Donn's Articles » Intriguing Irish Derby

Intriguing Irish Derby

When Desert King stayed on to beat Dr Johnson and Loup Sauvage in the 1997 Irish Derby, and provide his young trainer Aidan O’Brien with his first win in the race, you could never have known the degree to which the new master of Ballydoyle would dominate the premier flat race on the Irish racing calendar.

Aidan’s predecessor at Ballydoyle, the legendary Dr Vincent O’Brien, had trained six Irish Derby winners, spanning 32 years from Chamier in 1953 to Law Society in 1985. It took Aidan just 11 years from his first to his sixth. Not only that, but he has proceeded to train four more since, thus bringing his total number of Irish Derby winners to 10. And counting.

The statistics are simply mind-boggling. Aidan has trained the last seven Irish Derby winners, nine of the last 12 and 10 of the last 16. He has sent out the first, second and third in the race three times in the last six years, and he has been responsible for 42 of the 96 horses who have run in the race in the last decade. The degree to which one man has dominated such a pre-eminent contest on the global landscape of thoroughbred racing is simply breath-taking.

In that context, it was interesting that the trainer stated publicly two weeks ago that his Epsom Derby winner Ruler Of The World was likely to be his only representative in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby this year.

You can be sure that much thought went into this announcement. Team Ballydoyle rarely act without thinking through the potential consequences of said act. The Irish Derby is an important race, it is an important race for Ballydoyle, but it is also an important race for Ireland. The Ballydoyle/Coolmore operation is an Irish operation, run by Irishmen from Ireland. It is important to them that Ireland’s flagship flat race remains strong.

This sentiment was in evidence last year when Camelot took his chance in the Irish Derby despite the fact that the weather had rendered the ground almost unraceable. The easy thing would have been to scratch Camelot – essentially a good-ground horse – from the race, keep him for another day. They already had an able deputy in Imperial Monarch, who was proven on heavy ground.

But Camelot was the headline horse, the Guineas winner, the Derby winner, the Triple Crown aspirant. Box office. You got the impression, in listening to John Magnier’s words after the race, that one of the main driving forces behind the decision to allow Camelot run was for the sake of the quality of the race. Maintain the profile of the race, give the sponsors Dubai Duty Free value for money.

In the knowledge that Ruler Of The World will probably be the lone Ballydoyle ranger next Saturday, potential opponents can target the race with certainty. It isn’t that Ballydoyle don’t have the horses. They ran five in the Epsom Derby. The four beaten horses could also have been aimed at The Curragh. Friday’s Queen’s Vase winner Leading Light would have been an ideal Irish Derby horse. Dante third Indian Chief. Lingfield Derby Trial winner Nevis. All legitimate Irish Derby contenders, all probably skipping the race.

It looks like the announcement is having the desired effect, because worthy opponents are lining up. Epsom Derby runner-up Libertarian is set to be supplemented, Silver Stakes winner Trading Leather and Sandown Classic Trial winner Sugar Boy are definites, Epsom Derby third Galileo Rock is a possible. Put those along with Epsom Derby hero Ruler Of The World, and it is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing renewals of the Irish Derby in recent years.

People have questioned the quality of Ruler Of The World’s Epsom Derby form. They went too slowly through the opening stages of the race, goes the argument. The Guineas winner, the proven class of the race, burned himself out early and ran no race. The winning time was not good, and the first seven home finished within four lengths of each other. They can’t all be top class. Add to that the fact that, of the six Derby horses who have run again since, only Dawn Approach has won, and you can see the argument.

However, it is difficult to knock the quality of the performance that Ruler Of The World put up in winning the race. He won despite the slow early pace, not because of it. He is bred for stamina, and he was the only horse in the 12-runner field who was already proven over the Derby distance. He was one of the horses who should have been most inconvenienced by a slow early pace.

As well as that, he was further back in the field than ideal, he was wider than ideal and he hit the front earlier than ideal, yet he still won by a length and a half, despite idling deep inside the final furlong. Moreover, that was just the third race of his life, he should progress again for it, and he sets a high standard in the Irish Derby.

You can understand why Karl and Elaine Burke are keen to have another go with Libertarian. He is another who is all stamina, and he came from further back in the field than Ruler Of The World to finish second. Purchased by Godolphin during the week, he will probably be racing for the last time for Elaine Burke, but the €80,000 supplementary entry fee could be money well spent.

Second in the Dante and third in the Irish Guineas, the Jim Bolger-trained Trading Leather has always given the impression that he would improve for a step up in trip, and he was most impressive in landing the Listed Silver Stakes over 10 furlongs at The Curragh two weeks ago. Who knows how things would have panned out had Dawn Approach not usurped his position as Coolcullen’s Epsom Derby horse? We should get an indication on Saturday, but he is a huge player.

Sugar Boy is the dark horse among the main players. We haven’t seen Patrick Prendergast’s horse since he won the Classic Trial at Sandown in April, but he had the Epsom Derby second and third, Libertarian and Galileo Rock, behind him that day, and that puts him in the Irish Derby picture.

As things stand, it is a fascinating picture. Just six days to go. And counting.

© The Sunday Times, 23rd June 2013