Irish hopes boosted by Harbinger's bad luck
Published 14/08/2010 | 05:00
How quickly things change. A week ago, the back nine of the Flat season held somewhat less promise for Irish-trained horses than it does now.
Rite Of Passage and Starspangledbanner did their bit to propel the summer months out of a slump that for long spells hovered distinctly close to ordinary, but their brave triumphs also disguised shortcomings in other areas.
At this critical juncture in the campaign, our three-year-olds, of which so much was expected, have misfired spectacularly and only Fame And Glory has made a meaningful impact at the highest level between eight and 12 furlongs.
Rip Van Winkle looked closer to his old self when second in the Sussex Stakes recently, but he was still easily beaten by an English-trained three-year-old, albeit a smart one, in Canford Cliffs. What's more, he was pencilled in to cross swords with Harbinger at York next week, the perceived wisdom being that Michael Stoute's horse held all the aces. The bookies went evens the foreboding King George winner, and 3/1 the Ballydoyle 'big sleep'.
Harbinger's apparent might also loomed large on Fame And Glory's horizon. Good as last year's Irish Derby winner is, a full five points separated him from the bookies' favourite in the market for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
While such discrepancies might well have underestimated Aidan O'Brien's abilities, not least if you subscribe to the belief that the form of Harbinger's Ascot triumph was slightly dubious, the layers' stance was understandable. In a year when so many were struggling to hold par, Harbinger's eagle captured the imagination.
As was the case with Workforce's Epsom Derby rout, the true merit of what Harbinger achieved at Ascot was inconclusive, but it was still better than anything else on offer. And now he's gone.
Harbinger sustained a career-ending injury during routine exercise last Saturday. All of a sudden, his towering figure has been wiped from the programme, the net result being that the definitive half of the season takes on a whole new perspective.
Rip Van Winkle is now the outright favourite for Tuesday's Juddmonte International at York, as is Fame And Glory for Europe's premier mile-and-a-half Group One in France. With Harbinger gone, their chances have improved dramatically.
Such is the cherished status of the Juddmonte and the Arc that the shake-up in their markets alone adds a completely different slant to how things might develop over the next few months. It is only when taken as part of the bigger picture, though, that the full potential of what might lie ahead for our elite performers becomes clear.
Naturally, or at least typically, much of that optimism has its foundation in Rosegreen. In Tuesday's Great Voltigeur Stakes, Midas Touch will attempt to enhance his St Leger credentials.
Another of our beleaguered three-year-olds, the Irish Derby runner-up has always shaped like a stayer and there are few better Leger trials than the Great Voltigeur. He looks a genuine contender to give O'Brien his first English Classic winner since Henrythenavigator landed the 2,000 Guineas in May 2008.
On Friday, Starspangledbanner tackles the Nunthorpe. The Australian import has thrived for O'Brien, securing thrilling victories in the Golden Jubilee and July Cup already. Were he to complete the set over five furlongs at York, the rare prospect of a tilt at the Breeders' Cup Sprint for an Irish-based horse would become a live option.
O'Brien, who felled Richard Hannon's precocious juvenile Strong Suit with Zoffany at The Curragh last Sunday, is likely to test a few more of his two-year-olds at York. It is from here on in that the better youngsters start to reveal themselves and the early signs are that next year's Classic generation ought to be up to scratch.
Also at York, at a lesser but no less exalted level, Dirar, Elyaadi and Natural High could form a strong charge to bring the Ebor back this way for a second successive year. The eponymous festival handicap is one of the biggest betting races going, the one in which young Gary Carroll brought the house down on Sesenta 12 months ago by denying Johnny Murtagh on a short-priced Ballydoyle favourite.
Another that will attract interest on the Knavesmire is Dermot Weld's redoubtable Profound Beauty. Since finishing fifth in the Melbourne Cup two years ago, Profound Beauty has been beaten only twice in eight starts.
Thursday's Yorkshire Oaks will be a step up in class, but a solid effort would set her on the road to a second tilt at either or both the Irish St Leger and the Melbourne Cup. If she does stop off at The Curragh in a month's time, she will meet Rite Of Passage.
Weld's game Ascot Gold Cup winner also holds an entry for Flemington in November, and you can be sure that whatever travels south under the Curragh maestro's banner will pose a serious threat to the locals. At this remove his two entries share favouritism for 'the race that stops a nation'. That's not for nothing.
Before then, Weld's 1,000 Guineas heroine Bethrah, absent since her finest hour in May, will put her reputation on the line in the Matron Stakes. Unbeaten in three this term, the Marju filly had Music Show and Lillie Langtry behind her in the Guineas. A mouth-watering rematch between all three at Leopardstown remains a possibility.
The Matron, of course, is a curtain-raiser to the Irish Champion Stakes. St Nicholas Abbey, the poster boy of the three-year-old colts of which so much was expected, could conceivably reappear in that 10-furlong contest. However, the Dublin highlight, which saw Sea The Stars showcase all his talent on his only outing in Ireland in 2009, will almost definitely be Fame And Glory's last race on these shores.
A forlorn second to John Oxx's giant last year, the four-time Group One winner's campaign is set to culminate with his tilt at the Arc, a task made so much less complicated by Harbinger's unfortunate demise. Hard as it is to believe, there is a distinct lack of muscle about Fame And Glory's potential opposition.
Whisper it quietly, but there is a fighting chance that, following Sea The Stars 12 months ago and Dylan Thomas in 2007, the Irish Champion Stakes-Arc double could be achieved by an Irish horse for a third time in four years.
Would such a feat be diminished by Harbinger's absence? Hardly. After all, things change quickly, and those present will surely demand more attention than those not.