05/30/2013 4:08PM

Epsom Derby: Dawn Approach could face uphill battle at 12 furlongs


The Epsom Derby is the most famous race in England, but in the 2013 edition of a race first run in 1780, England’s primary role is playing host. Among the 12 horses entered in the Derby, only three are trained in England, with seven Irish invaders, one from Germany, and one from France. Five of the Ireland-based horses are trained by Aidan O’Brien, but the Derby focus is on a different Irish shipper, undefeated 2-year-old champion Dawn Approach.

With three straight Group 1 wins, all by open lengths, Dawn Approach’s quality is not in question. Dawn Approach was precocious enough to win his debut on the first day of the 2012 Irish flat-racing season and has so far maintained an edge on his peers. His first start at 3 produced a career-best performance, a five-length win in the English 2000 Guineas.

The question is of Dawn Approach’s ability to negotiate the Derby’s 1 1/2 miles. The one-mile Guineas was the longest race of his career, and Dawn Approach’s dam, Hymn of the Dawn, never ran beyond seven furlongs and is by speed sire Phone Trick.

“The distance is a question, and also it’s a fairly rough-and-tumble race,” trainer Jim Bolger said. “You can suffer interference more at Epsom than any other course. But he is pretty robust.”

Dawn Approach was bred and raised by Bolger, who won the 2008 Derby with New Approach, Dawn Approach’s sire, and sold 51 percent of Dawn Approach to Godolphin after the Coventry Stakes last June 19. A chestnut with a big white blaze, Dawn Approach will be ridden as usual by Kevin Manning, who typically settles the colt into a stalking position and produces him in the final quarter-mile. The Derby marks Dawn Approach’s first try around real turns, and after getting through the sharp final left-handed bend at Epsom –famed Tattenham Corner – Dawn Approach faces an uphill finish of more than three furlongs.

All told, there is reason for bettors to oppose the race favorite, and while many will turn to one of the O’Brien quintet, the French and German horses deserve attention. Ocovango is trained by Andre Fabre, whose 2011 Derby winner, Pour Moi, came to the race under circumstances much like Ocovango’s – a win in the Prix Greffulhe at Saint-Cloud and an Epsom workout the week before the Derby. Pour Moi was a hold-up horse who rallied from far back, but Ocovango has some speed, and his Greffulhe victory came on the lead.

Chopin’s new owner, Qatar Racing Limited, paid more than $114,000 in supplementary fees to make him the first German-trained Derby starter, and while Chopin faces his strongest rivals, he brims with upside. Chopin beat a decent Group 3 field by eight lengths racing nine furlongs around tight-turning Krefeld Racecourse last month, and Germany has recently produced top-level performers like Arc winner Danedream and Pastorius, one of the best older horses in Europe.

The O’Brien five is purportedly led by Battle of Marengo, whose six starts, the last five of them wins, came in Ireland. Battle of Marengo has raced in short fields lacking quality while displaying a grinding style and might lack the ceiling of stablemates Mars and Ruler of the World. Mars was sixth in Dawn Approach’s Guineas but might suit the Derby distance, and while Ruler of the World beat only three overmatched foes in the Chester Vase last out, he did so with aplomb in only his second start.

If any O’Brien horse wins, it will give the Coolmore group three straight Derby victories. Meanwhile, Dante Stakes winner Libertarian would be the first female-trained Derby winner should he triumph for Englishwoman Elaine Burke.

St Nicholas Abbey eyes three-peat

It will get somewhat lost coming two races before the Derby, but St Nicholas Abbey is after a remarkable accomplishment when he tries to win his third straight Group 1 Coronation Cup. Six-year-old St Nicholas Abbey looked as strong as ever in his 2013 debut, winning the $5 million Sheema Classic by more than two lengths over Japanese star Gentildonna. The best of his four rivals is Dunaden, fourth in the Sheema and third in the Group 1 Prix Ganay this season.