Sunday 18 March 2018

Smullen delivers for Palmer in Oaks

Champion jockey excels on Covert Love for first win in the fillies' Classic

Pat Smullen gives the thumbs-up after his victory aboard Covert Love in Saturday’s Irish Oaks
Pat Smullen gives the thumbs-up after his victory aboard Covert Love in Saturday’s Irish Oaks
Trainer Dermot Weld

Richard Forrestal

Covert Love defied modest origins to secure a decisive triumph under Pat Smullen in Saturday's Darley Irish Oaks.

The Azamour filly is on record as having changed hands for €26,000 at Goffs in 2013. However, she was actually bought back by her Rathcormac, Co Cork-based breeder, Hugo Merry.

Merry clearly took a view that his filly was worth more than whatever she was making at Goffs; his judgement has been proved correct in spectacular style. He syndicated Covert Love with a few friends and they sent her to the straight-talking Hugo Palmer in Newmarket.

Palmer only acquired his licence in 2011, but is among a handful of especially progressive young handlers on either side of the Irish Sea. Yesterday, he capped a memorable weekend by saddling the James Doyle-ridden Home Of The Brave to foil Gordon Lord Byron in the Minstrel Stakes.

That was his sixth winner from his last eight runners. Palmer actively encouraged Covert Love's owners to stump up the €40,000 required to supplement her for the Curragh classic.

Given that it was the sum total of her earnings and that she had won only a Newcastle Listed race on her previous start, it was a bold call - it was one thing for Coolmore to supplement Curvy, quite another for the Fomo Syndicate to cough up for a romantic stab at glory.

It was a calculated risk and all concerned deserve credit for the courage of their convictions. Remember, Covert Love was beaten six lengths on her all-weather debut at Lingfield in the autumn, broke her maiden on the all-weather at Chelmsford and won a York handicap off a mark of 83 on her second start this year.

In that sense, she has plenty in common with the Irish Derby victor, Jack Hobbs. Palmer, who extended the Irish Oaks draught for Irish trainers other than Aidan O'Brien to 12 years and counting, has handled her expertly.

Crucially, in no way does Covert Love's success devalue the Irish Oaks from an objective perspective. She was an improving filly going into the race with the scope to step up, which is what she did. She is due to take in the Yorkshire Oaks next, after which we should have a better grasp on the extent of her ability.

Contrary to some previous hysteria from various corners, Saturday's race reiterated that the elite three-year-old fillies are an up-to-standard bunch without being anything spectacular. Jessica Harrington's Jack Naylor left behind a middling Epsom turn to finish second, edging out Curvy.

David Wachman's filly also began 2015 in handicaps, and she had no excuse on Saturday. She ran well but her progression may have plateaued.

Together Forever set a searching gallop under Seamie Heffernan, though it wasn't a suicidal pace. After all, she still beat five others to finish a respectable fourth, and her closest pursuer early on was the eventual winner. The biggest disappointment of the race was her Ballydoyle stable-mate, Words.

Like Covert Love, Words was an unknown quantity, and she still is, as we learned nothing about her. Dropped out at the rear, she was never in the race. Notwithstanding that she lacked experience, the tactics deployed were surprising as her stamina was proven.

In contrast, Pat Smullen judged it to a nicety on Covert Love. He left Together Forever alone but sat a clear second. Covert Love was well placed to pounce when the leader wilted a furlong out, and she responded generously to complete a treble on the day for her rider.


It was yet another example of Smullen's uncomplicated brilliance. The very best riders have a knack of keeping things simple, and there are few better practitioners at delivering than the Offaly native.

Few would argue by now that Ryan Moore isn't in a league of his own these days and Frankie Dettori is obviously an all-time great, but there aren't many better Flat jockeys than Smullen.

Richard Hughes revealed at the weekend that he will bring forward his retirement date, nominating the end of Glorious Goodwood as the point from which he will concentrate his full attention on his new training venture.

