LIFTING THE LID: We catch up with Middleham trainer CHARLIE JOHNSTON for his views on his two runners Dubai Mile and Dear My Friend in Saturday’s Derby and what the race means to him.
The significance of the Derby
It’s still got to be regarded as just about the greatest race in the world. For any trainer, at any point in their career, it would be a huge milestone to win the Derby. It’s the race that the thoroughbred has revolved around for hundreds of years now and to win it is an ambition of every trainer. For me to do it in my first season, when there’s that little bit extra scrutiny, then it would be a real game changer.
Dee Ex Bee is the closest we as a yard have come to winning the Derby. He had a great run when finishing second in 2018. Mister Baileys was quite a memory too, as turning Tattenham Corner he was 10 lengths clear. It was a phenomenal race to watch, I was only four years old at the time and it’s probably one of my earliest racing memories. Sadly, on the day, either he didn’t quite stay or Jason’s [Weaver] ride was just a bit too aggressive!
It’s different this year with the 1:30pm start time. We would always travel our horses down the night before, so in that sense it doesn’t change our routine too much. The horses will be heading down from here on Friday lunchtime and will stay at Epsom on Friday night.
Dubai Mile’s owner Ahmad Al Shaikh and the Green Team racing have had some great success in the Derby in recent years – second in 2020 and 2022 – so for Ahmad and his family, this is a race that means a huge amount to them.
I went on record before the 2000 Guineas saying that if Dubai Mile (pictured below) finished in the first six and hit the line strongly, I would find that a really pleasing Derby trial, and that’s exactly what he went on to do. You don’t go into a Classic treating it as a trial, you go in giving 110 percent and wanting to win, but we knew that it was going to be a trip short of this horse’s best. We always had half an eye on the Derby, that was the real D-Day for this horse.
He first showed he might be in this kind of class when he finished second to The Foxes in the Royal Lodge and then followed that by winning the Group 1 in Saint-Cloud in October. The Derby has been the aim since that day.
The Foxes was just in front of him in the Royal Lodge and we were just ahead of Arrest in Saint-Cloud, so we took plenty of heart from how those horses performed in the Dante and at Chester.
Dubai Mile has never run beyond a mile and a quarter, but everything about the horse tells us that he should stay. The way he was able to slug it out over a mile and a quarter in heavy ground as a two-year-old, at that point we were confident he would stay a mile and a half this year.
The track is going to be something new for him, but he’s a well-balanced horse. Daniel [Muscutt] commented how well he came down the dip in his racecourse gallop at Newmarket and in the Guineas itself. While you can’t compare that with Epsom, whenever this horse has been challenged with any kind of difficulty in terms of topography, he’s seemed to handle it, which gives me confidence heading to Epsom.
Dear My Friend
Dear My Friend (pictured below) also goes to the Derby. We were a little bit underwhelmed with his run in the Dante as we went there with greater aspirations. In hindsight we felt it was a bit of a messy race and he never really got into a nice rhythm.
We’re under no illusions that he’s a big outsider and it’s a tough ask. He’s unproven over the trip and on pedigree it looks a real question mark, but physically he’s the type of horse that has the scope to stay a mile and a half.
Since Middleham Park put up the money to get him into the race, this has been their dream. He went in at the second entry stage, and I think it was around £10,000 they had to pay, which is serious money to stump up. It’s a great opportunity for a syndicate horse to run in the Derby.
Middleham Park are used to competing at the highest level on a regular basis now, but it would still be a momentous achievement for them if he could get into the shake up.
There’s a lot of talk about protests that might happen on the day. That could have a real bearing on some horses, but I’d like to think Dubai Mile and Dear My Friend are both well equipped to deal with it. Dubai Mile has travelled abroad, won a Group 1 in France and been to a lot of different tracks, so in that sense he’s got the right temperament to deal with whatever might happen on the day.
It’s such a new thing for racing to be faced with that it’s hard to prepare for. I think we all have to go there trying to conduct business as usual, stay calm and deal with the day as it comes.
We have to be careful not to pander too much to the ill-informed when it comes to the welfare in racing. I’m a qualified vet, dad is a qualified vet, and we have two full-time vets at the yard. Welfare drives everything we do, so for anyone to try and insinuate that our horses aren’t well cared for is just a lack of understanding.
I think we need to stand up and be perhaps a little more vociferous in our protection of the sport. Obviously, that’s difficult in scenarios like protests at the Derby, so we’re going to have to be careful about the message we convey to the wider public, but we need to make sure racing is on the front foot and prepared for what’s to come. We’ve got to continue to move forward to sell and protect our product to show people what a fantastic sport this is.
The Oaks: Running Lion offers value against the favourite.
I was at Chester the day Savethelastdance won (pictured below) and I have to say it was a strange race. From the three-furlong marker to the two, I was quite confident our runner Sirona was going to win and if she wasn’t going to win she’d finish second at worst. In the end she was beaten about 30 lengths.
Savethelastdance just kept galloping when everything else stopped. She’s now going to be faced with a very different test at Epsom. Is there any value in her price? I’d say probably not.
The value for me is probably Running Lion. I was impressed with her in the Pretty Polly. The way she hit the line that day, you would think she would stay. I think of those towards the head of the market, she probably has the strongest claims.
The Derby: Dubai Mile has little to find on form
You have to have huge respect for Aidan’s runners, and if he says Auguste Rodin is the one, then he’s the one. From a personal point of view though, I could see the excuses for Little Big Bear in the Guineas much more than I could see them for Auguste Rodin.
Military Order was impressive at Lingfield, but I don’t think there was a huge amount of strength in depth in that race.
I think the strongest trial was the Dante and therefore you’ve got to have The Foxes and White Birch in there as the biggest dangers.
One horse that’s also starting to go under the radar is Sprewell, who won what is typically one of the strongest trials in Ireland.
I think we’re [Dubai Mile] at around 14/1 in the market and on form we’ve got very little to find with the horses at the top of the betting.