Things We Learned » Real dilemma?

Real dilemma?

There has been lots of talk all week about the problem (sic.) that is the Irish Derby. There were only five runners in Saturday’s race, the same number as in 2012, which was the smallest Irish Derby field since 1912. Also, the winner Australia was sent off the 1/8 favourite, the shortest-priced favourite since Orby won the race in 1907.

There have been lots of potential solutions put forward, like run the race over 10 furlongs instead of 12, move it back a week, have Godolphin breed or buy more and better mile-and-a-half horses, have the French change their Prix du Jockey Club back to a mile and a half and their Grand Prix de Paris back to 3000 metres, open the race up to older horses. (Really?)

Some laudable potential solutions, even if several are not very workable.

However, it is important to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Before you propose a solution, it is important that you determine what the problem is.

Aidan O’Brien too dominant?

So Aidan O’Brien has won the Irish Derby 11 times, eight times in the last nine years, and he has fielded the 1-2-3 five times. But it should not be surprising that Ballydoyle are dominant in their home Derby, given that the Derby horse is the type of horse in which they major. They should be applauded for their unprecedented success, not castigated for their dominance.

Also, events have conspired to rob the Ballydoyle horses of a depth of opposition in recent years. The 2007 Epsom Derby winner Authorized ran in the Eclipse instead of the Irish Derby. Injury ruled 2008 Epsom Derby winner New Approach out of the Irish Derby, while the ground went against Sea The Stars in 2009. Those three horses would all have been sent off as favourites for the Irish Derby had they made the line-up.

Fields too small?

There were nine runners in the Irish Derby in 2013, there were eight in 2011, there were 10 in 2010 and there were 11 in 2009. So outside of 2012, when the ground was bottomless, and this year, when Australia probably scared a lot of would-be contenders away, field sizes have actually held up well. There were only 12 runners in the Epsom Derby last year, and there were only nine in 2012.

Quality not high enough?

The average official rating of the first three home in the Irish Derby this year was 114.33. In 2013 it was 113.66, in 2012 it was 115, in 2011 it was 117, in 2010 it was 115.33. The average of the averages is 115.064.

In the Epsom Derby, the average official ratings of the first three home in those years were, respectively, 114.66, 109.66, 113.33, 112 and 109. The average of the averages is 111.73. So 3.334 lower than the Irish Derby.

Even allowing for the fact that the Irish Derby is run four weeks later, and the propensity that three-year-olds have for the achievement of a higher rating either in the Epsom Derby or in the interim, it still tells you that the overall quality is not far off.

The sad reality is that it is unreasonable to expect that the Prix du Jockey Club winner will run at The Curragh, as he often did before 2005, when the French reduced the distance of their Derby to 10 and a half furlongs. That race is usually won by a 10-furlong horse who has the pace to be effective over a mile rather than by a 12-furlong horse who has the pace to be effective over 10. Also, they have the Grand Prix de Paris over there now on Bastille Day for 12-furlong three-year-olds, so no need to travel.

You can see the merit of moving the Irish Derby one week back in the calendar in order that the King Edward VII Stakes horses or maybe even the King George V Handicap horses from Royal Ascot would have the option of travelling. Eagle Top would have been an intriguing addition to the Irish Derby field this year, and Elite Army would have been an interesting outsider.

Even though King Edward VII winner Monterosso did make the trip in 2010, nine days probably is not enough of a break for Royal Ascot horses. Entry dates and supplementary entry fees, and win-and-you’re-in rules, would have to be adjusted, but a 16-day break between the two races would surely make it more attractive for King Edward horses. If the winner got into the Irish Derby for free, well that would be an extra incentive.

Outside of those two horses, however, and outside of the French, and obviously outside of the Epsom Derby runner-up Kingston Hill – who, frustratingly, was at The Curragh, all set to run – the only other horse that you could realistically have potentially added to the line-up on Saturday was Oaks winner Taghrooda. She would have been another intriguing addition, in receipt of 3lb from the colts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the race was ever really on connections’ radar, despite the fact that her owner Hamdan Al Maktoum won the Irish Derby with the filly Salsabil in 1990.

It is important that the top British trainers are continually made aware of the Irish Derby, all the time, all year, but especially in the lead up to entry and forfeit dates. It is important that the race features on their radar. But the reality is that there may not be that much wrong with the race.

Stewards’ sponsor

Here we go again: another sponsor trying to bury a race title that is steeped in tradition for the sake of some perceived short-term gain that probably isn’t even really a short-term gain.

There are many things wrong with the removal of the name, the Stewards’ Cup, from the title of the race, the Stewards’ Cup. Here are just three of them.

