By Nick Seddon
Trainer Charlie Johnston thinks “there is no greater race” to win than the Betfred Derby as he prepares to saddle Dubai Mile in the 244th staging of the premier Classic at Epsom Downs on Saturday 3rd June.
The 32 year old took over the reins from his legendary trainer father Mark this year having n a joint licence from their Middleham base in 2022 and he finds him with a leading candidate for the Betfred Derby at the first time of asking.
Watch a full replay of last year's Derby won by Desert Crown
Speaking at a media visit arranged by The Jockey Club on Wednesday morning (24th May), Johnston said: “There are more valuable races around the world in places like Saudi and Dubai, but there’s still no greater race for a trainer to win I don’t think than The Derby.
“There is no race that I can win this year that will give me greater assurances when it comes to the yearling sales in three or four months’ time, that people will be wanting to fill the barn to try and find the next one.
“It’s what you’re trying to prove every year so that people choose you to reinvest with and to win a Derby is as good an advertisement as there is.
“I’ve had no doubts for the last eight months that this is the plan and the dream. There was never a thought about the French Derby or anything like that, this is D-Day and it has been maybe since he ran in the Royal Lodge and certainly since Saint-Cloud.
“I don’t feel it’s added any pressure, these are the horses that you need at any time and to have him in my first full season is massive. If there’s a little bit of pressure that comes with that, then it’s great.”
Johnston believes the son of 2018 Derby third Roaring Lion may be slightly underestimated, having some very strong form under his belt as a juvenile including defeating the Chester Vase winner Arrest when winning a Group One at Saint-Cloud in the autumn and finishing a very close second behind the Dante Stakes winner The Foxes in the Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket prior to that.
Dubai Mile has since finished a highly commendable fifth in the QIPCO 2000 Guineas at Newmarket earlier this month and is a 14-1 chance for the big race with race sponsor Betfred – something which Johnston feels may underestimate him ever so slightly.
He continued: “Dubai Mile is in good order and hasn’t done a lot since Newmarket. We flirted with bringing him down to Epsom on Monday (for The Derby Festival Gallops Morning) but one of the determining factors for that was if Danny (Muscutt, jockey) wasn’t going to be able to ride him.
“In the build up to the Dante that was a discussion point (as Muscutt was riding Canberra Legend) and if he hadn’t have ridden him it would have been a good opportunity to let a new jockey have a sit on the horse around Epsom.
“I was never going to push Danny to make a decision he didn’t have to make until after the event but that’s all fallen by the wayside.
“A lot has been made of his form line ties with the rest and his trial and interestingly Arrest is about a quarter of the price that we are. It’s probably not a surprise, John Gosden has a much better Derby record than me!
“It should always be the biggest test of a three year old and all the best horses should be there and a price of 14-1 is probably fair if underestimating him a little bit.
“There’s no horse in this race that’s going there knowing that they are better than us, on official ratings, Timeform ratings and Racing Post ratings we’re right there at the top of the tree with them all. We’re a Group One winner who ran a very good trial over an inadequate trip in the Guineas, so in that sense I think we’ve got a pretty rock-solid profile.
“The fact that we’re a £20,000 yearling makes us unfashionable and that’s probably why we’re 14-1 and 16-1 rather than 4-1 and 6-1, but there’s nothing in there that would scare me in that regard. There’s no horse that we’ve got 7lbs to 10lbs to find, if he gets the trip which we all expect him to, he’ll have every chance.”
Watch how Dubai Mile fared in the QIPCO 2000 Guineas when last seen
Dubai Mile provided jockey Daniel Muscutt with a first Group One success when winning the Criterium de Saint-Cloud last October and he will now provide the jockey with a first ride in the Epsom Derby.
And when asked to expand on how the partnership came about, Johnston explained it was rather born from coincidence.
He said: “It’s a twist of fate or whatever you want to call it that this horse broke his maiden on a fairly mundane Sunday at Windsor and at the time I think I was probably looking at jockeys who were available and who had a good record at Windsor and that’s how he ended up on the horse.
“We’re quite keen believers in keeping combinations together when we can and once he’d won on him the partnership stayed together ever since. A big factor we feel is confidence and without a shadow of a doubt he will have more confidence in this horse than anyone else that we could get to ride him. He will give no concern to what his starting price is or anything like that, or what anyone else thinks his chances are.
