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Irish Derby report

There was no 11th hour injury scare for Harzand at The Curragh yesterday.  No foot wound, no shoe ripped off at the airport.  There wasn’t the drama that there was before he travelled to Epsom three weeks ago to win the Epsom Derby. 

The journey upon which the Dermot Weld-trained colt embarked yesterday was far less arduous, just down the road, from Rosewell House to The Curragh racecourse, where he added the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby to his burgeoning CV.

The road that led to yesterday’s race was not without its bumps for Harzand, mind you.  At the start of the week, Weld told us that the race was coming up very quickly for his horse after Epsom, that he would love to have another week with him before the race. 

There was also the weather.  Harzand is at his best when he can race on rain-softened ground.  He loves to get his toes in, he loves to dig deep.  Remember that he did not really enter the Epsom Derby picture until the rains fell on Epsom Downs at the start of Derby week.

So the rains fell on The Curragh on Friday.  Not the monsoon-like downpours that some areas of Britain and Ireland have experienced of late, but of sufficient quantities to render the ground good to yielding, and that was yielding enough for Harzand.

And just like at Epsom, rider Pat Smullen got his horse into a lovely racing rhythm early in the race, settled in third place behind a solid pace that Harzand’s stable companion Ebediyin set.  Smullen allowed his horse move up on the outside on the crown of the home turn, and he struck the front fully two and a half furlongs from home.

All the while, main market rival Idaho had been making stealthy progress in behind under Ryan Moore and, moved to the outside two furlongs out, the Ballydoyle colt picked up nicely.  Idaho probably went a short head, possibly a head, in front, and it appeared for a few strides as if the Galileo colt might go on and provide Aidan O’Brien with his 12th Irish Derby.

But we know that Harzand is a battler.  We saw his battling qualities when he won the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown in April, and we saw them again when the Sea The Stars colt withstood the challenge of US Army Ranger at Epsom, going away from his rival again inside the final 50 yards.

Those qualities were again in evidence yesterday.  He responded gallantly to Smullen’s urgings, wresting the lead back inside the final furlong and going on again to win by a half a length from Idaho, with the Jim Bolger-trained Stellar Mass running a monster race for Ronan Whelan to take third place.

“It was a great performance by horse and rider,” said Dermot Weld.  “I thought that Harzand would have to improve from Epsom, because we knew that Idaho would improve.  The exciting thing about this horse race was the battle.  Both horses quickened.  I thought for a few strides that he was going to beat us.”

It was a third Irish Derby for Weld, after Zagreb in 1996 and Grey Swallow in 2004.

“Just in the last week Harzand’s coat began to sheen,” said the trainer.  “I knew my horse had physically improved.  Epsom improved him.  But it was a great race, it was great to watch those two jockeys in the finish, Pat Smullen and Ryan Moore, two world class jockeys.  It’s great for the Irish Derby.”

It was a second Irish Derby for Pat Smullen, who rode Grey Swallow to victory for Weld in 2004.

“Harzand has such courage and determination,” said the rider.  “When Idaho came to us, I needed him to dig deep for me, and he did.  He’s tough, but he’s not just tough, he’s got pace.  He’s a very very good horse, there is no knowing how good he could be.  This matches Epsom, in front of our home crowd.”

For HH The Aga Khan, it was a sixth Irish Derby, with four of the previous five, like Harzand, following up victory at Epsom.

“It’s a wonderful occasion,” said the owner.  “I want to thank all the connections who have helped me raise this horse.  Our operation has been a family operation for four generations.  We breed, our colleagues train.  The effort at stud has to illustrate itself on the racecourse.  Thanks to everyone who has helped this horse get to where he is.”

It is probable that Harzand is only getting going now, that there is further improvement forthcoming.  The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is an obvious end-of-season target, and that is a trophy that would sit nicely on Weld’s mantelpiece alongside other major international trophies like the Melbourne Cup (two of them) and the Belmont Stakes.

You can be sure that the trainer will plot Harzand’s route now to Chantilly in October.  That should be another interesting journey.

© The Sunday Times, 26th June 2016