Halford at the double to end the year on a high
Dundalk Stadium brought 2018 to a close with an eight-race card on the Friday before Christmas and trainer Michael Halford took his tally of winners at the venue to a remarkable 234 by registering a double.
Both were ridden by Colin Keane, Ireland's champion jockey in 2017 who, like so many, first tasted success as a jockey at Dundalk.
The first-time blinkered Ahlan Bil Zain (11/2) came home first in the Crowne Plaza Race & Stay Handicap and promising two-year-old Sky Seven (11/10f) prevailed in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Maiden.
The winning trainer said of Sky Seven: 'He's a lovely big, raw horse and has a good attitude. The maidens take some winning here - the form will stand up anywhere. This is the first horse we've had for Nasir Askar, who is based in Dubai.'
Ado McGuinness has also enjoyed a successful year and he won the opening race, the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Race, with Annabelle Rock (12/1), who was ridden by the recently-married Shane Foley. It was Ado's 16th winner of 2018 at Dundalk.
Patrick Prendergast has also had a superb year and he won the €25,000 seven-furlong handicap with War Hero (4/1, Niall McCullagh), who was clearly suited by the front-running tactics.
Patrick is responsible for Skitter Scatter, who is among the favourites for this year's 1,000 Guineas. She gained her first win at Dundalk in April and went on to win three Group races, including the Group One Moyglare Stud Stakes at The Curragh in September.
As Michael Halford indicated earlier, the quality of maiden winners at Dundalk remains very high. An indication of this is that three of them since 2011 have gone on to win Classics, namely Qualify (Epsom Oaks), Seventh Heaven (Irish Oaks) and Winter (English and Irish 1,000 Guineas). Winter's full-sister Frosty was among this year's maiden winners at Dundalk.
But back to that pre-Christmas meeting and Commander Won (8/1) lived up to his name by running out an easy all-the-way winner of the Winter Series At Dundalk 2019 Handicap under Conor Maxwell. In doing so, Dermot McLoughlin's charge registered a sixth win at Dundalk, the last three of them coming since October.
Just before his success, The Game Of Life (7/1, Seamie Heffernan) made a winning debut in the mile maiden and gave Joseph O'Brien a 36th win at Dundalk in the year, which is a record for the track.
It is a remarkable achievement by a young man who has only held a licence since June 2016 and, of course, it ranks among Dundalk's highlights of the year.
The card was rounded off by wins for John McConnell's Spanish Dawn (9/1) in division one of the 10f 150y handicap under a quite brilliant last-to-first ride from Wayne Lordan, and division two went to Jim Bolger's McGuigan (9/2) who made nearly all the running and then battled gamely when challenged to win under apprentice Willie Byrne, who was registering a fourth career success.
With the year at an end, the Crowne Plaza Leading Jockey & Trainer Awards for 2018 go, respectively, to Donnacha O'Brien (17 wins) and his brother Joseph (36 wins, as mentioned earlier). The winners' trophies will be presented to them at the stadium in the new year.
At the end of what has been a successful and enjoyable year at Dundalk, thoughts are with Pat Smullen, the nine-time champion jockey in Ireland and a familiar and popular face at Dundalk, who has been courageously battling cancer.
The latest bulletins from Pat have all been positive and he is wished continued success in his journey back to full health.
Dundalk will be saying goodbye to sales and marketing manager Emma Meehan, who, like Pat, has become a popular figure at the stadium and is synonymous with many of the stadium's successes. After 14 years at Dundalk, she will be taking up the position of chief executive within the new management team at Down Royal racecourse. Dundalk's loss is very much Down Royal's gain.
The first meeting of 2019 at Dundalk will be on this Friday (4th).