Ed Dunlop ready for emotional Derby with John Leeper, horse named after late dad and now ridden by Frankie Dettori
JOHN Leeper, the Derby winner, has a nice ring to it admits his trainer Ed Dunlop.
The backstory behind the horse, his name and breeding have the hallmarks of a Hollywood blockbuster.
And to make it a potential Oscar winner, along came Frankie Dettori at the last minute.
Named after Dunlop’s old man, the legendary ‘John Leeper Dunlop’, who won this famous race twice amongst ten classics, the pressure has always been on this chap.
From the moment owner Cristina Patino called Dunlop to let him know the news, the trainer kept his fingers-crossed he’d live up to the billing.
And boy oh boy has he done that. He’s arguably the best horse Dunlop has had in a decade and that would be cemented with a famous Derby win.
“It’s all a bit surreal, you couldn’t have thought it would turn out this way, it’s almost too good to be true,” Dunlop chuckled.
But laughs aside, it’s a big day for the Dunlop family and there surely won’t be a dry eye in the house if John Leeper does triumph.
The Newmarket trainer, 52, continued: “Sadly the only thing missing here is my father, he’d have been on hand with some advice I know that.
“‘Keep it simple, keep it simple son’, he would have kept telling me. I think he’d find all the hype and build-up amusing.
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“As everyone knows he won the Derby twice, I’ve only managed fifth, three times.
“But look, it will be an emotional day for us all to even be there, let alone if he runs a big race or dare I say win the thing. A Derby winner named after my father, I couldn’t put into words what that would mean.”
It’s not just the family connection that has the film directors purring, the colours and the breeding only add to the storylines.
John Leeper’s dam is Snow Fairy, Dunlop’s brillant 2010 Oaks winner. Ryan Moore was on board that day, but Dettori was a regular pilot on the superstar later in her globetrotting career.
So now 11 years later, the story has gone full circle with Dettori back in the yellow and red colours of Mrs Patino on the biggest stage of all.
And like all good films, a late twist only adds to the drama.
Dunlop said: “Frankie is Frankie, once he became available I was asked to put the question to him.
“He rode Snow Fairy for us and Mrs Patino was always hopeful of getting him to ride John Leeper at some point.
“We tried to get him a few weeks back but he’s been riding for Aidan in England this year. Of course it’s not how we wanted it to happen but it’s a no-brainer to have Frankie.
“He came in on Thursday morning for the first time and said he was a lovely horse, well-balanced and he was excited to ride him.
“It would have been a bit embarrassing if he’d said he didn’t like him, mind you!”
Like a lot of the big meetings and races, the Irish have dominated the Derby in recent years.
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At Epsom, O’Brien and his band of Galileos have come out on top six times since 2012 and there have only been three British-trained winners since 2008.
That might be why some question whether the Derby is still the biggest race on the Flat, but to Dunlop he will retire a happy man if he can one day win it.
He said: “A lot of people have bought into the name and colours, but not many people have mentioned he’s a British runner and there haven’t been many winners from here in recent years.
“Aidan wins it every year as we all know and even with one runner this year he’ll probably win it again!
“But to us it’s still the pinnacle, it’s the race I’d love to win more than any in the world as a trainer. It’s just special, the biggest test of a horse, jockey and dare I say trainer, too.
“There’s been a real buzz in Newmarket, everyone has got sucked into the hype which is what this sport should be about.
“Mr Haggas has a very nice contender too and it’s been great for the town and obviously our yard too.
“Everyone here is really excited, we haven’t had a star in a good few years and the Derby has come up very quickly on us and the horse as it always does.”
Sentiment aside, the big question will be whether John Leeper can deliver on the track. After all, the horse doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.
Dunlop laughed: “He’s just Johnny in the yard, so he thankfully doesn’t feel the pressure like I do.
“Everything has gone plain-sailing in the last week or so, all we can do now is pray. We’re nervous, but we’re excited.
“Can he win the Derby? I don’t know, I’ve never trained the winner of one! But my father has and hopefully he'll be looking down to give us a bit of luck.”
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