A weekend like no other — ever — awaits horse racing fans in Europe and the U.K., as schedule changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic find the Investec Derby and Oaks both run on Saturday on Epsom Downs and the French equivalents following just a day later across the Channel at Chantilly.
And, for icing on the cake, two-time Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Enable — denied a triple in the iconic race last year — kicks off her return campaign Sunday in the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown.
The pandemic truly has created havoc in racing and the Derby for the first time will be run with no spectators in the stands, or even on the adjacent hill, long popular with racegoers. But these two days of racing will be something to remember.
Here’s a look:
The schedule delays have pushed the 241st running of the Group 1 Investec Derby back a month to the Fourth of July — which, of course, is only July 4 in England, sans fireworks and flags.
But there will be plenty of fireworks on the racecourse as 16 3-year-olds line up for the Classic. The favorite is English King, a Camelot colt owned by Bjorn Nielsen, who also campaigns star stayer Stradivarius. English King burst onto the scene with a win in the Lingfield Derby Trial on June 5, only his third start.
Frankie Dettori will start English King from the No. 1 gate, not always the most desirable launching pad. Since the advent of starting stalls in 1967, only three horses have won from the inside stall. It could have been worse, as the Nos. 2, 11 and 16 gates have yet to produce a winner.
Also high on the oddsmakers’ tallies is Kameko. The Kitten’s Joy colt, bred by Calumet Farm in Kentucky, won the Group 1 Vertem Futurity Trophy last November and returned with a hard-won victory in the Group 1 Qipco 2000 Guineas on June 6. Oisin Murphy rides for trainer Andrew Balding and owner Qatar Racing.
After that, it’s another Aidan O’Brien fest. The Ireland-based trainer, already a seven-time Derby winner, will saddle six in this historic renewal of the race.
Three are well-backed in the early wagering: Mogul, fourth in the Vertem Futurity and fourth again in his first run this year at Royal Ascot but nonetheless the pick of O’Brien’s No. 1 jockey, Ryan Moore; Russian Emperor, winner of the Group 2 Hampton Court at the Royal meeting; and Vatican City, second in the Group 1 Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas.
Mogul will attempt to break the jinx of the No. 2 gate, as noted above. Kameko drew the winless No. 11.
O’Brien also fields longer chances Serpentine, Mythical and Amhran Na Bhfiann.
Galileo, the star stallion of the worldwide Coolmore operation, could become the all-time leading sire of Derby winners should one of his five starters salute.
He currently has four winners to his credit, putting him in a six-way tie with 1787 Derby winner Sir Peter Teazle, 1793 Derby winner Waxy, Blandford, Cyllene and Montjeu. Galileo’s tally to date comprises New Approach, Ruler of the World, Australia and last year’s winner, Anthony van Dyck.
Reminding: O’Brien trained Galileo, who won the Derby in 2001.
There are plenty other live chances in this year’s Derby, partly because most of the runners have had only limited chances to show their form. Pyledriver, for example, is at double-digit odds on most boards even though he won the Group 2 King Edward VII at Royal Ascot — a race in which Mogul reported fourth, albeit on soft ground.
The Group 1 Investec Oaks at Epsom has a field of eight 3-year-old fillies. Three of those, including heavy favorite Love, are sent out by O’Brian.
It would have been four of nine but the Ballydoyle master opted to send Group 1 Irish 1,000 Guineas winner Peaceful to France for the Prix de Diane, citing the steep reduction in purse money this year in English racing. The move also, of course, gives him a chance to win both of the prestigious races.
Love, another by the busy Galileo, won the Group 1 Moyglare Stud last year in Ireland and started 2020 with a rather imposing, 4 1/4-lengths victory in the Group 1 Qipco 1000 Guineas at Newmarket in her only previous start this year. Moore stays aboard for the Oaks.
Love won’t have a walkover by any means, though. Also in the field is Frankly Darling, a Frankel filly who exits a victory in the Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot. Dettori rides for trainer John Gosden.
The rest of O’Brien’s team is Ennistyman and Passion, the second- and third-place finishers in the Ribblesdale. Both are by — you guessed it — Galileo.
Prix du Jockey Club
Seventeen are set to contest the French version of the Derby on Sunday at Chantilly.
The hot favorite here is Godolphin homebred Victor Ludorum, a son of Shamardal who has won four of five previous starts for trainer Andre Fabre.
He won the Group 1 Emirates Poule d’Essai des Poulains, the French 2000 Guineas, in his last outing June 1 with a strong late rally. In the irons is Mickael Barzalona, still smarting from a bite on the leg inflicted by a horse during training last weekend.
O’Brien also has a strong representation here for the Coolmore “lads” but the top pick from the Coolmore entries, at least in the early wagering, is Ocean Atlantique, an American Pharoah colt trained by Fabre.
Ocean Atlantique has two wins and two seconds from four starts, all in France, and was last seen winning a listed race at Deauville by 5 lengths.
Also here is Palo Alto, an Intello colt who defeated Ocean Atlantique in the Group 3 Prix la Force May 14.
O’Brien has Order of Australia, yet a maiden but fourth in the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, and Fort Myers, a Kentucky-bred out of the Galileo mare Marvellous, whose two wins from seven starts both came on all-weather tracks.
Prix du Diane
As noted, Irish 1,000 Guineas winner Peaceful, a Galileo filly, has a good shot in the French equivalent to the Oaks, after being rerouted across the Channel in search of greater fortune and fame.
Others in the Diane look tempting, too. Alpine Star, a Sea the Moon filly from the Rahy mare Alpha Lupi, trained by Jessica Harrington, arrives on the back of a 4 1/2-lengths win in the Group 1 Coronation Stakes at Ascot.
Raabihah, by Sea the Stars, is undefeated in two outings but steps up in class here. Sea the Moon is a daughter of Sea the Stars. And don’t discount Speak Of The Devil, a daughter of Wootton Bassett, who was second in the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches, or French 1,000 Guineas.
Punters won’t have a chance to digest the results of the 3-year-old races before they get the treat of watching Enable return to action at Sandown in the Coral-Eclipse.
Trainer John Gosden has been bringing the 6-year-old Nathanial mare along judiciously, mindful of the scrambled schedule this season and with his eyes focused firmly on the Arc this autumn.
He passed on sending Enable to Royal Ascot, reckoning Sandown a better spot for her first race since the heartbreaking loss to Waldgeist in the Arc on Oct. 6.
The Coral-Eclipse was, in fact, Enable’s return race last year after the 2018 Arc victory and her stirring win over Magical in the Longines Breedres’ Cup Turf that November at Churchill Downs.
She went on last year to Group I King George VII and Queen Elizabeth Qipco Stakes at Ascot and the Group 1 Darley Yorkshire Oaks, again over Magical, before yielding to Waldgeist in the closing yards of the Arc.
Not much comes easy in racing, and so it is for Enable at Sandown.
The Godolphin team fields Ghaiyyath, a 5-year-old son of Dubawi fresh from a victory over 2019 Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck in the Group 1 Coronation Stakes.
O’Brien has Japan, a 4-year-old by Galileo who won a pair of Group 1 events last year after a third in the Derby, and Magic Wand, a 5-year-old Galileo mare who has battled with the best as far afield as Hong Kong, Australia, Dubai and the United States.
Lord North comes to the Coral-Eclipse the winner of three straight, most recently the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot. And Japanese mare Deirdre, winner of last year’s Group 1 Qatar Nassau Stakes at Goodwood, comes off a second-place finish, beaten just a head, in a rich conditions race on the undercard of the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 29.
If Enable can handle this field, she will be well on her way to that third win in the Arc.