One, race titles are all we have to identify races. They are the stepping-stones that take us through the season, the familiar milestones that give us a sense of place. They are the tent-poles that hold up the season, that give it its frame and structure. Take away the race names and you are left with a limp tarpaulin, a clutch of races that have no identity and that lead nowhere.

Two, while you will probably increase the number-of-mentions of the sponsor’s name by doing away with the actual race name and leaving the media with no way of referring to the race other than by mentioning the sponsor’s name, are you really achieving the goal of sponsorship by doing that? Surely the whole idea of a sponsorship is the association with the event. An effective sponsorship achieves that. (Ref today’s hyphenated Coral-Eclipse.) And won’t people just call it the Stewards Cup anyway? And didn’t we learn anything from Bunbury Cup-gate in 2010? The Bunbury Cup was only the toss of a coin away from the Derby.

Three, it is strange to think that Goodwood are complicit in this. It beggars belief that the racecourse executive can sell out the history and the tradition of a race that has been in place since 1840 for five grand. It is astounding that many outsiders appear to care more about the race title than those on the inside who are closest to the race.

Run this forward to its nth degree: race names with no longevity and little identity, all changes at the whim of the transient sponsor and the individual racecourse that needs him. Trainers still talk about the old Whitbread Gold Cup as the Whitbread-or-whatever-they-call-it-these-days. Sponsors come and go, but races remain.

Jockey notes

It was some weekend for the highly-talented apprentice Leigh Roche. The young rider had three rides at The Curragh on Saturday and Sunday. He won the Scurry, a 23-runner handicap, on 18/1 shot Line Of Reason for Paul Midgley by a half a length, he won the seven-furlong Dubai Duty Free Fillies’ Handicap on Saturday on 7/2 joint favourite Sparkle Factor for Dermot Weld by a neck, and he won the 16-runner Irish Field Handicap on Sunday on the Sabrina Harty-trained 10/1 shot Have A Nice Day by a nose. He is big value for his 3lb claim.

It was also some weekend for Evanna McCutcheon. Maarek’s trainer may have had to scratch her stable star from the Sapphire Stakes on Saturday, but she rode her first winner in Ireland on Sunday, getting up in the final 100 yards on Zeftan in the Ladies’ Derby to beat the two best female riders in the business, Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, in a thriller.

Colin Keane continues to ride with supreme confidence. Ger Lyons’ rider may have drawn a blank at The Curragh at the weekend, but he went two for two at Gowran Park on Tuesday, he had a winner at Fairyhouse on Wednesday another at Leopardstown on Thursday.

Fran Berry is also riding out of his skin these days, as was evidenced in the ride that he gave Kool Kompany in the Railway Stakes at The Curragh on Saturday. He got over from the worst possible draw in stall one to bag the favoured stands rail on a horse who has produced his best form when he has been ridden aggressively, and he kept enough in reserve to kick on again inside the final furlong and win well. Then he went to Leopardstown on Thursday and won on two of his four rides.

Scurry notes

There were at least three horses to take out of the Paddy Power Scurry on Derby day.

Alben Star was the first and most obvious. Well-backed beforehand, Richard Fahey’s horse broke well and took up a nicely position just off the stands rail for Joseph O’Brien in the early stages of the race, just behind the front rank.

However, the gap didn’t appear when he needed one, with the result that he ended up almost last of the 23 runners passing the two-furlong pole. He did pick up impressively once he got a gap, and he did well to finish fourth, but it is not stretching it to say that he could have won had he had a clear passage. He remains progressive.

Third-placed Discussiontofollow was also a little unlucky. Mike Murphy’s horse also travelled well through the early stages of the race on the near side, but he was also short of room when Shane Kelly wanted to go forward. He did have the energy and the power to engineer a gap for himself a furlong out and, despite shipping a significant bump on the way through, he kept on well to finish third. This was just his seventh ever run, and he is a horse to keep on side. A 3lb hike is not harsh.

The third horse is runner-up Zalty. David Marnane’s horse did remarkably well to finish second from stall seven and racing up the centre of the track throughout. There was a nice gap between the first four horses home and the rest of the field, and the other three horses who filled the frame raced on the near side from stalls 18, 21 and 25 respectively.

This was Zalty’s first attempt over six furlongs since he won on his racecourse debut at Dundalk in November 2012, 20 months and 11 runs earlier, and it was his first run in blinkers. He will be interesting again under similar conditions next time.

Raiders on top

There were six British-trained horses and 17 Irish-trained horses in the Scurry, yet three of the raiders finished first, third and fourth, the latter two unlucky, with Zalty the only Irish horse who made it into the frame.

British sprinters look well-handicapped here, a point worth bearing in mind for the Rockingham Handicap on Irish Oaks weekend, a race in which two of the four British-trained runners finished first and second last year.

© The Irish Field, 3rd July 2014