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The Derby: Gosden hopes to be on song with Western Hymn

IF the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the path to the Investec Derby roll of honour is strewn with the shattered hopes of those who came, saw, but did not conquer at Epsom.

John Gosden, right,  accompanies his runners during a workout at Epsom last week                                                                      Photograph: Getty
John Gosden, right, accompanies his runners during a workout at Epsom last week Photograph: Getty

The effort of preparing a three-year-old colt for the race of his young life might be like climbing Everest but the Derby itself is more akin to skiing down the Hahnenkamm.

All was quiet when John Gosden brought Western Hymn for a practice gallop last week, nothing like it will be on Saturday, nor in 1977 when Gosden was assistant trainer to Vincent O'Brien and it was his task to deliver The Minstrel to the start.

This was no easy job as horses then had to be led through the infield, past the funfair and gypsy encampment, all of which were potential detonators that could turn a racehorse into an explosive device on four hooves.

"We had to stuff cotton wool into his ears and lead him across the gypsy encampment where you should have heard the instructions that Lester Piggott was being given vocally and loudly by a number of gypsies. Lester had wanted to ride Blushing Groom, who was the favourite, but he wound up having to ride The Minstrel, who had been beaten on both Guineas."

Gosden ran back just in time to see The Minstrel beat Hot Grove by a short-head, with the non-staying Blushing Groom down the field, but he had the grandstand position for his own two Derby moments.

In 1995 he could only watch as Tamure and Presenting were swept into the placings by Lammtarra's late run and then, two years later, endured a nerve-shredding denouement when Benny The Dip held off the late run of Silver Patriarch to win in a photo-finish.

That was the year when some bright spark came up with the idea of speeches from the winning connections. No problem usually for the urbane and articulate Gosden but, for once, his emotions got the better of him when his voice cracked as his thoughts turned back to childhood days.

This triumph was not simply the tick at the top of his career to-do list but the righting of what he had always felt was a wrong because his father, Towser, would have saddled 1966 Derby winner Charlottown but for having to relinquish his licence through illness.

"It was a bit difficult," Gosden said with a grin. "It was a jittery 'thank you for coming' speech and I made it sound like a garden fate. I think my father should have won the race and he didn't, so it was a bit of a family thing that needed to be done."

Last autumn what needed to be done by Gosden was an educational run for Western Hymn, who was not seen out until winning a maiden at Kempton in December. Having made up for that lost time, with wins at Newbury and in the Classic Trial at Sandown in April, Gosden has spent the past six weeks building his horse to peak for a day that has been ringed on the calendar since he was foaled.

After the workout, Gosden said: "He handled the hill well, switched his legs properly, went over the crossing and the head carriage was perfect. It's hard to get one to run a mile-and-a-half on the first Saturday in June on a track like this and legitimately belong in the race. There aren't many that do. You go to the sales and there aren't that many horses bred to go a mile-and-a-half. And it's a bold thing to try to breed a Derby horse because you can often end up with a lot of two-mile hurdlers.

"It's a race that puts demands on agility, on stamina, on speed and on mental pressure as well. And you'll always notice that by the finish how far they're strung out. But that's why the ones who come through are the best. It's the Spartan rules, looking for the ultimate athlete who has the right mental composure."

Trainer John Oxx spoke of an "invisible wall" two furlongs out that would separate the stayers from the hangers-on before Sea The Stars won in 2009 and Gosden admitted to his own concerns over Western Hymn.

"I'm just a little worried about stamina," he said. "But don't tell the owner - I don't want to depress him before the r ace."

Western Hymn came and saw Epsom last week. Saturday will prove whether he can conquer.

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