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The Making of an Investec Derby Winner

THE STAND looks at the partnerships and breeding that produce champions.

Legendary Italian racehorse trainer and breeder Federico Tesio once 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.” And nestled in the countryside of southern Ireland are a team of breeders and trainers adept in getting their horses first past the post.

Back in 1946, Wing Commander Tim Vigors retired from the RAF to take up a job at Irish bloodstock auctioneers Goffs. Vigors was a decorated war hero (having been a Spitfire pilot in the 222 Squadron that fought in the Battle of Britain) and hailed from a family of Anglo-Irish landowners. His father had purchased a 400-acre farm, Coolmore, in County Tipperary at the end of the war and so, after spending time learning about the bloodstock trade, Vigors returned home to set up his own stud farm at Coolmore. He had no idea that he was laying the foundations for what would become the world’s most successful thoroughbred breeding operation.

Today, Coolmore is the world’s largest breeding operation of thoroughbred racehorses. If you want to understand the business behind breeding, buying and selling racehorses, then this is the sport of kings’ answer to Harvard. Central to that success is the partnership between Coolmore and the racehorse training centre 10 miles away at Ballydoyle.

Coolmore’s director of sales David O’Loughlin explains: “Most of the horses that go into training there have been bred and reared at Coolmore, and then the best of them, both colts and fillies, return here to produce future horses for Ballydoyle.”

Derby training
Horses, trainers, jockeys, stable staff and owners come and go, but one thing remains constant – the importance of the Investec Derby in fuelling the Coolmore-Ballydoyle machine. To date, 12 Investec Derby winners have been trained at Ballydoyle, beginning with Larkspur in 1962. There is even a stretch of grass on the gallops at Ballydoyle that is designed to resemble Tattenham Corner at Epsom, where horses careen downhill at speed into the straight, and where the race can be won or lost.

Epsom is the ultimate race and tests a horse in every way

Aidan O’Brien has been training winners in this part of southern Ireland since 1996. “Epsom is the ultimate race,” he says. “When our horses start working on the grass, it’s the only way home, so they would have cantered around it hundreds of times before. That has to be an advantage, but ultimately you have to have a horse with the pedigree and the physique.”

Read more:
Aidan and Joseph O’Brien look back on the day that their Ballydoyle partnership became the first father/son combination to win the Epsom Derby.

O’Loughlin explains: “Epsom Downs tests a horse in every way. You’ve got the crowd in the middle (of the course) and in the stands. The horse is running into a tunnel, more or less. So they need fantastic temperament; they need stamina, they need speed, they need the turn of foot, they need the balance.”

Indeed, what makes the Investec Derby such an important race to the breeding industry is that the course is the sport’s equivalent of a roller-coaster ride and presents a unique challenge.

Standout stud
Breeding is by no means an exact science – but one Derby winner that stands above all others when it comes to producing big-race winners is Galileo.

Co-bred by Coolmore and trained by O’Brien, Galileo has been the leading sire in Great Britain and Ireland for the past eight years.

“He won The Derby in 2001 and came here that autumn. We’ve had him for 17 years, and he’s now probably the best stallion in the world,” O’Loughlin says. “Galileo is unusual. He has Group One winners from six furlongs (1,200 metres) to two and a half miles. He is probably the most dominant stallion we’ve had in European racing and breeding.”

Galileo has sired two Investec Derby winners (Ruler of the World and Australia). But his most famous progeny is Frankel, who, while not having raced the Derby distance of one mile four furlongs, was rated the best horse in the world at both a mile and one mile two furlongs. Frankel is now also producing winners as a sire.

Australia - Joseph O'Brien in the winners enclosure with winning connections.

Australia – Joseph O’Brien in the winners enclosure with winning connections.

Because Galileo’s progeny can win races over such an extraordinary range of distances, he has become the world’s most expensive stallion. Every year he mates with (or ‘covers’) 150 mares. The fee is undisclosed but is said to be north of £350,000, and some of those horses will then be sold at an auction for seven-figure sums.

Tesio’s assertion that the Derby is the most important race for the breeding industry has clearly stood the test of time. The Italian trainer, owner and breeder even played his own part in the making of Galileo. In June 1938, Tesio sold a horse called Nearco to Martin Benson, an English bookie, for £60,000 – a world-record fee at that time. This was much to the chagrin of dictator Benito Mussolini, who saw Nearco as the equine embodiment of Italian power and strength.

Racing historian John Randall once wrote that Nearco was “the most important equine import of the century into Britain” and Benson had a specially constructed bombproof stable in Newmarket to protect his prized possession during the Second World War.

And who happens to be one of Nearco’s great-great-grandsons? Galileo, of course.

Want to own a racehorse?
Racehorse ownership can be very expensive, but it doesn’t have to cost an arm and four legs.

Syndicates and racing clubs offer an entry-level route into becoming an owner; it can start from as little as £199 to join Elite Racing. One of the more high-profile and successful syndicates is Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, where having a share in a horse currently starts at around £6,500.

For a racehorse to go the distance, it requires meticulous preparation, passion and stamina. But as many owners are sure to agree, there’s nothing quite like watching an extraordinary performance from a horse you’ve invested so much in. And perhaps one day making it all the way to the prestigious event that is the Investec Derby.

Ryan Herman is a journalist who writes on horse racing for Gallop Magazine and SportBusiness International. Photograph credit: Megan Rose Photography. Find out more on the 2018 Investec Derby at investec.com/derby.