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Irish Derby

Yesterday was an anniversary of sorts: 20 years since Aidan O’Brien landed his first Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby with Desert King.  In the intervening period, the perennial champion trainer had clocked up 10 more Irish Derby victories, and yesterday at The Curragh he landed another, his 12th, as Capri prevailed in a thriller. 

There was strength and depth to yesterday’s race.  It was a Derby in every sense, a Derby of Derbys, with five representatives from the Epsom Derby lining up, including the winner and the third, and the French Derby runner-up making the trip from across the channel. 

Times were when the French Derby was run – like the Epsom Derby and the Irish Derby – over a mile and a half, and representatives from Chantilly and Epsom would regularly clash at The Curragh.  The distance of the French Derby was reduced to 10 and a half furlongs in 2005, however, which is also the year that the Irish Derby was last won by a French-trained colt, Hurricane Run.

Indeed, there hadn’t been a French-trained runner in the Irish Derby for 10 years before yesterday, so the presence of Waldgeist – trained, like Hurricane Run 12 years ago, by Andre Fabre and also racing in the colours of Gestut Ammerland – added a welcome Gallic dimension.

But Capri saw off all comers, Irish and British and French.  Seamie Heffernan settled the grey son of Galileo in second place through the early stages of the race behind early pace-setter, his stable companion The Anvil, as the other seven runners stretched out behind him.  Moving up on the outside of the leader as they reached the crown of the home turn, Heffernan gave his horse a squeeze, and they hit the front with fully two furlongs still to run.

Douglas Macarthur was the first one to challenge, but Capri saw him off.  Then Wings Of Eagles challenged, with Waldgeist on his outside but, again, Capri dug deep.  Cracksman’s was the last challenge, widest of all, latest of all, under last year’s winning rider Pat Smullen.  But Capri dug deeper still, gave Heffernan all that he asked him for and stuck his willing grey head out to get home by a neck from Cracksman, with just another short head back to Wings Of Eagles in third. 

“We know that Capri gets a mile and a half,” said Aidan O’Brien, “and we know that he’s brave.  There was nowhere to hide there today.  All the right horses lined up at the furlong marker.  And Seamus gave him a lovely ride.  He had him in the right place throughout, he knew that all the fancied horses were behind him, and he timed his run perfectly.  He’s an unbelievable rider.  He has been a part of our family for years.  What he did there today is not easy to do.”

It was a third Irish Derby for Seamie Heffernan, who won back-to-back renewals of the race in 2007 and 2008 on Soldier Of Fortune and Frozen Fire.  He was on board when Capri finished sixth in the Epsom Derby four weeks earlier, and he retained the utmost faith in his horse.

“He has been running in good races,” said the rider, “so I was confident that I had the ammunition.  Aidan trains them from race to race, to keep on improving, and they usually do.” 

An unusually intimate atmosphere prevailed, with attendance capped at 6,000 due to the re-development work that is ongoing at The Curragh, and it is significant that John Gosden and Andre Fabre, trainers of the British and French raiders Cracksman and Waldgeist respectively, cited the suitability of the racecourse as a key factor in their respective decisions to make the trip.

“The French and English horses would not have been running in the race if it had been run somewhere else,” said Coomore supremo John Magnier, representing the winning owners.  “It would have been a domestic affair.  It’s great to win it, it could have gone either way.” 

Future plans for Capri are fluid.

“The owners will decide, but we’ll probably give him a week to 10 days before any decision is made,” said Aidan O’Brien.  “The King George is an option, but we were thinking about Highland Reel for that, so we’ll have to have a think about it.  This horse has been busy, so maybe he can have an autumn campaign.”

The other group race on the day, the Group 2 Gain Railway Stakes, was won by Beckford, who kept on well under Declan McDonogh to beat Verbal Dexterity and Murillo and provide trainer Gordon Elliott with his first group race win on the flat.

“He’s a nice horse,” said Elliot.  “We thought he was working well.  We haven’t got anything to work with him, but we thought that he had improved a fair bit from his racecourse debut.  I’m delighted for everyone, especially his new owners Newtown Anner Stud.  He’s the first horse I’ve had for them.  It’s a bit of fun but, really, I’m a National Hunt man.  National Hunt is my number one.”

Beckford, for whom the Phoenix Stakes is a next target, was promoted to 20/1 favourite in some lists for next year’s 2000 Guineas.  

The Guineas will be run the week after the Punchestown Festival ends next year.

© The Sunday Times, 2nd July 2017