Bobby Zen

On Wednesday May 8, 2024, as on all days, there were many things to be upset about: the conflagration in Gaza, the news from Ukraine, or a splash in The Guardian that said climate change is accelerating wildly.

Into the bad news cycle too dropped the death of a beautiful horse, Hidden Law, who won a Derby trial at Chester exuberantly only to sustain a fatal injury just after the finishing post. Chester racecourse is a fragrant place, colourful and fizzy for its big May meeting. The sadness that settled on the ‘Roodee’ was conveyed sensitively by ITV Racing’s presenters and sharpened our sense of what it takes to be a contender for – never mind win – Flat racing’s defining Classic.

The Derby has had its name loaded with prefixes by sponsors for many years and requires no extra wording now. But this year it could be known – unofficially but symbolically – as the Hidden Law Derby, in honour of all those horses who throw themselves at the Everest of Epsom’s rollercoaster, with its guarantee of immortality.

Fewer than 250 horses have actually won the Derby but thousands have tried. We’re in Derby trial season and wrapped inside these hours of sifting and reflection is a truth that internationalisation can never change. To pass the post first at Epsom in the Derby is a dream that can withstand anything. It’s so deeply embedded in Flat racing’s identity that talk of falling attendances or ‘diminishing’ importance can unsettle us but never kill the race’s magnetism. The same can be said in football of the FA Cup.

We’re in Derby trial season and wrapped inside these hours of sifting and reflection is a truth that internationalisation can never change

In May from the Guineas onwards, British racing is drawn towards Epsom by ancient instinct. Derby trial season is one of the most enjoyable parts of the campaign. As the auditions roll on, most years require a combination in the analysis of logic, instinct, awareness of Epsom’s unusual demands and the realisation that some three-year-olds are improving much faster than others at this time of year.

At Lingfield Park on Saturday I watched a classic example of a horse not previously regarded as a hot Derby candidate show himself to have been crying out for a mile and a half. Ambiente Friendly, trained by James Fanshawe, not only proved his stamina but handled the turns and the descent expertly to win the Lingfield Derby Trial convincingly.

To see a Derby contender emerge from outside the ranks of Coolmore and Godolphin added variety to the top six in the betting. But, with the classiest Derby trial, York’s Dante Stakes, still to come, Ambiente Friendly offered only more clues, not answers, which is part of the charm of these pre-Epsom weeks.

Rare is the trial from which you walk away thinking: ‘We’ve definitely just seen the Derby winner.’ Conviction has never been stronger than when Shergar won the Sandown Classic Trial like a king’s messenger blasting ahead to warn of an invasion. Shergar’s brilliance was so obvious that The Guardian’s Richard Baerlein wrote one of the eternal lines of racing journalism: “At 8-1 for the Derby, now is the time to bet like men.” No doubt plenty of women backed him intrepidly too.

At a push you could say Shergar’s fate exemplified the vicissitudes of stardom even more than Hidden Law’s premature death at Chester. To be kidnapped and killed by the IRA is a higher order of tragedy. Yet Hidden Law’s demise has its place in the picture of this year’s race, and not only because he won the Chester Vase like a prime Derby candidate. His sire, Dubawi, picked up his fourth 2,000 Guineas winner with Notable Speech but has yet to father a Derby winner.

Even the name feels poignant. The hidden law of sport, and life, is that things go wrong, sometimes tragically. The Chester Vase turned out to be not only a Derby trial but a trial of life, with a random misstep plunging the winner “from poetry in motion to heartbreak,” in the words of TV Racing’s Richard Hoiles. Or, as his colleague Ed Chamberlin reminded viewers: “this sport does have that trapdoor to despair.”

In every race, big and small, the aficionado’s subconscious carries a hope. It’s not always articulated but it’s always there. The hope is that they all come home safe. This is the love that displayed itself when one horse failed to do so in the Chester Vase. The greater the striving (no mission beats trying to win the Derby), the sharper the poignancy when the unforeseen intervenes.

There’s no such thing as a bad Derby winner: only a Derby winner that might not be as good as some or many of the others. The race is too difficult to win to create a mediocre champion. And as Hidden Law showed, if you have a horse in the starting stalls on 1 June you have already won the Lottery.


The post Derby Challenge Encapsulates the Hidden Law of Life and Sport appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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