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Epsom Downs, home of The Derby and The Oaks, is one of the most idiosyncratic racecourses in the world, but it has a rival for that title close to home in the form of Chester, where the Boodles May Festival will take place this year from Wednesday 8th to Friday 10th inclusive.
Both tracks involve a turning left-handed circuit in close proximity to large crowds on both sides of the racing strip. The Chester circuit is, in addition, little more than a mile in length, hemmed in by the city walls on one side, the River Dee on another and a railway line on the third.
There is nothing quite like Chester anywhere else, and to be successful at it requires the kind of agility and indefatigability that often pays off at Epsom a few weeks later.
It is no surprise, therefore, that plenty of Classic contenders have turned up at Chester over the years as part of their preparations for Epsom itself.
There are three recognised trials, starting with the Arkle Finance Cheshire Oaks and MBNA Chester Vase on Wednesday and concluding with the Homeserve Dee Stakes on Thursday. Each has, at various times, featured future Classic winners and Classic-placed horses, and not just among those to have won, either.
THE CHESTER VASE has the most illustrious roll of honour of all, including the 20th Century Derby winners Papyrus, Hyperion, Windsor Lad, Henbit and Shergar, and the 2013 Derby winner Ruler Of The World. Wings Of Eagles finished second in the Vase in 2017 before going one better on the first Saturday in June.
THE DEE STAKES was also Group 3 until downgraded to Listed status after the 2013 edition, which, ironically, featured one of the best horses in its over-200-year history, the future Irish 2000 Guineas and Breeders’ Cup Turf hero Magician.
The race was won by the Derby winners Oath in 1999 and Kris Kin in 2003, while the 2017 winner Cliffs Of Moher went onto be second at Epsom to the aforementioned Wings Of Eagles.
THE CHESHIRE OAKS may have only Listed status as well, but recent years have seen it fall to the subsequent Oaks winners Light Shift (2007) and Enable (2017), while 12 months ago it went to Magic Wand from Forever Together prior to their finishing fourth and first respectively at Epsom a few weeks later.
The truth is that the good horses to have won and contested the trio of races are too numerous to mention, so I took a trip down Memory Lane to identify the top half a dozen winners of each in the last 50 years judged by their Timeform Racehorses ratings in the year in question. This is what I found.
The greatest of them all, and one of the greatest horses of all time, is Shergar, who won the 1981 Chester Vase by a remarkable 12 lengths before claiming the Derby at Epsom by a margin of 10 lengths which remains a record to this day.
Shergar went onto win the Irish Derby in a canter, and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot readily, before disappointing in the St Leger and gaining a tragic notoriety by being abducted when at stud.
That year of 1981 was quite a one for the colts’ trials at Chester, as the Dee Stakes went by six lengths to Kirtling – who had been a distant second to Shergar in the Classic Trial at Sandown – on his way to success at Group 1 level in Italy and second-placing in the equivalent of the International Stakes at York.
One of the great winners of the Cheshire Oaks had come the year before, when Shoot A Line had scored by five lengths on her way (via a flop in The Oaks itself) to winning at Royal Ascot, York and Doncaster, as well as accounting for the Cheshire Oaks second Little Bonny once more in the Irish Oaks at the Curragh.
The 1974 Cheshire Oaks winner Dibidale was even better according to Timeform, subsequently winner of the Irish Oaks and Yorkshire Oaks, and an unlucky third at Epsom, where her saddle slipped 2f out.
As can be seen, the late-1980s was a halcyon period for Classic trials at Chester, courtesy of the likes of Sir Harry Lewis, Unfuwain, Braiswick and Old Vic. The last-named broke the course record at Chester before winning by clear-cut margins at Chantilly and the Curragh.
But, the glory days at Chester, where racing was recorded as taking place as long ago as 1540, are not just ancient history, by any means.
In particular, the 2017 Cheshire Oaks figures on the CV of one of the best female racehorses of all time, Enable, who won by a mere length and three-quarters on the Roodee then by an average of five at Epsom, the Curragh, Ascot and York, before winning the first of her two Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes at Longchamp at the end of her classic season.
Last year’s Chester Vase winner Young Rascal ended up being one of its best, rated 125p at season’s end by Timeform, but managed just seventh at Epsom, where the runner-up to him at Chester, Dee Ex Bee, put his experience to good use in finishing second to Masar.
It is surely too much to hope that this year’s Boodles May Festival will produce a Shergar or an Enable, but it could produce a Young Rascal, a Magic Wand, a Dee Ex Bee, a Forever Together or a Cliffs Of Moher.
One thing is for sure, whichever horses come out on top at this year’s Boodles May Festival, they are likely to have proved a high level of speed, stamina and adaptability, as well as superior ability.