“Danny was doing a good job of putting himself on the map, but this horse has accelerated the process. He was his first Group One winner and he’s a horse that’s taken him into Classic races, so he’ll have the utmost confidence in the horse and his inexperience in a Derby doesn’t concern me.”
The three year old will provide a marquee moment as Johnston’s first runner in the Betfred Derby in his own right, though having been heavily involved with his father for a number of years, he revealed that it is a stat that’s he’s not paying too much attention to.
He continued: “Royal Patronage last year ran in both of our names, so I’m not going to be singing from that hymn sheet (that it’s his first Derby runner). In some ways I’ll be a bit embarrassed if we win it at the first try after dad has been trying for 30 years! It would be right up there with one of his biggest aims and goals.
“I certainly view it as a positive now that we’re getting to Epsom more consistently and that’s the first step. If you’re not in you can’t win. We were second with Dee Ex Bee and then we’ve had Permian, Gear Up and Royal Patronage in recent years, so we’ve had a number in recent years.”
Reflecting on Dubai Mile’s juvenile campaign, Johnston continued: “He was a horse who was always a bit under the radar at home. We went to Redcar first time out and were hopeful rather than confident, but all he’s done is improve with every run on the track and he is one who saves his best for the track.
“Going for the Royal Lodge was a bit of an ambitious roll of the dice at the time, because of his yearling price he’d been astutely placed to win two restricted novice races prior to that so I’d think the handicapper would have said he had no chance going into it.
“The market said that too but the fact that it was a small field and he had won his last two starts, plus the Royal Lodge is a race that we like and like to aim for and had a lot of success in persuaded us to roll the dice.
“It looks like we’ll bump into the Royal Lodge winner again (The Foxes). A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then for both horses. I got the impression up until York really that they were probably thinking he was a mile and a quarter horse and were looking at the French Derby, whereas we always knew where we were going and what we were doing.
“You shouldn’t get too ahead of yourself and assume he’ll stay the trip when he’s still untested, but we’ve always been very confident that this trip would improve him if anything.”
Although seen as one of the traditional trials for the Epsom Derby, the QIPCO 2000 Guineas is perhaps not as fashionable as it used to be as a port for Epsom Downs, and Johnston revealed that he was initially keen to swerve the one mile contest with Dubai Mile – who he feels is built for further trips.
He said: “I’ll be honest now in hindsight, I was never really all that keen on the Guineas. I had some fairly strong debates with dad and I sort of thought all winter that he would go to the Dante and then the Derby as that was the traditional trial and it was what we’d done with Gear Up who’d won the same race at Saint-Cloud a couple of years prior to that.
“The racecourse gallop at Newmarket probably tilted us enough to think that he won’t disgrace himself in the Guineas and we felt if he could run into third it would be a gamechanger for him in terms of his long term stallion value.
“Ahmad (Al Shaikh, owner) was always quite keen to go for the Guineas and in hindsight it was clearly the right decision, as there’s been a lot more interest in the horse since that run than before – everyone is taking him a lot more seriously now.
“I said beforehand going into the Guineas that if he finished in the first six and hit the line strong I would be delighted and that was exactly what the horse did, he read the script.
“It would have been lovely to get fourth and he probably would have done with another stride but for a horse that was going there in the knowledge that this trip was below his optimum – for all you go into a Classic giving 110% - he ran a perfect trial with Epsom in mind.
“Royal Patronage went from the Guineas to the Dante to the Derby last year and Roaring Lion did Craven, Guineas, Dante, Derby, but with the way things have fallen this year and the Guineas being quite late we decided to go there.
“Had there have been five weeks (between the Guineas and the Derby) we might have contemplated the Dante but once we looked at how the races fell in the calendar this year, going straight there was the obvious thing to do.
“I don’t think a 16-day turnaround would have been the worst thing, but there’s a bit more room for manoeuvre when you’ve got four weeks between races. He could have gone to Epsom on Monday but we didn’t feel it was necessary from a fitness point of view.
“He’ll do his final piece of work tomorrow, but that will just a be a leg stretch around here. He’s done a lot of galloping, a racecourse gallop and he’s run in the Guineas in the last 10 weeks, so I’ve no concerns about the fitness of the horse. It’s all about getting him there on the day now."
The forecast looks dry for Epsom Downs over the next 12 days, leading to concerns of a fast ground race for some contenders, though Johnston explained that it wasn’t too much of a concern for his charge.
