THE Epsom Derby is the highlight of the flat season and the Irish challenge looks formidable as the master of Ballydoyle Aidan O’Brien chases a record ninth Derby victory tomorrow.
O’Brien has the red hot favourite Bolshoi Ballet while his stablemate High Definition was a surprise late withdrawal and will be kept for the Irish Derby at the Curragh on June 26th.
The performance of Bolshoi Ballet in the Derrinstown Derby Trial at Leopardstown was breath-taking and the 3/1 quickly evaporated to even money in recent days.
The Irish 2000 Guineas winner Mac Swiney would be a hugely popular winner for trainer Jim Bolger who named his star colt after the former Lord Mayor of Cork Terrence McSweeney.
The winner will receive over £1.1 million in prize money but the commercial stud value of a Derby winner is worth many times that amount.
The English challenge is led by the Ed Dunlop trained John Leeper who looks a progressive type, while the William Haggas team are represented by Mohaafeth.
But the Irish Challenge is very strong and all the heavy support has piled on Bolshoi Ballet in recent days with stable jockey Ryan Moore bullish about the Derby credentials for the son of the legendary Galileo.
Before the showpiece event the fillies take centre stage today in the Epsom Oaks and an Aidan O’Brien filly Santa Barbara will go off favourite for the Oaks after finishing third in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket.
O’Brien has always spoken in glowing terms about this filly and issued an upbeat bulletin during the week.
“Santa Barbara is very well and the Oaks was always pencilled in to be her second run of the year. We were delighted with her first run in the Guineas, it was a big ask," O’Brien said.
"For us, she passed the test we put in front of her with flying colours. We were delighted she ran such a big race and showed what she can do.
"I suppose the ground was quick there and that makes it a little bit more tricky for a horse with not a lot of experience going down into that Dip.
"We were delighted with the way she travelled as she showed the class she shows us at home.
”Obviously, we were always going to go into the Oaks not knowing whether she is going to stay a mile and a half but she's by Camelot and we know she has a lot of class.
"We're excited and looking forward to seeing her run. You would imagine there would be normal, natural improvement from the Guineas and she hasn't shown anything in her work to suggest otherwise."
But many seasoned punters have been lukewarm about the favourite and there has been significant market support for the stable’s apparent second string Snowfall.
The Ballydoyle team will run five horses in the race and we have seen plenty of surprising results around the famed Epsom track over the years.
On the Musidora winner Snowfall, O'Brien said: "She's good and we always thought the world of her last year, that's why we aimed her at so many good races.
"She might just have been a bit weak. She's bred to be a classy filly and one who could get the trip.
"She's got stronger and she's always worked well at home. She has always worked like a filly who has loads of class.
"She just didn't get it together last year but she's wintered very well and Ryan (Moore, jockey) was delighted with her at York."
While the O’Brien team looks formidable for both Classics there will be huge support for Mac Swiney who is generally a 5/1 chance.
This horse is owned, trained and bred by Jim Bolger but unfortunately the ground may be just gone on the quick side for him.
All his best form is with a cut in the ground and his Irish Guineas victory was just so gutsy.
His sire New Approach was tough as nails and connections are expecting a huge run. Bolger came close to pulling off the Curragh-Epsom double in 2008 when New Approach finished second to Henrythenavigator on home soil before providing the Coolcullen trainer with his first win in the Epsom Derby.
It was very interesting to hear Rory Cleary during the week making the case for Mac Swiney to stay the trip around the undulations of Epsom. Cleary who was aboard Mac Swiney in the Irish 2000 Guineas said: "You saw the way he raced at the Curragh, he's just a very simple and easy-to-ride horse. He covers the ground and settles really well.
"The further he was going, the better he was going to the line so I have no doubts he'll stay the bit further. He's got the right attitude and the ability, which is a big help."
He added of the 5/1 second favourite: "From his work and everything at home, I think the Derby Trial was the race [Jim] had always planned for Mac Swiney.
"He ran a bit disappointing at Leopardstown but had his excuses after. He didn't want to go to the Derby at Epsom on such a poor run.”
Finally, the Ballydoyle team are set to rely on Japan and Mogul in today’s Coral Coronation Cup at Epsom, with dual Classic-winning filly Love likely to wait for Royal Ascot.
Japan is rated the biggest threat to Al Aasy by bookmakers, having got his career back on track with a comeback victory in the Ormonde Stakes at Chester last month.