going on, as the Americans have that very thing dangling before them in I’ll Have Another. Like English racing, US racing has not had a Triple Crown winner in a long time, 34 years to be exact. In England, it was even longer. Nijinsky did it in 1970.

Most of the English/Irish racing fraternity were odds on Camelot to win the Derby. He was 8/11, he was 8/15. Some poor fool offered 9/2 against just before the race and has likely gone broke. As the horses mingled behind the gates, a typical few minutes late to the jump, I got thinking about a few things.

The last time Aidan O’Brien had sent in an English Derby winner, it was 2002 with High Chapparal. Before that, the inimitable Galileo in 2001. Since then, O’Brien had had 39 entrants in the coveted Derby. They included some of the classiest horses he has ever handled... Dylan Thomas, Fame And Glory, Treasure Beach. But the stars, or something, were aligned this year, because when High Chapparal did it it was a Jubilee year in England, as was this one. It was also impossible to forget that Montjeu, recently passed, was hovering away in the background, pressing for posthumous fame. It just felt right.

I had watched Camelot’s win in the 2000 Guineas some weeks before. I had been excited that a horse so lightly raced could have so much hype circling him, but I was more excited that he had lived up to it as so many horses often don’t. Who was this horse, I thought that night, apart from a two-year-old winner of the Racing Post Trophy and a Ballydoyle superstar in waiting? Well, the night of the Guineas I learned he was the outstanding three-year-old of his year.

When the horses loaded for the Derby last night I was nervous, transfixed on the gate that would spring the son of Montjeu forward. As the field set off on the long mile-and-a-half, I had eyes only for one. He was poised at the back, cool like a pro, and at Tattenham Corner I was begging Joseph O’Brien to pick him up. ‘Let him go,’ I was yelling, ‘Don’t do a Maybe (in the 1000 Guineas).’ And then he was gone. It was so easy and so humbly arrogant that I forgot to cheer for the quinella. I had backed Astrology on that, but who knew. One, two, three, four, five lengths. Mother of god, I was yelling. Frankel (my dog) was climbing all over me in my excitement.

I couldn’t remember being more thrilled, or more awed, by an English Derby winner. Not even Sea The Stars, who I had adored, had driven up more emotion than Camelot’s win. There was something about this horse, something elegant and humble and graceful and brilliant about him, that made me cheer him home. Yes he was Irish, yes he was Aidan O’Brien’s, but there was more. Just look at him. He was Nijinsky, both the ballerina and the horse. Oh boy, he was a superstar tonight.

Sunday morning post sleep, and I pored through the online reports. For the first time, I came across criticisms of Frankel. Why had the horse not contested his Derby in 2011? Why was he not brave like Camelot? It felt like this new superstar Camelot was hosing down the Frankel aura, and it took some horse to do that. I couldn’t wait to see where Ballydoyle would go next.

Twenty-four hours after the Derby and newspapers from London and Dublin to Dubai, Sydney and Hong Kong have covered the result of the race. Now Camelot is up there with Frankel and Black Caviar and I’ll Have Another, levels of fame that only brilliant racehorses can reach. And the Derby itself is reinvigorated in my mind. Federico Tesio wasn’t kidding when he said that the modern thoroughbred comes down to a piece of wood, that of the Epsom winning post.

I’m a student of the old world. Derbies should be preserved for entires, and should be won by the best horse entered. The Epsom Derby was a race that was created to extract a stallion, its very existence was with a mind to the breeding industry. If the result of that is a horse of the calibre of Camelot, then long may tradition roll on.