Thursday 21 September 2017

Home fires burn bright in Oxx's Derby mission

Curragh trainer has a lifelong affinity with Irish Classic and is still a prime target for him, writes Aisling Crowe

John Oxx: 'Akeed Mofeed is in good shape and moving well'
John Oxx: 'Akeed Mofeed is in good shape and moving well'

THE Irish Derby has always held a magnetic grip on John Oxx's imagination. Growing up on the Curragh, the son of a Classic-winning trainer, his childhood memories are infused by this magical race. Arctic Storm's narrow defeat by Tambourine in the 1962 renewal overshadowed his birthday celebrations but sparked a dream which was finally fulfilled by Sinndar in 2000.

Derby winners are special. Dual Derby winners are rare. To rise to the challenges posed by the very different tracks of Epsom and the Curragh, a horse needs to possess a special blend of speed and stamina.

Sinndar had these qualities in abundance. He also had the indefinable and elusive class which elevates a horse above the ordinary. A dream made real by a horse with impeccable timing.

"It was a great day for us as everybody wants to win their local derby," says Oxx. "We didn't have too many chances of winning it before then and it was nice to win both races. It was an emotional day for us as it means a lot when it's your local race.

"It's something you hope will happen. It was a most exciting day. He was a great horse really. He was the first top colt we had. We had some top class fillies but we needed a really good colt and he came along.

"To win the Epsom Derby was great as it was something you only dream of. I never worried about him because he was bomb-proof. He was relaxed and calm and always did enough, there was plenty in reserve. He was a terrific horse, a very special horse."

The Aga Khan's handsome bay went on to triumph in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe that autumn and earned himself a place among the exalted but Oxx didn't have long to wait to find another Irish Derby winner. Alamshar, like Sinndar, was owned by the Aga Khan and was a close-up third in the Epsom Derby of 2003.

Oxx was keen for him to run at the Curragh but the Aga Khan also owned the unbeaten French Derby winner Dalakhani and the French champion had the Irish Classic firmly in his sights.

"He was probably the best horse at Epsom and usually the best horse wins there but he was just beaten. Alamshar was in flying form at that time and I knew I wanted to have another go at the Curragh. It was very good of the Aga Khan to let me run him.

"Dalakhani would have more of a commercial interest of the two horses as he was the stallion prospect for them but His Highness knew I wanted to run him."

The owner's decision to place sporting, rather than financial considerations first, was richly rewarded. His two colts fought out a thrilling battle on the Curragh, with Alamshar and Johnny Murtagh getting the better of their much vaunted opponent. The Aga Khan wasn't disappointed with the result.

"I think he was just as pleased as anyone when Alamshar won. He felt he was leading in the right one and he was as pleased as can be that the local horse won."

Derby winners have been hard to come by in the intervening years. So few horses are blessed with the rare combination necessary for victory in the race and in recent times those who do possess these gifts have belonged to Coolmore. Along with Oxx's two winners, Grey Swallow is the only Derby winner this century not to belong to the bloodstock superpower.

"A Derby winner needs to have class and a combination of speed and stamina. The Curragh is a simpler track than Epsom but it still takes a very good horse with the same sort of class and ability to win the Irish Derby.

"A Derby winner is very important in the whole scheme of the breed. It's not easy to come up with these type of horses. Coolmore seem to have a conveyor belt of very good horses trained by a great trainer. They seem to be able to find them all whereas most people will be lucky to find one or two in a lifetime."

On Saturday the trainer will saddle two colts as he attempts to win the Classic for the third time. Akeed Mofeed and Call to Battle will make the short journey from their stables in Currabeg to the racecourse to represent him in the latest joust with the Coolmore empire. Oxx is not one for tilting at windmills. When his horses' names appear on the card for a top-class race, they are there because their trainer believes their ability merits it.

Akeed Mofeed's build-up to the Irish Derby has been far from smooth. He hasn't been seen on a racecourse since last September. Setbacks and injury kept him on the easy list in the spring and early summer but he has recovered and is ready to take his chance on Saturday.

"He hasn't had the ideal preparation. He's in good shape now and moving well. He's working nicely but it's been a poor preparation for the Derby. He seems to be fully recovered and we have to hope he will get there. We had great hopes for him over the winter but he will have to prove himself on Saturday. We will see how he measures up but we are going into the Derby a little blind. We don't know his true class and stamina."

Stamina will not be an issue for Call to Battle, which Oxx sees as developing into a St Leger horse, saying: "The Curragh will suit him better and he is working well but on all known form he is not a Derby winner. However he is an up-and-coming horse and we think he has more to give. He is a really nice, good-looking horse and I like him."

John Oxx was just 12 years old when his father was so narrowly denied victory in his local Derby. Fifty years, and two Derby winners on from that June day, the magnetic power of the Irish Derby remains as strong as ever for his son.

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