If you thought that the real appeal of horse racing lay in the possibility of making large sums of tax-free cash rather than the actual equine rally itself, then Vodafone Derby is quite frankly not the game to change your mind. Eschewing the glamour, gambling and hats, Vodafone Derby places you in the boots, cap and racing jacket of the diminutive Frankie Dettori and asks you to select a steed and ride it to victory in a 13-race world championship. It's an intriguing premise by all accounts and to be honest first impressions are pretty good. There’s a nice jaunty menu track, a selection of horses with different statistics to choose from, a variety of tracks to start your quest and a training mode complete with pop up Frankie to help you get used to the basic controls. In addition to the basics of speeding up, slowing down and moving the horse left and right there’s a reaction-based starting procedure to master (press the button at the right time to get out of the traps quickly) and a stamina bar which must be monitored.
Should you push your horse too hard and let this bar run-out then its pretty much race over as your four-legged mount slows to a stop, which is generally not considered a good thing in racing circles.
Hence, although you do have to do a little ‘steering’ to avoid or block off the 7 other horses in the field and ensure that you get a good inside line on the bends, the real challenge here is more about tactical race pacing. It’s all very well sprinting out of the traps and leading by 4 lengths at the halfway stage, but if you’ve not got enough stamina left to do anything but amble down the final length then you’re not going to be in the winners enclosure. Far better to stay in with the pack for the first stage and then pick your moment to breakaway, using the whip to add a little extra boost and show your sleepy opposition a clean pair of hooves when they’ve got less time to react. This tactical challenge is heightened by the different circuits having different ground conditions and lengths which should suit some tactics and horses better than others.
Or at least that’s the plan. Where the game pulls up is in the fact that these variations seem to make precious little difference to the challenge at all. For starters most courses seem virtually identical offering only one bend to traverse (with the exception of the final Australian cup), there are only 2 lengths of race (10 furlongs and 12.5 furlongs) and there appears to be only 2 sorts of ground condition (grass or sandy dirt), what happened to good-to-firm or soft? Whilst our first chosen horse seemed to win marginally more easily on the brown-stuff over the shorter track, he also steamed home relatively comfortably on turf, especially when we adopted our favoured tactic of sitting in the pack conserving energy until the bend and then going all out for the line. Hence we rattled through the first set of courses pretty rapidly to unlock the more exotic climbs of the Far East. Despite their location however these tracks looked remarkably similar and indeed where defeated with similar ease as the game rapidly turned into a procession en route to us winning the world championship by some margin. Whilst the computer opponents seemed to adopt different tactics, they could do very little to prevent our success, not even trying to block us off as we headed for the line (one of our favourite tactics!)
Perhaps the addition of a handicapping system into a future version could help matters as could some sort of financial element, prize-money or a betting mode where your consistent victories would at least be reflected in falling odds. As it stands however Vodafone Derby offers only short term thrills [witty sign off featuring famous jockey removed for legal reasons].