Hughes is a gifted rider who has probably become a little frustrated by the way in which things have panned out since he made his initial announcement earlier in the year. Unexpectedly, he has found himself dispensable, with Richard Hannon promoting the likes of Pat Dobbs and Sean Levey with an eye on next year.

For all Hughes' undoubted brilliance, though, he is not a rider synonymous with keeping things simple. That isn't meant as a criticism, per se, but, like the similarly skilled Jamie Spencer, his default setting is to cover horses up, and that can render them hostages to fortune more often. They offer something different and that is to be applauded, but their style has a tendency to leave questions unanswered more frequently than Moore, Smullen or Dettori.

You've got Doyle and William Buick at the head of a serious emerging crop. In terms of the overall package, though, taking into account talent, big-race composure, experience, professionalism and attitude, Smullen is among the world's finest.

The seven-time champion is blazing a trail to his eighth title, and his worth is now being recognised outside these shores. Apart from his famous victory on Free Eagle, he excelled at Royal Ascot on Snow Sky for Michael Stoute and is increasingly becoming a go-to rider for blue-chip spares.

Inevitably, trainers like Stoute and Hannon will make overtures, but Dermot Weld (pictured) won't allow his man be easily prized away, the same way Mick Kinane wasn't.

With so many owners retaining jockeys these days, the lure of relocating to ride for someone of Stoute's undoubted calibre would be even less tempting than in Kinane's time. For now at least, then, the suspicion is that Smullen can have his cake and eat it.

Kennedy foils Geraghty on line

Will Kennedy is enjoying his best start to a season and rode like a man brimful of belief in getting Gran Maestro up in Saturday's Summer Hurdle at Market Rasen.

The Curragh native looked set to finish second on Richard Newland's previously frustrating charge when Barry Geraghty coaxed Hammersly Lake to the front halfway up the run-in.

However, Kennedy got his 16/1 shot partner up on the line in dramatic style. It was his sixth successive winning day on duty.

At Newton Abbot yesterday, Innishannon, Co Cork native Aidan Coleman bagged a short-priced double aboard Dubai Prince and Lincoln County for John Ferguson. Coleman is Richard Johnson's closest pursuer, while his fellow Rebel Noel Fehily is hot on his heels. Fehily enjoyed a double of his own at Stratford, the second of which, Penglai Pavilion, was another odds-on shot trained by Ferguson.

More doubles At Tipperary

Closer to home, the old firm of Andrew Lynch and Henry De Bromhead netted a Tipperary brace.

Lynch got Tisamystery (7/1) to win for a first time since 2013 in a handicap before foiling the gambled-on Invincible Don on Pierlow (9/2) in the beginners' chase. "Andrew gave him a super ride," De Bromhead stressed. "I thought it might be a dead-heat."

Later, Nenagh's Jimmy Finn saddled Coldstonesober to win for a second Sunday in a row. After obliging over flights at Sligo last week, the nine-year-old 11/2 shot capitalised on Gallant Tipp's last fence fall to hack up over fences for Kevin Sexton.

Tweet of the weekend

Bryan Cooper (@92Bryan92)

So they said the ground was good last night in @KilbegganRaces my thumb says there was more firm than good in it...

Bryan Cooper posts a snap of the thumb (pictured below) that he dislocated at Kilbeggan on Friday night - costing him the mount on the Midlands National winner, Ravished. The Kerryman hopes to return in time for the Galway races at the end of the month.

Numbers Game

59 Entries made for the first €300,000 edition of the Guinness Galway Hurdle. Top-rated on a mark of 160 for the July 30 handicap is Edward O'Grady's Champion Hurdle sixth Kitten Rock, while Mick Winters has put his 2012 winner Rebel Fitz in the Hurdle and the Galway Plate a day earlier. There are 68 Plate entries, the highest-rated of which is Willie Mullins' Boston Bob on 157.

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