Friday 20 April 2018

Irish indifference reigns at Royal Ascot

Trainers' record exploits at the royal meeting fail to get recognition they deserve

Gordon Elliott’s Commissioned lands the Royal Ascot finale under jockey Adam Kirby Picture: PA
Gordon Elliott’s Commissioned lands the Royal Ascot finale under jockey Adam Kirby Picture: PA
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

It is maybe a mark of how habitual Irish trainers' success in racing's elite echelons has become that their incredible exploits at Royal Ascot went largely unheralded.

Granted, the sporting world has been a little preoccupied with the Euro 2016 roller-coaster, a historic South African Test series for the international rugby team and the small matter of Shane Lowry's US Open heroics.

Still, it would be a travesty if events at Ascot didn't gain the recognition that they deserve. It was an extraordinary week.

The Flat will always be the poor relation in Ireland alongside the National Hunt discipline. Naturally, the sport's historic origins between the church steeples of Buttevant and Doneraile in north Cork is at the root of our deep-grained affection for jumping.

Jump racing is an integral part of our tradition, and one of the consequences of the manner in which it has evolved into a lop-sided indulgence for the wealthiest of owners is the detrimental effect that has had at grassroots level. The once thriving point-to-point scene is in difficulty, notwithstanding the undeniable success of those that operate commercially.

Whereby once an ambitious young trainer would strive to source untried National Hunt stock on a small scale before developing them in the point-to-point field and selling them on, many are now hopelessly priced out of the market due to the rising cost of the raw material.

That void is increasingly being filled by a dynamic Flat scene, one that offers a 12-month programme featuring a multitude of opportunities at entrance level, plus the unquantifiable appeal of the international market.


The evidence of this shift is all around us. It might be a stretch to say that it was omnipresent at Ascot, but, as we observed here last Monday, the point is illustrated by the fantastic success of the likes of Ger Lyons, Adrian Keatley and Michael O'Callaghan, none of whom managed to get among the winners in the end.

The point is, though, if what happened last week happened at Cheltenham in March, there would have been far more fanfare and appreciation. So it goes.

As ever, Aidan O'Brien led the line with seven winners, beating his previous 2008 best of six and joining the late, great Henry Cecil on a post-war record figure. Of the seven, only Order Of St George's emphatic Gold Cup success came in a Group One, and there was a variety of frustrations, notably those of The Gurkha, Found, Alice Springs and Highland Reel.

The theme of Ryan Moore finding the sort of trouble that he has an uncanny knack of avoiding at his best continued.

It is interesting that many of his problems have come on rain-softened ground, with some poor decision-making costing him momentum that is so vital at the highest level. Maybe it is something for him to consider.

Nonetheless, a final day treble still saw him depart Ascot with six winners, and he remains a world-class rider. As the saying goes, form is temporary and class permanent, and you would much rather have Moore riding for you than against you. Period.

By the by, Sir Isaac Newton's Wolferton triumph was just O'Brien's second handicap winner at the meeting. Given that he has 55 in total over 19 years, that is a fascinating statistic.

The extension of the royal meeting to five days since 2002 has obviously increased opportunities. It has been a similar story at Cheltenham in March, but the cross-channel contingent's respective tallies at both showcase fixtures since 2008 are scarcely credible, given the wider economic climate.

In that time, eight wins have been clocked on five occasions at Royal Ascot. At Cheltenham, double figures have been hit five times during the same time-span, including two new clear-cut records. The impending disqualification of Any Currency will set another record of 15 wins, as will the total of 10 that was amassed last week. It really doesn't get much better than this.

O'Brien's success aside, and a victory apiece for his loyal foot soldiers Seamie Heffernan and Colm O'Donoghue were particularly satisfying, the three other handlers to contribute deserve enormous praise.

Mick Halford's patient handling of Portage was possibly the least surprising of the trio.

Halford had a frustrating few months early in the campaign, but he is firmly established on the fringes of the elite. Already a Group One-winning handler for Sheikh Mohammed, he will continue to repay the tremendous faith that the Dubai prince has shown in him.

Jarlath Fahey and Gordon Elliott were the other two to break their royal ducks, with Ronan Whelan also doing so when excelling with a brilliantly judged front-running steer on Jennies Jewel in the Ascot Stakes.

Whelan has always impressed both in and out of the saddle, and has recently been getting the sort of opportunities that his talent deserves. As for Jennies Jewel, you will go a long way to find a more versatile or willing servant.

A sales reject, the daughter of Flemensfirth is the first nine-year-old mare to win at Royal Ascot since the 19th century.

To think that she got off the mark in a Listowel bumper for Monasterevin-based Fahey in 2012, has won in graded company over fences, been second in Grade Ones over hurdles and won on the Flat at the Curragh and Royal Ascot. That is a CV that would make Willie Mullins blush!

Commissioned's win in the Queen Alexandra finale really went under the radar, but what a training performance that was.

Elliott has only had Commissioned since April, when it was sold at John Ferguson's dispersal sale for £65,000.

He was hardly cheap and had been performing to a decent level over flights. Still, he hadn't run since finishing mid-division in the Coral Cup, and not on the Flat since scoring for a second time in three starts off a mark of 94 at Musselburgh in October 2013.

For him to then sprint clear at Royal Ascot, over a trip that was closer to three miles than two, was a simply remarkable turn, even by the standards of a man who already has a Gold Cup and Grand National to his name.

It was a fittingly glorious swansong to a memorable meeting for the raiders, and, dare we say it, Elliott's location at the time reflects our stubborn national indifference to all things royal. He was in Barbados.

No joy for Ballydoyle in Chantilly's Prix de Diane

The French 1,000 Guineas victor La Cressonniere stretched her unbeaten run to five by determinedly justifying favouritism in Chantilly's Oaks.

As a dual Classic winner, Jean-Claude Rouget's filly is emerging alongside Minding as one of the season's real equine stars.

Aidan O'Brien's Coolmore cut out the running en route taking a fine fifth, but Ballydoyle endured a forgettable trip under Ryan Moore. She got cannoned into leaving the stalls and had to circumnavigate the field in the straight, eventually taking sixth.

O'Brien suggested that the poor draw and testing ground counted against her, adding that she could now be aimed at the Falmouth Stakes over a mile. In a rough race, Armande unseated her rider when squeezed for room late on.

Tweet of the weekend

Jane Mangan (@jane_mangan)

Tipperary just scored more goals in the last 5 minutes than Cork have in the last 5 years!

She might have exaggerated for effect after Tipp's second early goal, but Mangan, a frustrated Corkonian, got her point across.

Numbers Game

1,250 Seamie Heffernan's sterling fine for his whip use on Brave Anna on Friday. He was also banned for nine days.

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