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Let the games begin: legendary Epsom arena all set to host Warrior and the Lion

Saxon Warrior: "palpably the best horse in the race" but still faces a searching test of his ability
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As in virtually every household in Britain the good Lord has clearly struggled to remember where the wretched stopcock is to be found, but he has finally turned the taps off and Derby day number 239 looks set fair, although easy ground will add extra degrees of difficulty to an already searching exam.

It is hardly going to be a bog on the second day of meteorological summer. But while the field of primed-to-the-second thoroughbreds will go to post pristine in their silks, they may well return as a remake of the famous 1967 movie the Dirty Dozen – missing Messrs Marvin, Bronson, Borgnine, Savalas and Sutherland, none of whom could do the weight.

Derby card and betting

Saxon Warrior v Roaring Lion has a certain ring to it, does it not? Form pundits will tell you that this is because the colts have met twice before. But these two go back a lot longer than that; a couple of thousand years in fact.

The more seasoned racegoers among you with happy memories of a day's sport at the Colosseum will remember the heyday of Saxon warriors clashing with roaring lions in the first century AD.

In that pre-Investec era, the Emperor Nero was the most famous sponsor and rarely staged a dull card. The modern Saxon Warrior has inflicted two defeats on Roaring Lion. Back in the mad fiddler's day the result tended to go the other way.

The yielding ground and an allegedly disadvantageous draw in stall one has meant Saxon Warrior has been easy to back in recent days. He is palpably the best horse in the race but the Derby has stood the test of time because – by accident or design – it leaves no stone unturned in its probing search for any horse's weakness.

The 120ft climb from standing start to hilltop puts the field on the back foot from stall crash, then the unbalancing, scything descent to Tattenham Corner, before the straight on which the camber falls taxingly away to provide yet another test for the weary and wobbling.

Saxon Warrior is one of five representatives from the Ballydoyle yard of Aidan O'Brien, who fielded five of the nine fillies in Friday's Oaks. Does that make it somehow dull? Not a bit of it.

If he just ran one in each race we would be in serious bother. Without the massed O'Brien bands there would be no each-way betting on either Epsom Classic, which would be bad for everyone from the punter downwards.

The Derby is a charter to find chinks in defences. The great Federico Tesio, genius breeder of the fabulous Ribot, came out with a magnificent observation that always bears repetition for its sheer incisiveness.

He said: "The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended not on experts, technicians or zoologists but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby."

There has never been a more telling tribute to the status and influence of any race on the planet than those oft-repeated words.

Despite Saxon Warrior being around eight points shorter in the market than his closest rivals there is more depth to this Derby than the betting suggests.

Roaring Lion and Oisin Murphy after their Dante success
The wily John Gosden fields two, spearheaded by Roaring Lion, about whom you might harbour mild stamina reservations but who won the Dante well – as he was entitled to do on the book.

Gosden, whose tally of 3,000-plus wins includes two Derbys, had other options with his colt and his presence here with the increasingly impressive Oisin Murphy, a champion jockey in the making if you ever saw one, puts him bang in the mix.

William Haggas, who performed the indelible feat of winning the Derby with a horse having his first run of the season when Shaamit triumphed in 1996, has his horses in blitzing good order and saddles Young Rascal for Bernard Kantor, boss of sponsor Investec.

When he won the Chester Vase, Young Rascal didn't exactly have to overcome a sea of troubles but he certainly did not have the race fall in his lap. He had to show wisps of class and some track guile to win around the Roodee soup tureen and will love the testing ground, which will doubtless inconvenience more of his rivals than it will suit.

Chester is not Epsom but the two courses have complexities in common. He is certain to improve on everything he has done so far. Haggas described his colt somewhat unflatteringly as "completely gormless last year". Well, he is wiser now.

William Haggas with leading Derby contender Young Rascal

The ability to handle Epsom sparks many a saloon-bar debate but the last word on the subject has to go to that reflective master trainer and gentleman John Oxx, who won this race with Sinndar and Sea The Stars, the finest middle-distance colt since Sea-Bird.

In that quiet way he once said: "If they can travel around Epsom they will act on it."

In the Derby's very long incarnation as a race always run on the first Wednesday in June, the House of Commons used to suspend sitting for the day. Many of us think we should return to those times but expand on a great idea by suspending sittings for the duration of the Flat season. 

And, of course, it was the great prime minister Benjamin Disraeli who described the Derby as "the Blue Riband of the Turf". You were right back then Dizzy and remain bang on to this day. It looked hard work at Epsom on Friday. That is how it should be. It is the Derby for goodness sake.

Bring on the games.

Alastair Down on the Downs


Saxon Warrior and Roaring Lion go back a lot longer than that. A couple of thousand years in fact
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