As top trainers make the decision to duck out of Epsom, is this the year that marks the demise of the Derby?

THE Derby is an iconic race. The most prestigious, the richest, and the undisputed British Classic that is steeped with a history of famous world-class winners.

This is the Flat race in the country that transcends outside of the racing bubble. A Classic for all to enjoy and probably the Flat racing equivalent of the Grand National.

So to see this year’s renewal unfortunately fall apart at the seams is hard to watch. From the Guineas onwards, May centres around the trials for Derby day. For a few weeks the racing calendar clearly paves the way. Beaten horses in the Guineas that look capable of stepping up in trip, then into trials at Chester, Lingfield and York, with the Derrinstown in Ireland a useful pointer in between.

After seeing a Guineas winner enjoy an unorthodox All-Weather racing preparation in Notable Speech, the trials for the first Classic of the season might hold reduced importance given how wet the weather was at the start of the year. A trend might be developing in that trials for the Guineas aren’t what they used to be.

But 2024 could be the year where the Derby is truly rocked. The world’s iconic Classic has been run since 1780. This year will be its 245th running. Just think about the historic events and periods of time that have come and gone since then? Now it’s reduced to arguably playing second fiddle to alternative targets such as the French equivalent and Royal Ascot.

The unique quirks and undulations of Epsom make the Derby the special test that it is. Now the track’s unconventional set-up is used as an excuse to duck and dive the race worth £1.5million.

Epsom is the home of the Derby but quality in this year's iconic race in thin

Epsom is the home of the Derby but quality in this year’s iconic race in thin

Economics wins the Dante by six lengths but is unlikely to run in the Derby

Economics wins the Dante by six lengths but is unlikely to run in the Derby

Another problem the Derby faces is the pedigree front. There is an increasing need to breed speed, with further-forward two-year-olds and sprinters more in fashion than middle-distance Derby types. Milers seem preferred to 12-furlong horses and any sire that is deemed a stayer breeds National Hunt horses.

These are all developing problems the Derby has had to contend with but usually there are very good horses that keep the race relevant. Desert Crown was a brilliant winner in 2022 and Auguste Rodin bounced back to prevail from a Guineas disaster in 2023. City Of Troy will be tasked with the same challenge for Aidan O’Brien. He’s now 2-1 favourite to do so, which looks ridiculously short, but that reflects how much the race has fallen apart.

Godolphin have endured some brutal luck. Hidden Law won well at Chester but was fatally injured after the race. Arabian Crown looked the part at Sandown but has suffered a setback and will miss the race. Ambiente Friendly came from relative obscurity to claim the Lingfield trial for James Fanshawe, while O’Brien won the Derrinstown with Los Angeles. Both of those horses are 13-2.

Other leading candidates are thin on the ground, going for the French Derby or waiting for easier races at Royal Ascot. The King Edward VII and Hampton Court Stakes seem to have greater appeal on a flatter track for a lot of potential Derby challengers. Even still, it’s conceivable to take in both Epsom and Ascot.

So the Dante Stakes was screaming out for an impressive winner to shake some much-needed life into this legendary race. Step forward Economics, who hammered a decent-enough looking field by six lengths. The problem? He’s not entered. And trainer William Haggas, who is the best in Britain, was unsure how he’ll handle the Dante assignment. He passed it with flying colours but will need to be supplemented for £75k.

There is a big decision to be made with Economics but it looks likely that he’ll swerve the race, with the demands of Epsom too soon for this big, raw horse. ‘The whole point of taking him out the Derby was I didn’t think it was the right race and the right track for him at this stage of his career,’ said Haggas. ‘He’s a great big, immature horse. And I stick by that.

The cambers of Epsom make it a unique test of a thoroughbred's balance

The cambers of Epsom make it a unique test of a thoroughbred’s balance

Economics was all class at York but the trainer is worried he won't handle Epsom

Economics was all class at York but the trainer is worried he won’t handle Epsom

‘Winning the Derby is of course everyone’s dream, we’ll all want to win it but it takes a type.’

Derby types seem to be few and far between these days. The trainer always knows best and that’s not worth disputing, but fans and punters are still allowed to bemoan the dearth of top-class horses running against each other in historic top class races. And Haggas isn’t adverse to taking risks. Pitching Economics into the Dante Stakes was a bold decision in the context of modern times. His only other Derby winner is Shaamit in 1996 and he was a twice-raced maiden.

Patience can also be the route to success. Baaeed became a champion despite being a very late starter to the Flat racing game when starting out as a three-year-old in June.

There are perfectly valid training reasons for Economics to take his chance, but how can people promote the race when the best horse who wins the best trial in terrific style does not go? How can the Derby still stand alone as the pinnacle of British racing if the best horse isn’t there?

Let’s be clear. Economics would be vying for favouritism with City Of Troy. An intriguing clash, with two decent each-way alternatives in Los Angeles and Ambiente Friendly. Not a vintage and deep Derby but an interesting one nonetheless. But it seems destined to be City Of Troy or bust.

Tom Marquand is one of the best jockeys in Britain and rides Economics

Tom Marquand is one of the best jockeys in Britain and rides Economics

Marquand chats with Maureen Haggas, the wife of trainer William

Marquand chats with Maureen Haggas, the wife of trainer William  

Even in a poor Derby year, O’Brien would run several sons of Galileo to beef up the field — but this is the first Classic generation to miss out a full season with the top-class sire after he passed away in 2021. Team Coolmore will need time to sort out their top-class supply chain and the days of him running loads in a Derby might be over for the short term.

There are perfectly valid reasons not to run Economics. He’s a big, raw gangly sort but the temptation must be strong. And that temptation exists because there is only one Derby. However, the lustre of this race seems to be slipping away.

Those on the outside looking in with a passing interest in the sport will find it simply unfathomable that a six-length winner of the Dante is not running in a Derby with just three viable dangers to beat.

At a time when British racing is riddled with insecurity, if Economics doesn’t run on June 1 then the 2024 could mark the start of the demise of the Derby. The world’s most iconic race could slip out of the consciousness of the mainstream. What a sad thought.

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