Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Tony reviews last weekend's Irish Derby meeting and unearths several interesting horses to follow.

  • Wednesday 01 July
  • Blog
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Derby third Dawn suffers luckless run

This year’s Irish Derby was not one for the purists, more Group 3 than top-level contest, but as a spectacle and betting medium I found it a lot more engaging than apparently classier races like those won by Camelot and Australia in 2012 and 2014 respectively - both of whom were sent off long odds-on and had little to beat.

There was plenty to take from Saturday evening’s Classic allowing that it wasn’t up to scratch as it was a well-run contest, unlike the majority of those that took place on the Curragh round track over the weekend.

Santiago would not have been an obvious Irish Derby winner at the start of the season, having taken three goes to break his maiden in 2019 when rated 94, but there were reasons for those defeats, needing the run when unfancied on debut and running into Alpine Star at Galway second time out.

Maturity is an obvious reason for his improvement, but tactics have played their part too. Having been inclined to push the pace as a juvenile, he was ridden with restraint this season, something both Aidan O’Brien and Seamie Heffernan say brought him along.

This race was choreographed for him, and Heffernan would have known a strong pace was coming; basically, things went right for him, whereas small things went wrong for Tiger Moth. Rain in the lead-up to the meeting was not ideal for the runner-up, and he also had a wider trip than the winner on the bend, who had the benefit of the rail. The margin of defeat was only a head.

Tiger Moth’s profile was perhaps his greatest disadvantage, however, coming into the race with just two runs, both in maidens. It is not unusual for two-year-olds to jump directly from maidens into Group 1’s, but it is rare with three-year-olds. Since 2003, 147 three-year-olds ran in a UK or Irish Group 1 having had their last start in a maiden with just three winning and 10 placing; those three were Nightime, Ghanaati and Latrobe, the last-named coming in this race, but he had been a beaten favourite for a Group race before reverting to maiden company.

Aidan O’Brien has been the chief exponent of this strategy and it has been unsuccessful in the main; he did it 43 times with nine placing, though The Gurkha was able to make the jump from a Navan maiden to French Guineas winner in 2016. Interestingly, two of his main rivals in England, John Gosden and Michael Stoute, do this infrequently, having had seven and five runners of this profile respectively since 2003.

Irish Derby third Dawn Patrol also came from a maiden last time, the same one as Tiger Moth, and did not have things go his way. The rainstorm that came during the race obscured what happened before the straight, but there seemed to be scrimmaging between him and Fiscal Rules, as the injured Sherpa came back through the field. He had no luck in the straight either, meeting trouble two furlongs out, before a dramatic switch towards the centre of the track, which saw him finish fast.

Pepper's pot awaits after Pretty Polly promise

The other Group 1 over the weekend was more straightforward, with Magical dominant on her return in the Pretty Polly Stakes. Her trainer commented afterwards that ‘you usually see a big change between three to four, but something really strange happened the way she changed over the winter to this year. It’s obvious the power she has now.’

Were she a colt, talk like that might readily be dismissed as stallion hype – and she was a 2/5 shot after all – but there seems no reason to distrust it in her case and she may have improved. The stable’s other runner was Fleeting and her saga of late, but ultimately fruitless gains continues; it seems there is ‘held up’ and there is ‘Fleeting held up’. One can only presume there are very good reasons for not riding her more forward – likely it has been tried to no success back at Ballydoyle – but she continues to be one of racing’s more frustrating watches.

Perhaps the one to take from the Pretty Polly is runner-up Cayenne Pepper, with a view to going up in trip for the Irish Oaks. There had been a bit of negativity around her in the spring, Shane Foley commenting early in the lockdown that the time off would do her good, Jessica Harrington then stated in a Racing Post stable tour in June that she had ‘been slower to come to hand than some of my other three- year-old fillies.’

Against that backdrop, this was a fine return. She got hampered after three furlongs, which put her on the back-foot, but stuck at things well in the straight and should strip fitter next time.

***

Three to follow from the Curragh

Away from the feature races, there were a trio of horses that caught the eye.

Nothing definitive emerged on a sprint track draw bias over the three days but Colin Keane seemed to think the stands’ side was the place to be, racing alone there on Frenetic to win the First Flier Stakes easily, before breaking sharply from a middle stall to secure the rail on Rockingham winner Strong Johnson.

With that in mind, Flaming Moon ran well in the three-year-old sprint handicap on Saturday, doing best of those on the far side and having to do lots of racing on his own late. He may have to wait a while, but there is a premier handicap confined to three-year-olds at Naas in August that would suit Flaming Moon perfectly.

Elsewhere, the maiden won by Hudson River on Sunday was not a truly-run race, and Ace Aussie looked the one most disadvantaged by that, finishing quickly to take second. The only horses faster than him over the final three furlongs on the card were sprinters from the Greenlands and Rockingham.

Nor did Ace Aussie seem a particularly clued-up debutant, which can be a theme with colts from the Harrington yard. Whereas her fillies have a 21.4% win and 48.2% place strike-rate on debut since the start of 2019, her colts are 4.0% win and 16.0% place first time out, before improving markedly on their second and third starts. Part of that may be that her fillies were just better, but she may also be taking a more long-term view with the colts.

In the final race of the weekend, Sharjah shaped well in coming from a long way back in the two-mile handicap. The concern with him pre-race had been that he simply wasn’t a Flat horse; a notably slick hurdler who had disappointed in two runs on the level in 2018. This fourth-place effort - when meeting trouble - suggested otherwise. Ruby Walsh said on Racing TV that he would need the run and was in training not for a summer jumps campaign but to run on the Flat with the obvious target for Sharjah being the big amateur riders’ handicap at Galway.

Paddy Mullins, who struck up an excellent partnership with the horse, will be able to ride him there, as he will have plenty of weight, and he stated on a few occasions that it is a race he always wanted to win. A past winner of the Galway Hurdle running off a Flat mark in the low-90s, he would seem to have a leading chance.
***
Johnny Murtagh’s excellent recent form has been well-documented by now, but there is a chance this may be a hot season rather than just a hot start. Murtagh would typically have his horses improving for the run and it seems that may well be the case again this year. Consider the record of his horses on their first and second starts this season:

Start         W-R Strike-rate     Places Place strike-rate    Actual/Expected
First           7-27       25.9%            12         44.4%                                1.99
Second     4-20      20.0%           12         60.0%                                1.40

The win strike-rate drops on the second start, but the place strike-rate takes a jump, and even this doesn’t tell the full story; five of those placed runners were beaten either a head or a short-head.

There are grounds for thinking Murtagh's horses are not only starting well, but improving for the run, and there are a few that catch the eye over the next few days. Red Kelly runs in the 6:30 at Leopardstown later this evening on his handicap debut having shaped well in a couple of good maidens, most recently behind Tiger Moth at the same track. Meanwhile, Sonnyboyliston was an impressive winner in a sharp time at Gowran last month and can go well in the Royal County Handicap at Navan on Friday.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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