Donn's Articles » Irish Derby

Irish Derby

It is five years since this afternoon’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby was won by a horse that didn’t reside at Ballydoyle. The last four winners of the race, Fame And Glory, Frozen Fire, Soldier Of Fortune and Dylan Thomas, were all trained by Aidan O’Brien. Also, even though Hurricane Run was trained by Andre Fabre, and Kieren Fallon wore the colours of Gestut Ammerland when he rode him to victory on this day five years ago, he was effectively a Coolmore horse who raced in Michael Tabor’s colours when he won the Arc three months later.

Irish Derby day is generally a good day for the Ballydoyle/Coolmore team. In stark contrast to the Epsom Derby, a race that they haven’t managed to win since 2002, Aidan O’Brien has trained the last four winners of the Irish Derby, and six of the last nine. On top of that, the trainer was responsible for the first, second and fourth horses home last year, the first and third in 2008, and the first, second and third in 2007. In the last three renewals of the Irish Derby, O’Brien has remarkably supplied seven of the nine placed horses.

No fewer than 52 of the 136 Irish Derby runners since he first won it with Desert King in 1997 were trained by Aidan O’Brien. That’s over 38% of the total number of runners. Without the presence of the Ballydoyle horses, there would have been five runners in the Irish Derby last year, six in 2008 and seven in 2007. In fairness, to say that the Irish Derby owes a lot of its strength to Ballydoyle is a bit like saying that the World Cup would not be the competition that it is without the South Americans, O’Brien is an integral part of the race, but the degree to which one trainer is dominant in the premier Irish Classic is quite astonishing.

All week, the conjecture has been over what the master of Ballydoyle would run and what Johnny Murtagh would ride. When one yard is historically so dominant in a race, the make-up and perceived pecking order of its team is the logical starting point for any race analysis. Jan Vermeer was installed as favourite when the ante post market was formed on Tuesday, but then the money came for Cape Blanco, and the speculation that Murtagh would ride his French Derby partner instead of his Epsom Derby partner gathered momentum.

If Jan Vermeer fell a little way below expectations in finishing fourth at Epsom, however, Cape Blanco fell well short in finishing 10th in the Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly the following day. An impressive winner of the Dante at York, conqueror of subsequent Epsom Derby hero Workforce, it was an unusual move for Aidan O’Brien to divert one of his main would-be Epsom Derby prospects to Chantilly. O’Brien has never won the French Derby, not because he doesn’t have the ammunition, but simply because, historically, every Ballydoyle horse who has a realistic chance of winning the Epsom Derby – and some who don’t – run at Epsom, not at Chantilly.

Perhaps the re-routing of Cape Blanco represented a slight shift in policy at Ballydoyle, but the general feeling then seemed to be that the 10-and-a-half-furlong trip of the French Derby would suit the horse better than the 12-furlong trip at Epsom. His dam was a sprinter, a half-sister to top sprinter Paris House, and his best sibling was a miler. At first glance, you would have thought that his optimum distance would be somewhere between five and eight furlongs. But he is by Galileo, dual Derby winner and stamina influence, and he didn’t seem to be stopping at the end of the Dante.

There has obviously been a re-think regarding his stamina because, if he is going to win today, he is going to have to fully stay the 12-furlong trip. There is no hiding place over a mile and a half at The Curragh. Also, he has to bounce back from that disappointing run in the Prix du Jockey Club. Neither his trainer nor his jockey has been able to put forward an explanation for his poor performance that day. The ground was a bit loose on top, he got a bump early on and that may have upset him, are the straws to which his backers today are clutching. It was just one of those things, is the most likely explanation, too bad to be true, an off day – horses have them too.

There were five entries from Ballydoyle in the Irish Derby at the five-day declaration stage, and all five, including Derrinstown winner Midas Touch and Epsom Derby runner-up At First Sight, are set to line up. All have chances. Just because Cape Blanco is the stable jockey’s choice, it doesn’t mean that he is certain to finish in front of his stable companions. In 2007, Kieren Fallon chose to ride Eagle Mountain and Seamie Heffernan won the race on Soldier Of Fortune. In 2008, Johnny Murtagh chose Alessandro Volta, and again Heffernan won it on Frozen Fire. It is an issue that is not unique to The Curragh. In the eight years since Galileo won the Epsom Derby as the lone Ballydoyle shooter when there has been more than one Ballydoyle representative in the Epsom race, only twice has the stable jockey chosen the best-placed finisher.

Where the two Derbies do differ, however, is in the subsequent exploits of their victors. It is quite astounding that seven of the last 14 Epsom Derby winners, not including Workforce, failed to win again. By contrast, this afternoon’s race has been used as a springboard by most. Nine of the last 10 Irish Derby winners went on to win at least once more at Group 1 level, most of them several times more, while 12 of the last 13 winners posted a higher Timeform rating later in the careers than they did when they won the race.

But that is just good food for thought for tomorrow, when thoughts can turn to options for today’s winner, the King George or the Irish Champion Stakes or the Arc de Triomphe or a combination thereof. If history is any guide, today is probably just the beginning for whatever horse wins the Irish Derby. For now, however, today is all that matters.

© The Sunday Times, 27th June, 2010