Sport Horse Racing

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Irish Derby gets left in the stalls

It's difficult not to be disappointed with the field for tomorrow's Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby. Fair enough, you've got the second, third, fourth and fifth from the Epsom Derby, but that's a bit like taking Tipperary and Kilkenny out of this year's hurling championship and expecting people to believe that the quality of the competition isn't diminished. It is.

For the seventh time in succession, the Epsom Derby winner is not on duty at The Curragh. It is now eight years since the holder of the French equivalent put his belt on the line in Ireland. The sad truth is that they have more pressing engagements.

The presence of the queen's Carlton House adds some spice to tomorrow's showpiece, but the Irish Derby's current standing as a consolation Classic remains unchanged. Aidan O'Brien will saddle four runners this year, and it is he who has been the one best placed to take advantage of the race's decline.

O'Brien has now won the last five Irish Derbies. Three of those, Soldier Of Fortune, Frozen Fire and Cape Blanco, were substandard winners that didn't even perform to an official rating of 120 on the day. They didn't need to.

The other two, Dylan Thomas and Fame And Glory, won as they liked.

Better horses, certainly, but neither had to summon a signature performance to win the Irish Derby. Again, they didn't need to.

O'Brien's recent stranglehold on the race goes further still. From five runners last year, he saddled the first, second and third home for the third time in his career.

He has been responsible for 10 of the 12 horses that have filled the first three places over the past four years. Since Desert King broke O'Brien's duck in the race back in 1997, he has trained 57 of the 146 horses that have run in the race -- 39pc of them.

With the resources that he has at his disposal, it makes sense to throw as many darts as he can in the hope that some will stick. All the evidence suggests that it is a worthwhile strategy, but that the very same tactic doesn't work at Epsom, or in any other Group One for that matter, tells its own story. At the end of the day, that the Irish Derby has developed into a Ballydoyle benefit is just a symptom of a greater malaise that is eating away at it. But why a race with such an illustrious past has suffered this dramatic fall from grace is hard to diagnose.

One of the more popular theories is that potential stallions need to prove themselves over 10 furlongs to meet commercial stud requirements. There is certainly an element of truth in that, with each of the five horses that won the Epsom Derby after North Light in 2004 reverting to a mile and a quarter for their next start.

Still, Workforce stuck to the Derby trip last year, yet the Irish version was never on his agenda once he had proven his class at Epsom. Michael Stoute trained him for the King George instead, which indicates that The Curragh feature is now just a consolation prize.

Put it this way, if Carlton House had won at Epsom, would Stoute be bringing him tomorrow, or would he send him somewhere more fashionable? Exactly.

It is just the same with Pour Moi, a Coolmore-owned horse that would enhance its reputation far more by beating the older horses in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomph in October than by doubling up in an Irish Derby tomorrow. Indeed, the French indifference towards the race has been most damning.

Remember, it was the presence of the cream of the French Derby performers that contributed so much to the Irish Derby's heavyweight billing in the glory days. Suave Dancer, Hernando, Celtic Swing, Winged Love, Dream Well, Montjeu and Dalakhani were stellar names that made a beeline from Chantilly to The Curragh.

They frequently met their Epsom counterparts there, rendering the race a decider in all but name. Now? Well, no French Derby winner has contested the Irish Derby since the Aga Khan's Dalakhani had his wings clipped by the Epsom third Alamshar (running in the same colours but trained by John Oxx) back in 2003, and this will be the fourth year in a row that there hasn't been any French representative.

Again, the French Derby's conversion to a mile and a quarter from a mile and a half back in 2005 is often said to be the reason that The Curragh is no longer a suitable target for that type of horse. That doesn't wash either, though.

If anything, that should render the Irish Derby a prime target for the best 12-furlong French horses, but still they stay away. And as for Prix du Jockey Club winners not being suited to a mile and a half, guess where this year's winner Reliable Man heads for next -- the King George, just as Workforce did.

At least this year there is a worthwhile international element at The Curragh, courtesy of the ante-post favourite Carlton House and Native Khan. Two years ago, for the first time since the year dot, there wasn't a single non-Irish-trained runner, and tomorrow's contest is not without merit when you remove it from the wider context.

For starters, how the Epsom form is resolved will be fascinating, as will the clash of that brigade with the Irish 2,000 Guineas hero Roderic O'Connor. If Aidan O'Brien's colt were to oblige, under his teenage son Joseph, it would be the first time that double will have been achieved since O'Brien did it with Desert King 14 years ago.

Of course, there is also the prospect of a first English triumph since Balanchine in 1994. There is even the chance that the queen of England's colours will be carried to victory in an Irish Classic and be welcomed with the kind of warmth usually reserved for an Irish winner at Prestbury Park in March. Imagine.

Irish Independent

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