Donn's Articles » Ebor meeting

Ebor meeting

The York Ebor meeting is not the Cheltenham Festival. It is not a meeting to which we build up for nine or 12 months and on which the success or failure of an entire season can depend. We do not send hoards of horses and punters across the Irish Sea on a mass-plundering mission, nor use the number of winners that we have during the week as a barometer by which the health of the entire Irish racing and breeding industry can be measured. Even so, it is an important week in the narrative of the Flat season, and Irish horses excelled, winning two of the three Group 1 races as well as the Ebor itself.

Tuesday was a crucial day for Rip Van Winkle, the Juddmonte International the next step in a season during which Aidan O’Brien is allowing him gradually make his way into the deep waters of competition rather than pitching him into the middle of the ocean and seeing how he goes. You can do that with a four-year-old, the season isn’t front-loaded like a three-year-old’s is.

Last year, Rip Van Winkle’s season exploded into action out of necessity, Guineas, Derby, Eclipse, three Group 1 races in the space of two months, three Group 1 defeats before the kids had got their summer holidays. He did find his feet last year, so to speak, winning the Sussex Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes before he came up short in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November, by which time he had been on the go for seven months. They’re not machines.

This year, O’Brien is allowing the horse determine his programme of races rather than having his schedule dictated by the racing calendar. He spoke on Tuesday of letting the races come to the horse, of allowing the season develop for him. It’s a different attitude, relax and it will happen. There were no early-May Classics this season, no Guineas, no Derby for which he had to be at concert-pitch before the swallows had finished re-furbishing their nests. It is significant that the son of Galileo didn’t make his seasonal debut until Royal Ascot this year, two weeks after the Derby winner had been lauded, and that, even then, the vibe from Ballydoyle was that he would come on appreciably for the run.

You can’t over-estimate the regard in which Rip Van Winkle is held at Ballydoyle. Johnny Murtagh has always sworn by him, and Aidan does that thing when he speaks about one of the special horses, when you feel that it is a huge effort for him to refrain from exploding into lavish superlative. When you set the bar of expectation as high as you can reach, there is always a chance that the reality will fall some way short, but even now, with three Group 1 races already in the bag, you feel that there is more to come, you are greedy for more.

A top class racehorse can prevail even when things conspire against him, and Tuesday’s Juddmonte International wasn’t run to suit Rip Van Winkle. Murtagh suggested afterwards that it would have been better if the now-retired King George winner Harbinger had been in the race, because at least then they would have gone a proper gallop. Pace-setter Stimulation seemed to make his way down the back straight as quickly as was comfortable for him, but it wasn’t quickly enough to make it a true test, and when the two Juddmonte horses Byword and Twice Over led the sprint and went clear a furlong out, it looked like Prince Khalid Abdullah was going to recoup the lion’s share of the money that he had put up to sponsor the race.

Murtagh hadn’t gone for everything at that stage, but it was taking a while, so much so that Rip Van Winkle traded at 64/1 in-running. It looked as if the rider had gone straight for fourth gear from second, and that the horse was busy building up the revs. When he did, however, the result was impressive, taking him with a surging run down the near side, past first Byword and then Twice Over, to a half-length victory.

Options for Rip Van Winkle now are expansive. A bid for back-to-back victories in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes is one option, but the evidence that he is more effective at 10 furlongs than he is at a mile is compelling now, and it may be that he will be kept to the intermediate distance. That makes the Irish Champion Stakes a real option. The race had already been mentioned as a possible stepping stone for Fame And Glory en route to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, but there is the option of re-routing the son of Montjeu to the Prix Foy at Longchamp.

Whatever his next step is, the option to round off Rip Van Winkle’s season in the Breeders’ Cup Classic again is real. The Breeders’ Cup will be run at Churchill Downs this year, so the Classic will be run on traditional American dirt, not on the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita that so favoured European horses in general for the last two years. However, Rip Van Winkle is a horse with a tremendous ability to gallop, a trait that is generally well suited to dirt. With the foot problems that plagued him last season now apparently behind him, and an upward curve to buoy him, another trip Stateside may be difficult to resist for his global-minded connections.

If Rip Van Winkle’s win in the Juddmonte International was fairly predictable, in the sense that Alberto Contador’s win in this year’s Tour de France was fairly predictable, then Sole Power’s win in the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes on Friday simply was not, in the sense that aliens being discovered living and working in Westport is not.

Sole Power had won just two of the 11 races that he had contested before Friday, a maiden and a conditions race, both at Dundalk. He had failed to win in eight previous runs on turf. He had shaped with a degree of promise when fourth in the Palace House Stakes at Newmarket in May, but that was only a Group 3 race, he was still fairly well beaten by Equiano, with whom he was 7lb worse off, and he had disappointed in both of his runs since.

In fairness to trainer Eddie Lynam, he did think that the race would be run to suit, that the fast pace would help the horse settle, and he was given a fine ride by Wayne Lordan, who got his horse racing just off the pace before delivering him on the near side. There was a sense, when Starspangledbanner began to make his ground, that he was going to prevail, only because he was the 6/4 favourite and because Sole Power was a 100/1 shot, but the Aidan O’Brien-trained Australian import was never really going to get there, the distance probably too short for him by about a furlong.

It was just the second time in history that a Group 1 race in the UK has been won by a 100/1 shot, and this one was an even greater bookmakers’ benefit than your average 100/1 shot, given that the horse is owned by Sabena Power, mother of Paddy Power of the eponymous betting firm.

Dirar crowned a fine week for Irish trainers when he landed the Totesport Ebor on Wednesday. Expertly handled by that top National Hunt trainer Gordon Elliott, who would have been known to most casual UK racegoers outside of Perth only as the trainer of 2007 Grand National winner Silver Birch, Dirar was last seen finishing third behind Overturn when sent off as favourite for the Galway Hurdle last month.

“He’s a great little horse for the size of him,” said Elliott afterwards. “An honest little rat.”

Dirar may be off to Dubai for the winter, before coming back for another crack at the Galway Hurdle next year. For a trainer who had winners at Tramore, Roscommon and Kilbeggan last week as well as at York, why not Dubai?

© The Sunday Times, 22nd August 2010