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The Irish Derby

In one sense, it was an unusual Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby yesterday, not just because the doors at The Curragh were closed and the race went on behind them, but also because of the place of Ireland’s premier Classic in the racing calendar this year: before the Epsom Derby, not after 

In another sense, it wasn’t unusual at all.  Aidan O’Brien won it again.

Santiago was joined by five stable companions in yesterday’s renewal.  It was that type of race, that type of year.  In a normal year, by the time the Irish Derby rolls around at the end of June, the relative abilities of that year’s crop of three-year-old colts is starting to take shape.  This year, evidence was thin on the ground.  There were many unknowns and, consequently, there were many horses who were deserving of their chance, young contenders for whom the ceilings of their respective abilities were as yet unquantifiable.  Of the 14 runners in yesterday’s race, only one of them had run more than once this season. 

There was no Epsom Derby winner in the line-up this year but, even so, Santiago was put in as favourite for the race as soon as it was confirmed as an intended runner, and his position at the top of the market became more assured as the race drew closer.

An impressive winner of the Queen’s Vase over a mile and six furlongs at Royal Ascot eight days ago, the main worry centred around whether or not the Authorized colt would have had sufficient time to recover from his exertions across the water.  Also, he was also dropping back in trip to a mile and a half, and encountering better ground.

Seamie Heffernan chose to ride him in front of his five stable companions, and he rode him like the best horse in the race.  He settled him well back in the field behind a strong-looking pace that was set by his stable companion Iberia.

No better than 10th of the 14 runners as they raced down the back straight, he started to take closer order as they started to turn for home.  He turned in close to the inside rail, and he got the gaps.  When you have a horse who is travelling well, you can move into the gaps when they present themselves.

Santiago joined the front rank as they passed the two-furlong marker, and Heffernan kicked for home, immediately putting a length and a half between himself and his rivals.  Tiger Moth and Emmet McNamara chased him all the way to the line, but Santiago was always holding his stable companion, and he got home by a head, with Dawn Patrol and Order Of Australia keeping on well for third and fourth, thereby bringing up a 1-2-3-4 for Aidan O’Brien.

“We were very happy with Santiago going into the race,” said the winning trainer.  “He’s a tough horse.  It wasn’t easy for him, coming here after winning over a mile and six furlongs at Royal Ascot last week.  But he’s very genuine, he’s very straightforward.” 

It was a 14th Irish Derby for the trainer, 23 years after he won his first with Desert King.

“It wasn’t ideal for any of them.  Some of them were just after winning their maidens, some of them were maidens still.  They were being pitched in at the deep end.  But there is only one Irish Derby, and we’re very lucky to have this facility.  Great credit to everyone for getting it on and getting racing back.  It would have been wrong not to let them take their chances. The second and third, Tiger Moth and Dawn Patrol, ran big races too.  Tiger Moth was a maiden until this year and Dawn Patrol is still a maiden.  They’re going to progress a lot.”

It was a fourth Irish Derby for Seamie Heffernan.

“I’m lucky enough to be riding in these big races,” said the rider.  “It’s never an easy choice, Aidan’s can go from winning a maiden to improving 20lb.  Anyone would have won on that horse today.  If your name’s in the hat, you have a chance.  I always wanted to switch him off and ride him for luck.  When I put him in gear, he picked up.  He’s a lovely horse with a big heart.”

Heffernan’s last Irish Derby winner before yesterday, Capri, three years ago, went to Doncaster on his next run and won the St Leger, and that looks a likely plan for Santiago now.

“The Leger would look like a lovely race for Santiago now,” said his trainer.  “The lads will decide.  He could have a break now and then be trained for the Leger.  He’ll probably need time though.  He’s had a tough race.  He had to fight for it.” 

© The Sunday Times, 28th June 2020