The Derby is a race for immortality – as well as victory

The thrill of The Derby horse race is that winners are born from champions, not made, says Simon Barnes

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It’s not really about galloping at the speed of light. It’s about living for ever. That’s the meaning of horse racing over the flat; that’s the meaning of the Classics, the five great races for three-year-old horses; and above all, that’s the meaning of the Derby.

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Football is a battle, tennis is a duel, cricket is life and death, but horse racing is about the Darwinian struggle for life: not just your own life but your stake in the next generation. Only the best survive, only the very best breed, only the best of all become ancestors; it’s the principle that governs horse racing.

A horse that wins the Derby around that mad switchbacking Epsom course needs speed, stamina, balance, courage – and above all, a sense of entitlement. Where better to look for such qualities than in a horse who’s already won it?

But you can only run in the Derby once. It’s a race for three-year-old colts – male horses coming to full sexual maturity. So for your next Derby winner, you can do a lot worse than look at the sons of past Derby winners.

Derby-winning horses win more than prize money for their owners. They also win access to all the best mares. These mares, mostly ex-racers themselves and also tested over the racecourses of the world, will bear a foal every year, with luck. A top stallion will cover up to 200 mares in a year: resulting in close to 200 foals, all bearing 50 per cent of his victorious genes.

When the horses race in the Derby, they are racing for immortality: for the right to pass their genes on. The greatest of these produce offspring that in turn win the biggest races and keep the genetic line going.

Northern Dancer had three sons that won the Derby, and many of his sons were also outstanding at stud. Northern Dancer was a sire of sires and his genes have flooded through racehorses for generations.

The fastest horses are bred from the fastest horses, but the gift of speed and the ability to race are wayward and capricious.

A couple that produces a champion one year might produce a dud the next. It’s a world that lacks all certainties.

There’s a saying in racing: cheap horses know it. It sounds daft, but it isn’t – when you invest in a leading sire, you’re buying a high place in the horsey hierarchy. You hope that the resulting foal will have the force of personality that keeps the rest behind him when he grows up; horses may not know they are competing for broodmares, but they sure as hell know they’re competing.

When the horses turn Tattenham Corner and enter the long straight, it’s not just about whether Aidan O’Brien’s cavalry from Ireland will beat the great international Godolphin enterprise, and neither is it just about a fiver on the nose of your own fancy (Cliffs of Moher?).

For the horses themselves it’s the ultimate test, offering the ultimate prize. Northern Dancer’s son Nijinsky won the Derby in 1970 and Nijinsky became a leading sire in his turn. Their genes live for ever – and can be found in many of the horses running in the Derby.  

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Racing Live: The Derby is on Saturday 1.30pm (race 4.30pm) ITV, 4.30pm 5 Live