Donn's Articles » Australia and the Irish Derby

Australia and the Irish Derby

At The Curragh two weeks ago, on the day after Australia won the Epsom Derby, Aidan O’Brien said that it was quite possible that his latest Derby winner would come to The Curragh to run in next Saturday’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.

The ground was, however, very important to Australia, the trainer said then. He wouldn’t be running on soft ground.

On Thursday this week, O’Brien re-iterated the importance of the ground.

“Australia is in terrific form and the Irish Derby is the plan,” he said. “But he is a good ground horse so he would not want testing conditions, and a final decision on his participation will be taken closer to the time.”

You can understand the trainer’s reticence. Camelot is only two years ago.

Aidan O’Brien still talks about Camelot, still blames himself for allowing his 2012 Epsom Derby winner run in the Irish Derby on ground that he knew, deep down in his gut, was just too soft for him. He says that Camelot was never the same horse after he endured that gruelling race, and the figures back up that assertion.

Camelot was on a significant upward trajectory in the lead up to Epsom. He recorded Timeform ratings of 78+, 117+ and 123+ (in winning the 2000 Guineas) in his three races before the Epsom Derby, and he put up a career-best of 128+ in winning it.

The Montjeu colt never reached that zenith again, however, not even as a four-year-old. He was beaten in the St Leger, thwarted in his Triple Crown bid by Encke, he was well beaten in the Arc de Triomphe when sent off the 2/1 favourite on his final run at three, and he won just once in three runs at four. There may have been something else at play, but it is more than plausible that his run in the Irish Derby on ground that was just about raceable had a lasting impact.

It is difficult to think soft ground in these days of sunshine and sunscreen, but The Curragh can get quite soft quite quickly. Four of the last seven renewals of the Irish Derby have been run on ground that was softer than good.

The Irish Derby is an important race for Aidan O’Brien and the Coolmore team. Coolmore is an Irish operation, founded in Ireland and run from Ireland by Irishmen, and the Irish Derby is one of the flagship Irish races. The continuing quality of the race is important to them.

That is why the four Aidan O’Brien-trained Epsom Derby winners before Australia have all run at the Curragh, with three of them – High Chaparral, Galileo and Camelot – completing the Derby double. It was also one of the driving factors behind Camelot’s participation in the race in 2012, despite the fact that the ground was too soft for him, and despite the fact that Team Ballydoyle had a ready-made potential Derby deputy in Imperial Monarch, who was already a Group 3 winner on heavy ground.

The Irish Derby is a massive race, a hugely prestigious race and, as long as the ground is right, it is the obvious race for Australia. If he does line up in the race, he will probably be odds-on to win it. A dual Derby winner is a fairly rare bird, there have only been four in the last 20 years.

However, there is a cogent argument to be made for side-stepping the Irish Derby with Australia and running in the Eclipse at Sandown the following Saturday instead.

For starters, it may be that the 10 furlongs of the Eclipse is a more suitable distance for the Galileo colt than the 12 furlongs of the Irish Derby. He was a really impressive winner of the Epsom Derby, he travelled like the best horse in the race from a long way out. But when he hit the front a furlong and a half from home, it looked like he would clear away and win by four or five lengths. The fact that he only beat Kingston Hill by a length and a quarter in the end may have been down to the fact that he was just drawing towards the edge of his stamina boundary by the time he reached the winning line.

Secondly, rare and all as a dual Derby winner is, an Epsom Derby winner who can step down in trip and win the Eclipse is rarer still. Sea The Stars is the only Derby winner who went to Sandown and won the Eclipse since Nashwan did so in 1989, and Nashwan was the first since Mill Reef in 1971.

Thirdly, there is the future to consider for Australia. Win an Epsom Derby, and you are immediately an attractive stallion prospect. Win an Irish Derby as well, and you have enhanced your attractiveness further. But win an Eclipse, drop back in trip to 10 furlongs and beat the older horses, and you have probably enhanced your attractiveness even more.

A colt who has the stamina and the courage and the conformation and the mental resolution to win an Epsom Derby over a mile and a half, and who then has the pace and the talent to beat the top class older middle-distance horses in the Eclipse, as well as being an exceptional racehorse, is also a top class stallion prospect.

Finally, if Australia did not run in the Irish Derby, Aidan O’Brien could still win it with one of his other contenders. At present, the trainer is responsible for 24 of the 46 entries, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Orchestra and Adelaide. One of them could be good enough to win it.

It is time to look to the skies. A largely dry week and, all things being equal, we will see the Epsom Derby winner at The Curragh on Saturday evening. If the skies do produce the rains, however, we may have to wait for the Eclipse.

© The Sunday Times, 22nd June 2014