LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) – Trainer Andrew Balding grew up surrounded by memorabilia of his father Ian’s 1971 Epsom Derby champion Mill Reef and on Saturday he hopes Kameko will emulate him in winning the “Holy Grail” of racing.
The 47-year-old can go one better than his father if successful as Kameko comes to the race on the back of winning the mile classic the 2000 Guineas.
Mill Reef had finished second to another turf legend, Brigadier Gerard.
Balding is excited to have a genuine chance of winning though he concedes a dose of luck is also required against 15 rivals on a tricky track.
“I have had six previous runners who did not even show a flicker of being placed,” he told AFP by phone.
“It is not exactly a good omen but it is time to fix it.
“The lure of competing in the Derby, more than any other race, and winning it one day is what guides me and my team.
“It is the Holy Grail of horse racing.”
Balding — who took over training from his father in 2003 — admits to a rollercoaster of emotions as the day approaches.
“It is a mixture of everything,” he said.
“It is a big day in your profession. Indeed, they come no bigger than this.
“We have a live chance so there is a certain anxiety, at the same time I am excited, there is anticipation and a certain amount of not being able to sleep as I normally do.”
Balding said Kameko — which means ‘little tortoise’ — is in great shape and his temperament is suited to conquering a distance (1 1/2 miles – 2400 metres) over which he has yet to race.
“As a character he is relaxed, delightfully so,” he said.
“That is a part of the reason we are stepping him up in trip as that characteristic will give him a chance of staying.”
Kameko will also benefit from having champion jockey Oisin Murphy on board — he and Balding have formed a close relationship since the Irishman moved to England in 2012.
Balding says 24-year-old Murphy, who is number one jockey to Kameko’s owners Qatar Racing, the creation of Sheikh Fahad Al-Thani, has all round qualities.
“He is very intelligent and is thinking all the time,” said Balding.
“He puts in a lot of hard work and preparation not just physical, he is always thinking.
“Strategically he is very sound and tactically he has done his homework.
“He has a natural instinct of how a race develops and he rarely makes a mistake. Maybe he is due one.”
A SIGNATURE HORSE
Murphy and Qatar Racing went close when the John Gosden-trained Roaring Lion finished third in 2018 and Balding would be delighted to be the trainer who goes two better for Sheikh Fahad.
“Sheikh Fahad has had horses here from when he began owning horses,” said Balding.
“He is a lot of fun, he loves the history of the sport, the heritage, not just what happened 10 years ago but 110 years ago.
“He is certainly very aware of the importance of the Derby.”
Balding may not have been born when Mill Reef — whose statue adorns the stables near Newbury, Berkshire — won his Derby but he learned pretty quickly about him.
“Growing up we were surrounded by Mill Reef memorabilia around the house,” he said.
“He was an exceptional horse. We grew up very aware of his achievements.
“Everybody craves a signature horse and he (his father) was lucky to have one and at a young age (he was 32).”
Saturday’s winner will not be greeted by the usual cacophony of noise that drifts over the Epsom Downs because of restrictions placed on sporting events due to the coronavirus.
“I would rather racing was back to normal,” said Balding.
“However, in 50 years’ time there won’t be an asterisk beside his name saying he won a Derby in a year no one attended.”
“Thing is you have to think a horse is pretty special to contemplate running in a classic,” said Palmer, who won the English 2000 Guineas with Galileo Gold in 2016.
“They are the best of the breed of their year, that is why they exist, they define the generation.”
I DON’T DO NERVES
Emissary will seek, 10 years on, to emulate his half-brother Workforce in winning the ‘blue riband’ of flat racing for owner/breeder Khalid Abdullah.
“Prince Khalid is one of the greatest owner/breeding operations the world has ever seen,” said Palmer.
“It is amazing having researched it how many times brothers won the Derby.
“Soviet Moon would be the 13th mare to bear two Derby winners if Emissary wins.”
Emissary will be in the more than capable hands of 2016 champion jockey Jim Crowley, who will ride him for the first time on the gallops on Thursday.
The 41-year-old Englishman describes his third ride in the race — he finished fourth in the 2017 renewal — as a “lovely one to pick up”.
“It is the most important classic without a shadow of a doubt with crowds or not (it is being run behind closed doors),” Crowley told AFP.
“You can’t win it sitting in the weighing room so to be in with a chance is terrific.”
Both Crowley and Palmer pick out Kameko — bidding to seal the classic double of the 2000 Guineas and Derby — and Lingfield Derby Trial winner English Prince as the form horses.
However, perhaps the greatest challenge is to combat the seven runners from the Irish stable of Aidan O’Brien.
“It is always difficult taking him (O’Brien) on when he has several runners,” said Crowley.
“You are not going to get any favours but then in a Derby you are going to get none full stop.
“With a field of 17 runners you need a lot of luck.
“Without a doubt it will be a very rough race round there and it is not always the best horse that wins.”
The former jumps jockey says watching when he was 16 Willie Carson win the 1994 Derby on Erhaab set his pulse racing.
“It would be a dream to win it,” he said.
“Will I be tossing and turning on Friday night?
“I have been around long enough that I don’t do nerves.”