Sunday 25 March 2018

Harzand pounces for Smullen and Weld

Esteemed Curragh duo combine for memorable Derby victory as part of terrific Irish 1-2-3

Pat Smullen celebrates as he crossed the Derby winning line on Harzand. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.
Pat Smullen celebrates as he crossed the Derby winning line on Harzand. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

An already vibrant Flat season was further illuminated when Harzand led home an Irish 1-2-3 en route to a thoroughly decisive Investec Derby coup for Dermot Weld and Pat Smullen.

Saturday's glorious Epsom triumph for the esteemed Rosewell House firm followed Minding's resolute Oaks win.

Aidan O'Brien's filly had to defy traffic problems on Friday, but the manner in which she then accelerated away on soft ground was especially impressive.

The Ballydoyle impresario - whose Found couldn't cope with Postponed in the Coronation Cup and whose two colts never figured behind Almanzor in yesterday's Prix du Jockey Club - had twice before won the Oaks with fillies that had run in both the 1,000 Guineas and its Irish sister race.

Minding, though, is the first of that trio to plunder two wins in the three races, and she is also the first that he has saddled to complete a Guineas-Oaks double.

She is just a little bit special, having now won Group Ones over seven, eight and 12 furlongs.

Minding's success was also a boon for Jet Setting, which had foiled her in such memorable fashion in the Irish 1,000 Guineas 12 days earlier. Given that O'Brien indicated that Minding ran at the Curragh in lieu of a piece of work and that she banged her head leaving the stalls, there has been a sense that the best horse finished second in the Irish Classic.

That might well be so, but it would be unfair to downgrade Jet Setting's win too much or make too many excuses for Minding.

Soft ground is clearly essential for Adrian Keatley's star filly, but it was also a long way removed from good at Epsom, and Minding ran all the way to the line at the Curragh, the pair drawing 10 lengths clear of the rest.

Jet Setting has filled the eye in three of her four 2016 outings and should command a six-figure sum at Goffs London sale next week.

It would be a blow to Keatley were she to leave the yard, but he deserves credit for chiselling such a rare diamond out of someone else's discarded jewellery.


Of course, in the wake of Friday's feature, many felt that Minding might have put it up to the boys in the Derby.

Having had the benefit of watching Saturday's £1.5m Classic, the richest Flat race ever run in Britain, this correspondent remains to be convinced that she would have beaten the first three.

The Oaks didn't boast any real depth, and Architecture and Harlequeen, the second and third, had won just once each in six combined previous starts, so let's see what unfolds before overegging Minding's stature.

Ahead of the event, the Derby looked wide-open, so it was satisfying to see Harzand and US Army Ranger, two of those that were open to improvement, step up. Idaho appealed as a horse that set a pretty solid benchmark, and his game effort in third helps to establish the standard.

It was hard to be convinced by US Army Ranger in the wake of his Chester win. You couldn't say with any conviction that he went through with his challenge on that occasion, while an unsympathetic reading of his display on Saturday might bring you to a similar conclusion.

However, he certainly showed more quality at Epsom than I initially gave him credit for.

Moreover, there is a case to be made for his emerging as the best horse in the race, as he covered an awful lot of ground to get into a position to challenge.

He was last into the straight, had his run checked at a crucial juncture and eventually had to circumnavigate the entire field, leaving him spent by the time he finally got to Harzand.

Ryan Moore may have had Friday's torturous run in mind and I'm one of his biggest fans, but this wasn't his finest hour.

While races can take on a life of their own once the gates open and render you a victim of circumstance, Moore's main attributes are his ability to keep it simple and be the master of his own destiny when the need is greatest. This time, he simply seemed a hostage to fortune.

Smullen, in contrast, excelled, reaffirming his status alongside Moore as one of the most gifted big-race riders on the planet.

Having rebuffed an offer to ride on a retained basis for Khalid Abdullah in the belief that he could enjoy the best of both worlds - similar to Mick Kinane in his heyday - and then lost Abdullah's Midterm to injury, the Offaly native's quest for a breakthrough Derby victory looked sure to be delayed again.

However, you simply cannot underestimate the prowess of Weld, whose first Classic coup was achieved at Epsom when Blue Wind prevailed in the 1981 Oaks.

