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Irish Oaks report

French victories on Irish soil are rarely very popular, but it was different yesterday at The Curragh, as the Alain de Royer-Dupre-trained Chicquita landed the Darley Irish Oaks under another masterful ride from Johnny Murtagh.

Chicquita brought the talent and the character that befits a daughter of Montjeu to the races. She was unusual as, not only was she only maiden in yesterday’s race, but she also had the distinction of being a flat racehorse with a fall on her record, having crashed into the inside rail and fallen when she had the race in the bag at Saint-Cloud on her penultimate run before yesterday.

Even on the day on which she booked her ticket to yesterday’s race by finishing second to Treve in the Prix de Diane (the French Oaks) last month, she didn’t help her cause by hanging to her left across the track.

But the astute Royer-Dupre is not a trainer who allows his horses travel overseas if he doesn’t think that they have a real chance of taking the prize back to Chantilly with them. Furthermore, he knew what was required to win an Irish Oaks, having done so with Shawanda in 2005. And it was significant that he booked Johnny Murtagh for the ride, a man who had ridden five Irish Oaks winners – more than any other rider in the history of the race – and who is riding out of his skin these days.

Murtagh’s season thus far has been quite remarkable. He took out his trainer’s licence in May, then he went to Royal Ascot in June and won on four of his 11 rides, claiming the top jockey’s title at the meeting in the process. Then he came back to Ireland and won the Pretty Polly Stakes on Ambivalent. Now he has won another Irish Oaks.

And Murtagh was superb on Chicquita. He got her settled nicely just behind the fairly sedate pace that Just Pretending was allowed to set. Eased towards the outside a furlong and a half from home, Chicquita did pick up but, as she did, she moved quite markedly to her left just as she had done at Chantilly.

Murtagh was obviously aware of her past and, under a gently-gently hands-and-heels ride, with barely any recourse to the whip, he nursed the filly through the final 200 yards to get her home by a half a length from the fast-finishing Venus De Milo, as Just Pretending hung on for third place.

The stewards held an inquiry into the race but, while the winner did drift out towards the centre of the track, and while Seamie Heffernan had to switch inside on Venus De Milo, any interference was minimal. There was no doubt that the best filly on the day won, and it would have been astonishing if the stewards had amended the result.

“She is very different to Shawanda,” said Alain de Royer-Dupre, “because Shawanda was unbeaten going into the Irish Oaks and this one had never won! She is the best filly I have in my yard. That was why I wanted to go for another Group 1 race instead of an ordinary race. She will probably go for the Prix Vermeille now and then perhaps the Arc de Triomphe.”

Earlier in the day, the Aidan O’Brien-trained Darwin ran out an impressive winner of the Group 3 Invesco Pension Consultants Minstrel Stakes.

Settled in second place on the outside of habitual pace-setter Leitir Mor through the early stages of the race, the son of Big Brown picked up nicely at the two-furlong pole when Joseph O’Brien gave him a squeeze and, from the point at which he hit the front a furlong and a half out, the result was never really in doubt.

“He’s not short of pace, but he has such a high cruising speed, he should get a mile well,” said O’Brien of the three-year-old colt, who was sold for $1.3 million as a two-year-old. “He came to us with a massive reputation, when he won his maiden Todd Pletcher was raving about him, and he was doing the times in America as well. Joseph said when he hit the front he was very idle, but we’re delighted with that.”

An Aidan O’Brien-trained colt also landed the Group 3 Jebel Ali Racecourse Anglesey Stakes, but not the Aidan O’Brien-trained colt that most punters and bookmakers expected, as Wilshire Boulevard battled on well out in the centre of the track under Seamie Heffernan to get home by a length from his better-fancied stable companion Oklahoma City. The son of Holy Roman Emperor ran on powerfully to the line to provide O’Brien with his first victory in the Anglesey Stakes since 2005.

Aidan O’Brien had a treble on the day – the exciting Australia landed the opening maiden – Joseph O’Brien had a double, and Seamie Heffernan completed his own double when he landed the finale on Manalapan for Patrick Prendergast. But it was another red-letter day for Johnny Murtagh, Irish Oaks hero, who had a treble in the saddle himself and who put the cap on the evening when he trained and rode Belle De Crecy to win the Kilsaran International Handicap.

© The Sunday Times, 21st July 2013