He said: “The forecast means that it should be a Good To Firm Derby, I’m not sure if Mr Cooper will allow that, we’ll have to see, but there’s no rain forecast over the next 12 days. I’m sure Arrest’s camp are a lot more concerned about that than we are and that might go for a few towards the top of the market.
“We won our Group One race on heavy ground but we’re very relaxed about what the day brings and we’d probably rather it was quicker to inconvenience others.
“He takes everything very much in his stride. There’s been a lot made of it over the last couple of weeks and everyone will be going into the day with trepidation with what it might bring. It’s a concern for Epsom and for racing but it’s not a specific concern for this horse.
“Thankfully he’s a very relaxed horse, he’s been to different tracks in different countries and he’s always taken it in his stride. Any delay or disruption will be an inconvenience for all horses and we hope that doesn’t happen.
“I would have a lot of respect for the Harrington horse (Sprewell), who is probably the most overlooked in the market.
“Aidan (O’Brien) doesn’t get beaten in that Leopardstown trial! If you have beat him, you must have a good one. The picture has been a bit different this year, in the two trials you’d expect him to win the Harrington horse and the Murphy horse (White Birch) have won.”
Owner Ahmad Al Shaikh has already gone close to Derby glory with his first three runners including Khalifa Sat (2020) and Hoo Ya Mal (2022) – who both finished second.
Johnston said: “Ahmad has an amazing record in this race, he’s had two seconds now with huge-priced runners, so I’m sure he’s going there with as much expectation as ever! He’s been very fun to train for.
“A lot of owners are very generous to the staff when it comes to winning big races, but Ahmad flew a team from his favourite restaurant in London up here so we could have a huge lunch for all the staff.
“I don’t think the team have ever been made to feel more involved and part of a winner than Ahmad made them all feel at the back end of last year, so that was very special.
Reflecting further about what winning the Betfred Derby would mean, the Middleham handler continued: “We’re driven by winning at every level. Winning at the highest level has the biggest repercussions for Johnston Racing moving forward and we want it to be the norm for us to be competitive in this race and I want to continue to improve the quality of horses that are here.
“I think there always is a sense of northern pride with these things, for all that dad trained 5,000 winners. There’s a touch of ‘the lads up north coming down to take on the big boys’ about it, but we’re as big as anyone and dad’s record speaks for itself.
“I’m sure there’s plenty of local media that are excited, as this is probably the north’s first big chance to win the Derby since Dante (1945) – and even that wasn’t at Epsom. I don’t think there’s been a northern Epsom Derby winner for over 100 years or something, so it would be great for the north to do it, but winning it for Johnston Racing and Ahmad Al Shaikh is what I’m here for.”
Dubai Mile was bought for just £20,000 as a yearling at the Goffs Orby Sale by Johnston, who revealed that while he proved to be a slightly unexpected bargain, there were features which he feels may have put others off him.
He said: “To us he’s a very good-looking horse but bizarrely a lot of people would get put off by his markings for a start. The fact that he’s got so much white about him and when you take the saddle off he’s got white marks all over his withers – he must have had a fight with a fence as a yearling at some point!
“I don’t know if that would have been a factor for all that sounds a bit cosmetic, but his pedigree was what put us onto him. As is always the case at the sales, the pedigree is where we start and his is very strong. Lady O'Reilly is a very good breeder and we’re fortunate to have had horses for her in the past and do at the moment, so we always pay close attention to her horses.
“Another factor may well have been that the stallion (Roaring Lion) was already very sadly dead at the time, therefore he was never going to get the same support as most first season stallions do. There was no need for Tweenhills to be there supporting him and pumping up the prices and looking after yearling averages.
“I think we actually bought seven (by Roaring Lion) that year and we had a lot of success. I think he was also probably a bit of a weak and backwards yearling, so there was a multitude of factors that determined it.
“I’m not going to try and blow our own trumpet here and say that we knew right away. The reality is that we’d buy 70 yearlings roughly every year and a lot of them are in that kind of price bracket.
“If you ask me every year when we buy 20 of his pedigree that we’ll find one, I’ll say yes I was very confident, though I probably wouldn’t have said it was this horse until I saw him run in the Royal Lodge to be honest with you.”
The Betfred Derby is part of the QIPCO British Champions Series.
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