In the 35 intervening years, the Rosewell House wizard has become renowned as a globe-trotting visionary, his Belmont Stakes and Melbourne Cup-winning heroics among a litany of trailblazing feats that helped to evolve Flat racing into the fundamentally international discipline that it is today.

Still, the sport's defining three-year-olds' Group One had proved elusive, so this was his Holy Grail.

He seized it brilliantly, drawing on his depth of knowledge as a qualified veterinary surgeon in his handling of the drama that unfolded when Harzand pulled a shoe on Saturday morning.

As ever, Weld's patience was to the fore in his handling of Harzand, which looked far from precocious when just fifth at Gowran Park on his sole outing as a two-year-old last September.

He then dotted up on his March comeback at a Cork fixture that also saw Jet Setting lose her maiden tag, before finishing with a flourish to reel in Idaho in the Ballysax Stakes in April.

Both of those wins came in heavy ground, so it wasn't easy to get a grasp on Harzand's level, for all that his attitude impressed.

Now, exhilaratingly, we have a clear idea of just how good he is, and it was refreshing to hear connections speak unashamedly of his being a potential St Leger contender, with the Prix de l'Arc also to be considered.

Inevitably, ground that rode on the slow side at Epsom helped Harzand's cause, and a rematch with US Army Ranger in the Irish Derby could prove definitive. Similar to Jet Setting, Harzand might be ground dependent, but for now he is entitled to be recognised as an above average Derby winner, and it remains possible that he will be as effective on better ground.

Finally, any analysis of Harzand would be woefully incomplete without paying tribute to John Oxx, the silent influence whose fingerprints were all over the backdrop to this masterpiece.

Oxx, who saddled Sinndar to win the 2000 Derby for the Aga Khan, trained the winner's exceptional sire Sea The Stars, its dam Hazariya and its granddam Hazaradjat, a trio with which he won 13 times in 18 starts.

Owners are entitled to send their horses wherever they like, but, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily elaborated upon, Oxx's long and fruitful association with the Aga Khan has been inexplicably dissolved.

A genius of a trainer and a gentleman of a human being, he is also living proof that no one can do it without the raw material.

He deserved better than to be exiled in the manner that he has been and it has had a devastating effect on his operation, but that is the nature of the game.

If it's any consolation, Michael Stoute and Luca Cumani, responsible for the Aga Khan's first three Derby winners, are also outcast, a reminder of just how hard some owners can be to please. Weld can only make the most of his opportunity while it's going, and he sure is doing that.

Doubles all round on the Flat at Listowel

Wayne Lordan and Shane Foley stole the show at Listowel yesterday with a brace apiece. After making the running, Lordan had to settle for a share of the spoils on Austin Leahy's Fox Dream (12/1) in the juveniles' maiden, his filly just holding on for a dead-heat with Joe Murphy's 20/1 shot Mr Adjudicator, which was ridden by Connor King.

Lordan enjoyed a less dramatic time when Just Joan justified odds-on status for Tommy Stack in the fillies' maiden, while Foley dictated affairs in the seven-furlong handicap to come home a ready winner on Mick Halford's Suvenna (9/2).

However, he also had a close shave on Ken Condon's Strait Of Zanzibar (7/1), which just clung on in the mile handicap. Halford later doubled up with the Katie Walsh-ridden Asbury Boss.

Tweet of the weekend

Danny Mullins (@dan2231)

Delighted to ride a winner at every track in Ireland. Thank you Fu's Island and all the team!

At Kilbeggan yesterday, the 24-year-old brought the Paul Meany-trained Fu's Island (7/1) through with a late run to complete a full set at the 26 Irish racecourses.

There was also a landmark triumph for Rachael Blackmore, whose victory aboard Denise O'Shea's odds-on Supreme Vinnie was the 20th of her career, reducing her claim to five pounds.

Numbers Game

75 - The incredible percentage of the 16-runner Derby field whose pedigrees featured the 1993 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner, Urban Sea. Via her sons Sea The Stars and Galileo, her daughter Melikah and her grandsons Teofilo and New Approach, the late mare's lineage influenced 12 of the Classic runners, including each of the first three home.

Irish Independent

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