Donn's Articles » The Irish Derby

The Irish Derby

It is not so long ago that there were nine days between the last hoof-thud at Royal Ascot and the opening of the gates at The Curragh on Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby day. Now, there are just seven. Maybe it is true that time gets shorter as you get older.

And as they replaced the divots after the Queen Alexandra in Berkshire yesterday evening, the Irish Derby was starting to take shape. Every year you look to Royal Ascot for the last remaining pieces of the Irish Derby puzzle before you start trying to piece it together, but the brevity of the time lag between the two meetings dictates that extra pieces are rare things.

Shareef Dancer won the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot before coming over to The Curragh and beating the French Derby winner Caerleon in the Irish Derby, but that was in 1983, as we tried to get our heads around these new owners from Dubai, the Maktoum brothers.

Monterosso won the King Edward at Royal Ascot in 2010 and was sent off as favourite for the Irish Derby, but could only finish fourth behind an Aidan O’Brien 1-2-3 headed by Cape Blanco.

This year could be different, however. Even before she ran in the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot on Thursday, Pleascach had been mentioned as an Irish Derby possible. Indeed, it was in the winner’s enclosure after the Irish 1000 Guineas at The Curragh last month that trainer Jim Bolger first floated the notion.

A filly running in the Irish Derby defies convention. Fillies run in the Oaks, colts run in the Derby, that’s the rule. When fillies run in Derbies, they generally receive a 3lb allowance from the colts. Even so, the last filly to win the English Derby was Fifinella. That was in 1916, we are approaching the centenary celebration of that event.

But fillies can win Derbies. Salsabil won the Epsom Oaks in 1990, then came to The Curragh and won the Irish Derby. Balanchine emulated Salsabil’s feat, completed the same double, four years later. So it was interesting that Bolger nominated the Irish Derby, not the Irish Oaks, as a potential target for Pleascach after she had won the Irish 1000 Guineas, possibly taking in the Ribblesdale at Royal Ascot along the way.

Two things have happened since then to make Pleascach’s participation in the Irish Derby less likely than it was. Firstly, Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation bought a share in her, she raced in Godolphin blue on Thursday, not in the white and purple Jackie Bolger colours in which she won the Irish Guineas. That is significant in the context of the Irish Derby because Godolphin also have Jack Hobbs ear-marked for the race.

Not that the blue boys are averse to having more than one representative in a Group 1 contest. On the contrary, we have evidence that they have enough different-coloured caps in their possession to allow them run a small battalion. However, the fact that they also own a share in the ante post favourite for the race means that other options can be explored for Pleascach. It may be that she will wait for the Irish Oaks three weeks later.

Secondly, Pleascach was beaten in the Ribblesdale. She ran a big race, she was narrowly beaten by Curvy, a high-class and rapidly improving filly, and the pair of them pulled nicely clear of their rivals, but it was still a defeat, and that is not an ideal final step before taking on the colts in the Irish Derby.

Curvy looked good before the Ribblesdale, but she obviously looks even better now. David Wachman has turned his filly inside out this season. Beaten an aggregate of 30 lengths in three runs last year as a juvenile, she has run in four races this season to date, and she has won all four.

Starting this season with a rating of a lowly 72, the Galileo filly won a handicap at Navan in April, she won another handicap at Navan in May, then she beat subsequent Epsom Derby fourth Giovanni Canaletto in the Group 3 Gallinule Stakes at The Curragh on Guineas weekend, and now she has won the Ribblesdale.

It was interesting that, in the winner’s enclosure at Royal Ascot, Wachman also mentioned the Irish Derby as a possibility. Perhaps his musings were down to the fact that she had beaten Pleascach, who had been mentioned in Irish Derby dispatches. Perhaps it is down to a general sense that this year’s middle-distance three-year-old colts may not be up to their usual standard. Perhaps it is down to the fact that Curvy’s win in the Gallinule Stakes earned her a free entry to the race. She would be an intriguing addition.

The colts may not be that bad, mind you. Epsom Derby winner Golden Horn is not coming to The Curragh, John Gosden’s colt is waiting to take on his elders over a mile and a quarter in the Eclipse at Sandown the following week, but Gosden and the Epsom Derby form will be represented at The Curragh by Epsom runner-up Jack Hobbs. The Curragh could suit the Halling colt better than Epsom did, and he sets the standard.

And then there is the Aidan O’Brien team. Epsom Derby fourth Giovanni Canaletto is a possible, French Derby runner-up Highland Reel is a possible, Chester Vase winner Hans Holbein is a possible, Epsom Oaks winner Qualify is a possible. Another filly. The champion trainer has won eight of the last nine renewals of the Irish Derby and 10 of the last 14, so you have to note whatever he runs.

Other possibles? Time Test gets a free entry to the race following his win in the Tercentenary Stakes at Royal Ascot on Thursday, as does Balios after his win in the King Edward VII Stakes. Both horses have other options though. Epsom Derby third Storm The Stars is a possible, King George V Cup winner Radanpour is a possible. Also, the David Wachman-trained 1000 Guineas winner Legatissimo still holds an entry. Another filly.

It could be all about the fillies this year.

© The Sunday Times, 21st June 2015