Even so, when the dust has settled on today’s 231st and most puzzling of Derbys, it may be that the history books show that even though the French have no runner, the race was won in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud.
The confusion, of course, is largely down to one man – Aidan O’Brien. Having mightily nailed his colours to the cause of St Nicholas Abbey, only to see his hopes disappear in a disappointing Guineas sixth, a poor piece of work and an eventual “slight muscle injury”, O’Brien has been forced to rely on second-string Jan Vermeer to try to land the lion’s share of the race’s €1.5million prize money.
The English press have openly questioned whether it is the most sub-standard field in years. How can bookmakers ask odds of 7-4, they say, about a horse that, in O’Briens’ words, was considered “streets behind” St Nic?
He didn’t beat anything of value in his Derby trial, they complained, and, they pointed out, stable jockey Johnny Murtagh only settled on him when the writing was clearly on the wall for the Ballydoyle team’s first choice.
Finally, O’Brien’s less than impressive recent Derby record was hurled into the picture. Twice a winner in successive years with Galileo and High Chaparral, he has drawn a blank in the last eight seasons and in that time he’s entered no fewer than 32 losing colts so why should Jan Vermeer be any different?
All this may be true, but if we return to the French connection there are clues to suggest that, far from being an unconsidered deputy, Jan Vermeer, a bay colt named after the Dutch painter, is actually a worthy Derby favourite.
It was last November when Jan Vermeer was sent to Saint-Cloud to contest the Group One Criterium International, one of France’s top two-year-old races. Confidence could not have been high because Murtagh chose not to ride him, preferring the stable’s Midas Touch who also runs in today’s Derby.
Sent off at 10-1 in the hands of O’Brien’s No.2 jockey Colm O’Donoghue, Jan Vermeer came home an impressive winner by four lengths with Midas Touch back in fourth. Despite this victory, little attention was paid to Jan Vermeer. St Nicholas Abbey had put in a storming run to land Doncaster’s Racing Post Trophy and the talk was of a genuine successor to last year’s wonder horse Sea The Stars.
Consequently Jan Vermeer, thought more likely to be aimed at the French Derby, quietly entered the Epsom betting at 10-1.
It is only now, with St Nicholas Abbey out of the frame, that those willing to look back at that French race will find that Jan Vermeer’s form makes persuasive reading. The horse he beat into second place in Paris, Godolphin’s Emerald Commander, had previously gone down by only a head to John Dunlop’s Elusive Pimpernel in the Acomb Stakes at York. And Elusive Pimpernel was the horse beaten less than four lengths by St Nicholas Abbey when he turned in that barnstorming performance at Doncaster. On a simple reading of those races, Jan Vermeer’s effort in Paris could be considered on a par with the scintillating display shown by St Nicholas Abbey that established him as the hot winter favourite for the Derby.
The form has worked out quite well. Elusive Pimpernel went on to win the Craven Stakes at Newmarket this spring and finished a creditable fifth in the 2000 Guineas.
As for beating little of note in his Derby trial, the Gallinule Stakes at the Curragh, Jan Vermeer was running under a 7lb penalty earned for that win in France. The second horse home, Bobbyscot, had been beaten seven lengths off level weights last September by St Nicholas Abbey so, given the weight concession, there’s little to split those performances.
Whether Jan Vermeer has the class to win the Derby we shall know at a little after 4 o’clock this afternoon. The English trials failed to throw up a runner of outstanding merit and their leading fancies, Workforce and Bullet Train, will need to show considerable improvement for them to keep the Derby at home for the first time in three years.
Jan Vermeer may be coming off the bench as a late sub but his form in the book looks better than that of any other runner in the race. He is entitled to favouritism and, should he prevail, we may yet see a real champion by the time the Irish Derby comes round.