Donn's Articles » Flat season highlights

Flat season highlights

Strange thing, the Irish Flat racing season ending on Friday 10th December. By 10th December in any normal year, we are into the teeth of the National Hunt season. All the top early-season races have been run, and the language is National Hunt: when we talk about the King George, we mean the three-mile chase at Kempton, not the mile-and-a-half flat race at Ascot.

This year is a little different. The Siberian conditions that we have endured over the last two weeks have resulted in a severe rationing of National Hunt racing and the postponement of some of the top contests. Also, the three-way battle for the apprentice riders’ championship maintained interest in the Flat season right up until the very last ember had glowed its final glow. And there were many highlights.

• Rite Of Passage and Age Of Aquarius: Ascot Gold Cup

One of the high points of the Irish Flat racing season was actually reached at Royal Ascot in June, with two Irish-trained horses, Rite Of Passage and Age Of Aquarius, coming clear of their field in the Ascot Gold Cup and trading heavyweight blows for the entire of Ascot’s two-and-a-half-furlong home straight, only decided when the final blow was landed deep inside the final round. Rite Of Passage’s rider, Pat Smullen, summed it up perfectly afterwards:

“I was thinking: ‘I’m going to get him, I’m not going to get him, I’m going to get him, I’m not going to get him.’ Then I thought, ‘I have him,’ then it was, ‘Oh Jesus, he’s going to get back at me!’

Age Of Aquarius and Johnny Murtagh didn’t get back at him, and Pat Smullen – who had gone so close in 2002 when Murtagh and Royal Rebel beat him and Vinnie Roe by a neck – had his first Ascot Gold Cup in the bag. It was also a first Ascot Gold Cup for trainer Dermot Weld, one of the few top prizes to have eluded him, who had suffered narrow defeats in the race twice before with Vinnie Roe and with Vintage Crop in 1994.

• Cape Blanco, Midas Touch, Jan Vermeer: Irish Derby

It says much about the standard that you have set for yourself when you win 12 Group 1 races in a season and the general feeling on the ground is that you haven’t had a great year. There were many high points for Aidan O’Brien during the season, but one of the highest came at the end of June, when he saddled the first three home in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at The Curragh.

Stable jockey Johnny Murtagh struggled to choose between the three colts, as did the punters and the bookmakers, sending the trio off at respective odds of 7/2, 4/1 and 9/2. In the end, however, they all got it right as Murtagh and Cape Blanco dug deep to get the better of Colm O’Donoghue and Midas Touch, with Jan Vermeer staying on well under Seamie Heffernan for third to complete the Ballydoyle domination. Remarkably, it was Aidan O’Brien’s fifth Irish Derby on the spin, his seventh in the last 10 years.

• Pathfork: Vincent O’Brien National Stakes

Jessica Harrington’s ability to train National Hunt horses is beyond dispute, but we didn’t fully appreciate her prowess on the Flat – the exploits of Jumbajukiba and Long Lashes and Curtain Call notwithstanding – until Pathfork came along this year.

Impressive in winning his maiden on his racecourse debut at The Curragh in July, the son of Distorted Humor was even more impressive in beating Glor Na Mara in the Group 2 Futurity Stakes in August. But his crowning moment came in the Group 1 National Stakes back at The Curragh in September. The ground was softer than ideal, and Pathfork had to do all his running out in the centre of the track, on what was probably the worst of the ground, but he dug deep to beat Casamento by a head, the pair of them pulling clear, to give both Harrington and rider Fran Berry with their respective maiden Group 1 victories.

• Sheikh Mohammed: 12 juveniles

Whether somebody convinced Sheikh Mohammed to put 12 juveniles in training in Ireland this year, with six different trainers, or whether he came up with the idea himself, it was an inspired move.

The project got off to a flying start when the David Marnane-trained Fred Archer won his maiden on his racecourse debut at Leopardstown in August, but better was to come. Two weeks later, Michael Halford sent out Casamento to win his maiden. After going down by a head to Pathfork on just his second start in the National Stakes, the son of Shamardal won the Beresford Stakes, then rounded off the season by landing the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy, providing Halford with his first Group 1 win.

In the meantime, the day before Casamento’s Beresford Stakes win, another Sheikh Mohammed horse, Dubai Prince, this one trained by Dermot Weld, won his maiden at Gowran Park, and followed up by running out a most impressive winner of the Group 3 Killavullan Stakes at Leopardstown at the end of October. Casamento and Dubai Prince, both high in the betting for the 2011 Classics, will race in Godolphin blue next season, but the sight of Sheikh Mohammed’s old maroon and white colours adorning Irish racecourses again was a welcome fillip, and it would be wholly surprising if the project was not continued or expanded next year.

• Carroll, Curtis, O’Brien: Apprentices’ Championship

The battle between three highly gifted riders, Gary Carroll, Ben Curtis and Joseph O’Brien for the Apprentice Riders’ Championship, that went right to the last stride in the last race at Dundalk on Friday night, kept us watching and showcased young Irish riding talent. The end could hardly have been more dramatic. Going into Dundalk on Friday evening, Carroll and Curtis were tied for the lead on 39 winners, O’Brien was on 37. O’Brien rode those two winners through the course of the first seven races, all three tied on 39 going into the finale. In the last, Carroll struck the front inside the final furlong on Dark Prospect, and looked the likely winner, before Denny Crane finished strongly to get up and do him by a head.

It’s a cliché, but a draw was the right result. None of the three of them deserved to lose it, not on the last day, not in the last race of the season. Some season.

© The Sunday Times, 12th December 2010