Derby punters' heads on Bolshoi Ballet, hearts with John Leeper

·3 min read

Bolshoi Ballet is the punters choice to give trainer Aidan O'Brien a ninth Epsom Derby and a 41st British classic breaking a record that has stood for almost 150 years later on Saturday.

However, it is John Leeper, a horse named after the late two-time Derby winning trainer John Leeper Dunlop and trained by his son Ed who may well attract the more romantically-inclined punters.

Only 12 go to post with O'Brien surprising many by just running Bolshoi Ballet -- it is the first time he has had just the one runner since 2004.

Bolshoi Ballet if victorious would see O'Brien become the all-time record-holder for British classic wins -- John Scott also won 40 between 1827 and 1863.

"We knew he was a very special horse last year and he's done everything we have asked of him," O'Brien told ITV.

"The Derby means everything it is the pinnacle of a horse's career and the ultimate test of balance, courage and stamina.

"There are many different aspects and twists and turns which can affect the mentality of the horse even before you get to the start.

"Galileo (the sire/father of Bolshoi Ballet and who won the 2001 Derby) for me was the ultimate racehorse."

- 'Surreal' -

O'Brien is well accustomed to the winners enclosure at Epsom but for Dunlop junior it would be the first time he enters it as a Derby winning trainer, though, he has won two Oaks.

There will hardly be a dry eye on the course from the 4000 spectators -- the maximum permitted under coronavirus protocols -- should John Leeper prevail.

"Everyone wants the Derby to produce a sentimental story and this is a lovely sentimental story," Dunlop told AFP.

"It is surreal to have a son of a champion I trained, surreal him making it to the Derby and to have it named after your father is even more surreal -- and quite a lot of pressure," added Dunlop.

An added bonus for John Leeper is he will have Frankie Dettori on board, the superstar jockey moving onto 21 British classic wins on Friday with a record 16 length success in the Oaks on Snowfall.

There will also be a lump in the throat of many turfistes should the William Haggas-trained Mohaafeth triumph.

His owner Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum died in March -- his colours were last carried to victory in the blue riband of flat racing by Erhaab in 1994, trained by Dunlop senior.

For his jockey Jim Crowley it would be his first Britidsh classic win and is forever indebted to Sheikh Hamdan for appointing him his first choice jockey in 2016.

"I'm just sorry Sheikh Hamdan can't be there to wish us well," he told the Yorkshire Post.

"Hopefully he will be looking down on us. I owe him a lot."

The race may lack a star horse but stories aplenty abound.

Andrew Balding sends to post Youth Spirit, 50 years since his father Ian trained the magnificent champion Mill Reef to win the Derby.

"The whole Balding family -– all they do comes from the legacy that Ian Balding has created and I'm privileged to ride for them in the Derby on such a special anniversary," Youth Spirit's jockey Tom Marquand told The Yorkshire Post.

Jim Bolger was 29-years-old when Mill Reef won at Epsom but half a century on the legendary Irish trainer has a live chance to win his second Derby with Mac Swiney.

Bolger a sprightly looking 79 -- neither a drinker nor a smoker -- is seeking a third classic win of the season and Mac Swiney arrives on the back of a win in the Irish 2000 Guineas.

It is very much a family affair as the horse runs in his wife's colours and his son-in-law 54-year-old Kevin Manning rides him.