Sport Horse Racing

Monday 1 May 2017

Irish Derby hindered by excess of summer options

The withdrawal of Workforce is yet another blow to Curragh Classic, writes Ian McClean

ian mclean

From the moment jockey Ryan Moore winced upon unsaddling, admitting his concern that Workforce might just have had too hard a race in winning the Epsom Derby by a yawning seven lengths in a record time, it was odds against and drifting that he would reappear in the Irish equivalent just over three weeks later.

So when the inevitable became official, and Workforce didn't appear amongst the declarations, the rationalisation amongst the Irish Derby stakeholders was as spirited as the disappointment was real. Workforce's absence this time is simply a misfortune heaped upon previous misfortune for the race.

Last year's Epsom hero Sea The Stars bypassed the Curragh equivalent because of ground conditions. The previous year New Approach was ruled out on the morning of the race with a minor injury. Indeed, this afternoon will be the sixth consecutive running of Ireland's premier Classic without the Epsom winner -- something unthinkable once upon a time -- and no matter how you spin it, it spells only bad news for the prestige of the race.

Because when Flat racing seeks out its next shining star, it casts its net amongst the Classic generation; and that net inevitably hauls in the Epsom Derby winner. And wherever the Derby winner appears is big news with big attendances.

If the Curragh has become a victim of misfortune regarding recent winners of the Epsom Derby, it has been a victim of race-tampering in the context of France. The last French Derby winner to visit the Curragh was Dalakhani in 2003. He was outpointed by Epsom Derby-placed Alamshar in a thriller.

But the halcyon days of the Irish Derby providing the venue for a showdown between French and English Derby heroes (a la Suave Dancer v Generous) belong to a golden age of typewriters. When the French Derby (Prix du Jockey Club) reduced in distance from the traditional mile and a half to a mile and a quarter in 2005, its first winner was Shamardal -- a miler which had previously won the French Guineas taking a step up in trip. This year's winner, Lope De Vega, did the same. Neither would get a mile and a half in a horsebox. Consequently, no future French Derby winners will be taking the horsebox to The Curragh.

Workforce has sidestepped this afternoon's Curragh showpiece in favour of Ascot's King George at the end of next month -- a welcome fillip for another mid-season mile-and-a-half championship contest in apparent steep decline. Not only did the King George lose its 'Diamond' De Beers sponsorship in 2007, but in tandem it lost its competitive edge, with the Classic generation's headline-makers staying away in their droves.

Between 1985 and 1995, the Classic generation was victorious in all bar two renewals. Yet in the past 14 years, only two from that generation has triumphed. It is more disturbing to note that in the period 1985-1995, 35 three-year-olds competed in the King George as opposed to just over half that in the most recent decade.

So with next Saturday's Eclipse also failing to attract a high-profile three-year-old of note, are the top three-year-olds on a midsummer siesta?

The French again have a hand in this. In concert with clipping the distance of the French Derby, the authorities increased the distance of the Grand Prix de Paris on Bastille Day (July 14 -- bang in the middle of the Irish Derby and King George) to a mile and a half for this all-three-year-old Group One. So now three-year-olds have a confusion of summer options with four Group One options during a four-week spell. The fact that two winners of the new extended Grand Prix de Paris (Bago and Rail Link) both went on to win the Arc the same year leads us to a further stressor of the traditional midsummer attractions.

A colleague commented to me after Royal Ascot last week that it is only now the season is truly under way. Really it is only now we are clearly seeing the plot and characterisation of the 2010 narrative. However, by Royal Ascot four of the five UK Classics have already been run. The truth is that for a campaign that starts in March, bursts into life in May and continues till at least the end of October (or December if you include Singapore and Hong Kong) there's got to be a give somewhere. And if you spread the jam on your bread to be thick at the edges, you know it's got to be thin in the middle.

With the globalisation of horse racing, the season has become more and more rear-ended with the Prix de l'Arc and the Breeders' Cup in October becoming increasingly significant, lucrative and prestigious with every passing year.

Andre Fabre, for one, would not countenance running a horse in midsummer that he was intent on aiming at the Arc and whilst Sea The Stars and Dylan Thomas have given lie to his view in the last few years, it is a perception that has taken hold with many connections. Moreover, Arc aside, it must be added that in the context of Breeders' Cup, Dylan Thomas got badly beaten at odds-on, while Sea The Stars failed to take up the option (after his six consecutive Group Ones in six consecutive months).

All this places into context the challenge faced by the Curragh's most prestigious race in asserting itself within the context of its own sport. It does not take into account the competition it faces from the GAA championship, Valencia's Grand Prix, rest day at Wimbledon or the World Cup, which has caused the flexing of Derby race-time to a tea-time 5.10.

However, time has shown the Curragh Derby to be a greater long-term vehicle for class than its Epsom counterpart. Seven of the last 14 Epsom winners failed to win another race. Recent Curragh winners read like a Hall of Fame, not just for their subsequent track exploits, but also endeavours in the breeding shed. Fame And Glory, Dylan Thomas, Hurricane Run, Alamshar, Galileo, Sinndar, Montjeu and Sinndar all distinguished themselves further after The Curragh -- in fact 12 of the last 13 Irish Derby winners recorded an even higher Timeform rating after their Curragh win.

"The Curragh each year is always the ultimate test because it is probably the fairest track," says Aidan O'Brien, implying a contrast with Epsom where he has failed to strike since 2002. With five of the 11 runners, he is long odds-on to benefit should the Curragh winner's future run of virtue continue.

Sunday Independent

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