Tuesday 24 October 2017

Curragh's €7.5m Derby boost

Alice Springs and Seamie Heffernan sail clear of their rivals in the opening juvenile fillies maiden at the Curragh to give Aidan O’Brien the pefect start to the Irish Derby Festival
Alice Springs and Seamie Heffernan sail clear of their rivals in the opening juvenile fillies maiden at the Curragh to give Aidan O’Brien the pefect start to the Irish Derby Festival
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

On the eve of what has the potential to be one of the best Irish Derbys in recent years, Curragh officials announced that Dubai Duty Free has extended its backing of the Curragh Classic until at least 2017.

Tonight's landmark 150th edition of the 12-furlong Group One boasts a prize fund of €1.25m. That already makes it the most valuable race in the country, but the airport retailer has pledged to increase next year's total purse to €1.5m.

With the option to continue its sponsorship for a further three years, the five-year package could be worth €7.5m. It is a tremendous and timely boost for the race and for the Curragh, which is still in the planning stage of a long-awaited facilities revamp that is earmarked for completion in 2018.

Paul Hensey, general manager at Irish racing's headquarters, said yesterday of the renewed deal: "The Curragh has enjoyed a very positive association with Dubai Duty Free since 2003 and they took over the title sponsorship of the Irish Derby in 2008."

"We are delighted to have secured the sponsorship of our flagship race and that our partnership with Dubai Duty Free will continue."

Executive vice-chairman of Dubai Duty Free Colm McLoughlin added: "We have been working together with the Curragh racecourse to create a festival that incorporates premier racing, fashion, food and fun. Over the years we have added more ancillary activities both on and off the track.

"This year we worked with the communities in Newbridge and Kildare Town to have more activities off the track in a bid to create a sense of festival in the surrounding areas. We are delighted to be the title sponsor of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby."

The betting for this evening's race is headed by the odds-on Jack Hobbs, which emerged a clear second best behind its John Gosden-trained stable-mate Golden Horn in the original version at Epsom. However, there is real depth to the eight-runner contest.

What it might lack, then, in terms of the star appeal that a Golden Horn or a New Bay might offer, in an overall sense it promises a race befitting its status as an elite European Classic.

Remarkably, were Jack Hobbs to prevail in Godolphin blue, he would be the first English-based winner since Balanchine's historic 1994 triumph under Frankie Dettori for the fledgling operation that is owned by Dubai's crown prince Sheikh Mohammed.

In 1993, Henry Cecil's Epsom hero Commander In Chief fended off Hernando, which had won the Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly. The Irish Derby was in its pomp at the time, but Jim Bolger's success with St Jovite in 1992 was the only time that an Irish horse triumphed in 10 years up to 1995.

Vincent O'Brien's influence had waned and his Ballydoyle successor and namesake Aidan was still training jumpers on a hill in Co Kilkenny. Since 1995, the Irish Derby has been the preserve of the home team or the French.

More recently, of course, O'Brien has dominated the race to the point of monopolising it, and today his Ryan Moore-ridden French Derby runner-up Highland Reel is many people's idea of Jack Hobbs' main threat.

Nonetheless, should O'Brien's four runners fall short, it would be the second time in three years that the great man hasn't saddled the winner, which, given that he was responsible for the previous seven, would surely be no harm for the race in a big picture sense.

On the other hand, O'Brien's Oaks victor Qualify is vying to end a 21-year wait that would be even more significant than that of an English success.

Balanchine was the last of 10 fillies to beat the colts in the Irish Derby. Tellingly, however, she was just the third since 1900. Indeed, no filly has even run in the race since Strawberry Roan and Token Gesture took part in 1997.

Qualify's jockey Colm O'Donoghue, who excelled on her as an unfancied 50/1 shot at Epsom, has an enviable Irish Derby record with a penchant for foiling perceived hot-pots, even if they are owned by his Coolmore employers, as was the case in the Oaks.

If he were to win on Qualify, though, it would surely trump any of his previous giant-slaying heroics.

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