Harzand triumphs over adversity, gives Aga Khan his fifth Derby

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

June 4th, 2016

One day after Minding overcame a brutal trip in the Oaks (G1), Harzand had to overcome a completely different kind of adversity en route to Derby (G1) glory at Epsom.

Lame this morning after pulling off a shoe in transit from Ireland, the Aga Khan homebred responded to urgent treatment just to make the race. Then he responded to the challenge of Aidan O’Brien’s 7-2 favorite US Army Ranger to give legendary trainer Dermot Weld, and astute jockey Pat Smullen, their first Epsom Derby.

Harzand thus joins past Aga Khan stars Shergar (1981), Shahrastani (1986), Kahyasi (1988) and Sinndar (2000) on the Epsom honor roll. The present Aga Khan, the fourth to hold the title, has now equaled his grandfather, the third Aga Khan, who also had five Derby victories courtesy of *Blenheim II (1930), *Bahram (1935), *Mahmoud (1936), My Love (1948) and *Tulyar (1952).

Harzand also elevated his sire, Sea the Stars, into elite company as a Derby winner to sire one. The 2009 Derby hero, Sea the Stars has now begun to emulate his famous half-brother Galileo, the 2001 winner who’s responsible for three Derby victors. Galileo threatened to notch number four on Saturday, but had to settle for second and third with US Army Ranger and Idaho unable to contain Harzand.

So far, Sea the Stars’ progeny have taken time to hone their raw ability, and Harzand fit the profile of a late developer who’d improve with maturity. Indeed, Weld and Smullen had said as much after his strong-closing victory in the April 10 Ballysax (G3) on heavy going at Leopardstown. At that point, Harzand didn’t smack of the type to try his hand at Epsom. The Irish Derby (G1) and even the St Leger (G1) figured as likelier ports of call.

But a funny thing happened as the spring progressed. Harzand began to blossom. Once the rains poured down at Epsom this week, the course was sure to have enough give in it to warrant a gamble. So Weld made the call to go ahead.

After Saturday morning’s shoe fiasco, however, Harzand’s status hung in the balance. Initial reports told of his foot being iced, and subsequently he was sound and good to go. In the post-race quotes, the situation appeared much more harrowing, involving a bloodied foot, lameness, and constant ministrations to make him race-worthy.

In the meantime, Harzand had come in for a lot of support as a market mover, ultimately going off as the 13-2 third choice. US Army Ranger also firmed into favoritism, as Wings of Desire floated to 6-1 second choice. It might have been a wide-open Derby, but the market correctly pegged three of the top four.

As expected, the blinkered Port Douglas spurted forward to set the pace for his Aidan O’Brien colleagues. Less expected was the forward placement of Andre Fabre’s Cloth of Stars. For a colt who’d had to learn to settle, you’d have thought that the French shipper would have been ridden with more restraint rather than seeing plenty of daylight. Cloth of Stars traveled fine most of the way, and briefly took command in the straight, before dropping out of contention to eighth. While different tactics wouldn’t have put him in the top three, he might have finished a little better.

Massaat likewise raced handy in the early going. Unfortunately, Sheikh Hamdan’s colt didn’t appear to switch off in this first attempt beyond a mile, and that proved costly as he retreated to ninth. In the circumstances, it’s inconclusive to claim he didn’t stay. In any event, Massaat will likely turn back in trip.

Idaho, part of the O’Brien posse, was moving sweetly in midpack on the outside, and the tactician Smullen had Harzand drafting right behind him. Although Harzand didn’t negotiate the slalom portion of the course too fluently, and appeared a little off kilter, he recovered his balance and maintained his position.

When Idaho unleashed a bold bid and readily subdued Cloth of Stars, Harzand swooped on him in turn in the decisive move. Finally US Army Ranger was deploying wider out, but the inexperienced favorite was all at sea on Epsom’s camber. Although his momentum was affected as he lugged in, US Army Ranger still threw down a serious challenge.

But Harzand, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Sea the Stars, had something in reserve. Finding extra when required, Harzand pulled away again to prevail by 1 1/2 lengths. His final time for the historic 1 1/2 miles was 2:40.09 – easily the fastest of the day’s three events at the Derby trip. Postponed took 2:43.54 in the Coronation Cup (G1), but before making any facile judgments, that reflects a more steadily run race. The course, labeled “good to soft,” could also have continued to dry out as the warm day progressed.

Idaho finished a gallant third, five lengths clear of Wings of Desire, who wasn’t a major factor. Trainer John Gosden and jockey Frankie Dettori both believe that the ground was against Wings of Desire, and the rider added that the colt wasn’t too at ease on Epsom’s gradients. We’ll hear more from him back on a sound surface and a conventional track.

Among other trip notes, Red Verdon had a traffic nightmare when trying to rally up the inside. Regrouping to take sixth, he remains a very promising type for Ed Dunlop. Algometer didn’t harm his St Leger prospects when finishing a creditable seventh. Deauville ran well below form in 11th. Ulysses had some trouble, but not enough to account for his 12th, and the last-out maiden winner will need a confidence-booster before trying the big leagues again.

Moonlight Magic was beaten a long way out and trudged home a tailed-off last, completing a horrid Epsom weekend for Jim Bolger. Judging by the non-efforts turned in by him and by Oaks (G1) entrant Turret Rocks, maybe something else will come to light. This was too bad to be true on both counts.

To end on a positive note, this Derby has the potential to be a very good one, considering the number of talented and unexposed types lining up. Best of all, the top two are both just beginning their upward trajectory. Harzand will continue to strengthen, and US Army Ranger will be more streetwise as the season unfolds. 

Photo courtesy of Derby sponsor Investec via Twitter