Epsom on tenterhooks ahead of potential Derby disruption

Jessica Harrington aiming to become first woman to train winner of prestigious renewal with Sprewell

Sprewell with Shane Foley up wins his trial during Derby Trial Day at Leopardstown in early May. File photograph: PA

Various agendas will be sieved through Saturday’s Betfred Epsom Derby but ultimately a handful of Irish-trained runners will try to become just the 23rd horse prepared in this country to win racing’s Blue Riband.

A dramatically early off time of 1.30pm is to facilitate ITV’s coverage of the Derby and FA Cup Final which has a 3pm kick-off on the back of police safety concerns at Wembley.

It is 70km along the M25 to the other side of London where Epsom has had to prepare for different security problems of its own.

Having got massive publicity for its protest action at Aintree’s Grand National that produced a 15-minute delay to the start of jump racing’s most famous race, Animal Rising plans similar disruption at the sport’s most coveted classic prize. A High Court injunction secured by Epsom’s owners, the Jockey Club, has done nothing to discourage the extreme animal rights group from using the Derby for their own axe to grind.


Since the vast Hill inside the famous mile-and-a-half circuit is free to the public, the scale of the task of trying to prevent protesters from getting on to the course at Epsom is even more massive.

Police officers respond to Animal Rising activists attempting to invade the racecourse ahead of April's Grand National at Aintree.

Should it occur — 110 years after suffragette Emily Davison was killed after stepping into the path of the Derby field around Tattenham Corner — the potential for disaster is such that a sense of foreboding is all but unavoidable ahead of the 244th Derby which for the first time is sponsored by a bookmaker.

Adding even further to the uncertainty is a national rail strike in England planned to coincide with two of the biggest sports events of the year there.

Such an on-tenterhooks atmosphere might suit those for whom the Derby is a means to an end, but it obscures the historic race’s most competitive renewal in some time.

Aidan O’Brien needs one more success to emulate Lester Piggott’s record nine victories as a jockey.

Ryan Moore’s mount Auguste Rodin is a clear first-string among a Ballydoyle trio but he has a massive amount to prove having flopped in last month’s English 2000 Guineas at Newmarket on testing ground.

One thing in Auguste Rodin's favour is the prospect of quick ground conditions.

That he has been at the top of the betting despite that reflects more his trainer’s unparalleled history in the race as well as O’Brien’s readiness to emphasise his staunch belief in the horse’s quality. One thing in his favour is the prospect of quick ground conditions, a potential negative to Frankie Dettori’s mount Arrest.

Popular support of the Italian rider on his 28th and final Derby ride before retirement at the end of the year means Arrest could still be favoured in the betting as might the supplementary entry, Passenger.

Perhaps the most popular outcome though, and not just from an Irish perspective, would be success for Jessica Harrington’s hope Sprewell.

The 76-year-old pioneering trainer has been fighting breast cancer ahead of what would be the crowning glory of a spectacular career.

Victorious in most of jump racing’s greatest prizes, Harrington will become the first woman to train a Derby winner if Sprewell scores under jockey Shane Foley.

The latter’s commitments mean Colin Keane comes in for the “spare” on White Birch who in most years would represent an unlikely fairy-tale Derby story.

Trained in Cork by John Murphy, the eye-catching grey has leapt from relative obscurity to win Leopardstown’s Ballysax Stakes in April before finishing runner-up to The Foxes in the Dante at York.

Murphy trains a relatively tiny string of 40 horses in Upton and his greatest claim to fame to date was landing the Champion Chase at Cheltenham with Newmill in 2006.

Having earned his Derby place on merit, White Birch hasn’t been done any favours with an inside draw in stall two which presents Keane with a challenge on his first Derby ride.

There could hardly be a bigger contrast to the sport’s powerhouse operations including Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin who are pursuing a third win in six years.

Military Order will try to equal his sibling Adayar who emerged on top in 2021. The last full brothers to win the Derby were Persimmon (1896) and Diamond Jubilee four years later.

Godolphin's Military Order will be ridden by William Buick and has been near the top of the betting.

In a race with, perhaps aptly in the circumstances, so many question marks hanging over the principals, Military Order’s credentials look more solid than most.

On Sunday the Derby focus switches to Chantilly and the €1.5 million French version, the Qatar Prix du Jockey Club, due off at 3.05pm Irish time.

O’Brien and jockey Ryan Moore team up with the Dante third Continuous who breaks from stall one in the 11-runner field. O’Brien broke his French Derby duck with St Mark’s Basilica in 2021.

Dettori, who secured the first of his three previous French Derby victories all of 31 years ago, relies on Epictetus this time.

The first two cards in a hectic bank holiday domestic programme take place at Tramore and Listowel on Saturday.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column