Friday 23 February 2018

Harzand on track to fulfil Weld's Arc destiny

Mud-loving dual Derby winner shows class and courage to claim Curragh spoils

Dermot Weld and Pat Smullen have plenty to smile about after Harzand’s victory in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at The Curragh. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Dermot Weld and Pat Smullen have plenty to smile about after Harzand’s victory in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at The Curragh. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

Harzand has already achieved the distinction of ending Dermot Weld's quest to secure victory in the sport's definitive Classic at Epsom.

Could he emulate that feat in Flat racing's most prestigious open Group One? In the wake of the Aga Khan colt's second Derby triumph courtesy of an utterly decisive display in Saturday's Curragh feature, that is an intriguingly real prospect that few would have envisaged when Pat Smullen issued a frank appraisal of his mount in April.

With Epsom vanquished, if you were to ask Weld which unconquered outpost he would most like to seize, the suspicion is his response would be emphatic.

The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe remains the definitive test of the Flat thoroughbred, and is recognised globally as such.

It is the race that has an intangible capacity to confer true brilliance on horses that might otherwise be considered routine champions, if you'll excuse the crude oxymoron. That is something that the Irish Derby doesn't do, at least anymore.

Yet in its pomp, when the Derby winner might clash with its French counterpart and/or the 2,000 Guineas hero, the Curragh Group One had that potential.

A showdown between two or three heavyweights with aspirations to be crowned - at the very least - champion three-year-old elevated the Irish Derby's status to a rarefied stratosphere.

Those days are sadly gone. Right now, the Irish Champion Stakes is the domestic Group One that boasts such seismic resonance.

Invariably, though, as we have seen recently through the glorious exploits of horses like Sea The Stars, Treve and Golden Horn, it is at Longchamp in October that greatness is bestowed.

Dermot Weld is keenly aware of this, and it would surely rank alongside his greatest feats were he to plunder this year's Prix de l'Arc at Chantilly.

As the only European trainer to claim an American Triple Crown contest with Go And Go in 1990, and the visionary who paved the way for the rest of the world to follow by securing two previously unthinkable Melbourne Cup triumphs with Vintage Crop (1993) and Media Puzzle (2002), the Rosewell House legend's legacy is already assured.

However, the Arc is a prize that he would cherish, and Harzand could be the horse to fulfil that ambition. Few would have predicated that just a couple of months ago. Remember Smullen's contribution after the horse beat Idaho in the Ballysax Stakes?

"I think he is too big and heavy to go around Epsom," he mused.

"He could make into an Irish Derby horse but personally I think he could be a Doncaster Leger horse. I think he has got all the qualities to win that race."

Smullen has been proved right on the middle point, and might yet be proved right on the final one. But, in the wake of a grinding heavy ground Ballysax win, few would have argued that he would be proved so wrong on the first point, albeit it was a statement made at a time when he would have had other potential Derby mounts.

Even in the wake of his Derby defeat of US Army Ranger and Idaho, Harzand was paid slightly back-handed compliments by those emphasising his willing attitude above other qualities.

He is certainly game, but he is also far more than that.

After Epsom, we rated him an above average Derby winner, and he enhanced that view on Saturday, for all that he didn't have to show any material improvement to prevail.

Sure, the slow ground suited, but the manner of his Curragh success was deeply authoritative.

There was no hiding place, and Smullen didn't look for one.

He bounced Harland out handy and sent him on early, eager to maximise his stamina. It was a brave manoeuvre, because he was there to be shot at if his Epsom endeavours had left a mark.

Last month, it was US Army Ranger that came at him. This time, it was Idaho, but Harzand kept finding. Again, to these eyes, he won with more superiority than it might have seemed, so he is not unlike his exceptional sire Sea The Stars in that sense.

A tendency to do just enough is a fine attribute for a horse to have.

Does it mean that we would be doing Harzand an injustice to conclude that he wouldn't have the gears to drop back to 10 furlongs for something like the Irish Champion Stakes?

That's hard to know, but, in testing conditions as we got a glimpse of in the Ballysax, he might just have sufficient quality.

The alternative is surely a St Leger foray. It has been refreshing to hear connections speak unashamedly about Harzand being that sort of horse, and it would be no mean feat were he to complete a Classic treble.

That said, when it comes to the crunch, practicality may seep into the decision-making process.

The St Leger can be a gruelling event that wouldn't necessarily be considered an ideal prep race for a tilt at the Arc. When you factor in the commercial reality that a negative perception might follow a St Leger winner to stud, Doncaster could well be swerved.

Maybe Weld would consider a French trial as an alternative, but, if he were to roll the dice for a stab at the Irish Champion Stakes, we might learn once and for all just how much Harzand conceals beneath that dour veneer. The answer might surprise us, same as the horse keeps doing.

Derby sale yields soar but Brexit won't help

The Irish racing and bloodstock industries will not be immune to last week's decision by the British public to depart the EU.

Both countries are inextricably linked in so many ways, and a shared historical affinity for racing - over jumps in particular - means that we are dependent on each other to an unhealthy extent.

Of the €267m generated by thoroughbred exports in 2015, 80pc is estimated to come from Britain. There is more good than bad in that, but it illustrates how vulnerable Irish breeders and vendors are to external forces, especially a weak pound.

A British recession and the prospect of some form of reinforced border with Northern Ireland are other potential issues.

Hopefully, the fears of an outright economic meltdown will prove unfounded. Nonetheless, volatility is guaranteed and will be keenly felt by the bloodstock sector. At Tattersalls Derby sale last week, returns bounced back to something like the boom time. Notwithstanding that such figures must be taken with a pinch of salt, 32 horses sold for €100,000 or more, topping the 2007 record of 30.

The average of €47,535, up 11pc on last year, is also a record. Again, sales figures should never be taken at face value, but they can reflect the activity levels and sentiment of the economy.

Yet, suddenly, the bright outlook for traders carries a worrying caveat.

Berry ruled out for up to eight weeks

Fran Berry faces up to eight weeks off after fracturing a vertebra in his back in a fall at Doncaster on Friday.

It is a cruel blow for the 35-year-old in his first year as Ralph Beckett's stable jockey.

With 26 wins, Berry was beginning to establish himself, and had enjoyed a Royal Ascot success on Beckett's Kinema.

Tweet of the weekend

Ross Coakley (@RossCoakley)

Is there racing on today? #COYBIG

Like everyone else at the Curragh, the apprentice was distracted by events in France, posting a clip of the weigh room going bananas after Robbie Brady's penalty.

Numbers Game

18,244 Irish Derby day attendance at the Curragh, down a startling 28pc on 2015.

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