Sport Horse Racing

Thursday 26 April 2018

Carlton House can restore Irish Derby's faded glory

The Queen's raider can end Ballydoyle grip on big prize, writes Ian McClean

Wet Wet Wet. Three words to describe the Irish summer certainly, but also the band that was number one the last time an English challenger won the Irish Derby. Back in 1994 when Balanchine last triumphed for the visitors, John Major was at No 10 over there, the Celtic Tiger was being born over here and a promising rookie called Aidan O'Brien had just acquired a training licence.

Up until 1994 English raiders totally dominated Ireland's premier Classic, winning eight of the previous nine, with a trainer roll of honour scrolling the names Cecil, Stoute, Dunlop, Cumani, Cole and Hills.

An indication of the weakness of the Irish defence back then is reflected in the fact that we could muster just one runner for the line-up in 1994 -- the 40/1 shot Cajarian trained by John Oxx which managed to beat just two home in a field of nine.

How things change. The Tories were banished into the political wilderness; the Celtic Tiger roared before slinking off to untold collateral damage; and Aidan O'Brien evolved into the racehorse training colossus of our times. Part of his unimaginable accomplishment has been knitting together a cloak of dominance around the Irish Derby.

This most precious domestic commodity -- previously affixed with a perennial 'For Export' sticker -- now has a 'Guaranteed Irish' label courtesy of O'Brien.

Not only has he captured a total of eight Curragh Derbies, he has won the last five consecutively, including three 1-2-3 clean sweeps -- filled last year by Cape Blanco, Midas Touch and Jan Vermeer. And today he fields half of the total line-up in a bid to maintain his dominance.

However, the sense of competition is enhanced today by the fact that the market suggests there is one even more likely to oblige today than any of the O'Brien quartet and that horse Carlton House, tantalisingly, is the first ever to run in the race owned by the Queen. Indeed the Queen has only ever had three runners in total here in Ireland down the years -- the latest was Barbers Shop which pulled up at the Punchestown Festival in 2010.

Another reflection of the changing face of the Irish Derby is how once it was the de rigueur decider between the English and French Derby winners.

Determining the bragging rights on The Curragh suffered a terminal blow when the French decided to reduce the distance of their Derby to 10 furlongs and we have to go back as far as 2000 to find the last time the traditional match-up was fought out on the plains of Kildare.

That year featured Sinndar facing off against Holding Court: which proved not to be so memorable an encounter as the French Derby winner boiled over and never ran his race, leaving Sinndar a facile nine-length winner.

Other memorable head-to-heads include Commander In Chief v Hernando in 1993 and Generous v Suave Dancer in 1991. Strangely, although there has been no English winner of today's feature since 1994, there have been four French-trained winners in the same period.

Another significance behind Balanchine's win in 1994 is that it marked Godolphin's first ever runner in Ireland.

Having gone down by the minimum margin to Las Meninas in Newmarket's 1,000 Guineas, the filly then went on to take the Epsom Oaks (from Wind In Her Hair), in the process providing one 23-year-old Lanfranco Dettori with his first ever British Classic. Godolphin back then wasn't represented by the now ubiquitous royal blue -- Balanchine succeeded in the colours of Maktoum Al Maktoum that day.

Balanchine was part of the original Godolphin experiment to shuttle horses off to Dubai in the autumn and return them to Newmarket in the spring and the exploits of Balanchine seemed to point to a significant competitive

advantage. It seemed back then as if Sheikh Mohammed had unlocked a way to revolutionise the game.

However, nowadays the same tactics seem synonymous with the exact reverse as the Dubai operation struggles to find a rhythm in the early part of the season. You get extra points if you recall who trained Balanchine. Hilal Ibrahim will hardly be an inclusion in the lexicon of great trainers -- he was replaced the following year by former policeman Saeed bin Suroor.

And Balanchine herself fared little better as she later developed colic and never won another race.

A retrospective of events since her victory in 1994 could be summarised by Yeats' "All changed -- changed utterly" but I vividly recall my first ever visit to the Irish Derby to see Shergar in 1981. It marked the first win in the race for Michael Stoute who now provides the Queen's Carlton House obstacle to Aidan O'Brien's modern-day stranglehold on the race.

Therefore another -- less poetic -- perspective might be the old racing cliché that form is temporary but class is permanent.

Sunday Indo Sport

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