O'BRIEN "GAINS" PRAISE FOR PROTECTING RACING'S IMAGE
The idea had been to lead with how Irish horses fared over Arc weekend, but events rather overtook that plan, with the GAIN contaminated feed situation forcing 11 O’Brien-trained horses to be taken out of Sunday’s races late the evening before.
This was a dramatic and fast-evolving story with Aidan O’Brien deserving praise for pre-emptive action to prevent possible reputational damage to the sport, speaking for the entire first family of Irish racing in saying the decision was taken ‘to protect the integrity of racing’, their horses also pulled out of Killarney and Tipperary on the same day.
There are some broader questions raised by the whole fiasco. GAIN is a major feed provider and surely serve a number of other yards, yet Roger Varian was the only other trainer to withdraw horses over the weekend.
The IHRB report that they do test for the offending contaminant, but there were no findings of the substance in this country, which was backed up Aidan O’Brien’s private testing at the Irish Equine Centre returning negative results, though this is not the same lab used by the IHRB who changed service provider to a UK-based company in 2018.
It was the French tests that turned up positives for his Sunday runners, and in the aftermath O’Brien promised daily tests to discover how long it takes to clear a horse’s system. This is the level of detail the big yards can go into, and we saw in the Joseph O’Brien Pedisnap ‘salt lick’ case two years ago that he retained samples of all foodstuffs and supplements used - likely in case something like this were to happen.
One wonders if this is the case with every stable, however, with the IHRB advising in their seminars on prohibited substances that trainers record batch numbers on feed and such. Those batch numbers could be important should winners around this time start returning positive tests, though it could also be concerning if no such adverse results are found.
IRISH MISS ARC OPPORTUNITY
As for questions that might be a little easier to answer, let us take a look at events on the Longchamp track itself. Bar Enable, the Arc was a race more about who wasn’t there, and a few Irish connections might feel it was an opportunity that was missed, Aidan O’Brien chiefly.
In the absence of Love, the Ballydoyle challenge seemed more numbers than quality, but the form lines involved in the finish suggested this was one they might have won, Mogul having beaten the second and fourth well in the Prix Niel, for all that he was unproven on the ground.
Magical too had beaten the winner, Sottsass, two lengths in the Irish Champion Stakes, though the Arc never seemed on the cards for her despite having run in it during the last two years. Even allowing for the French trainers getting improvement from Sottsass, In Swoop and Gold Trip, both the O’Brien runners would likely have been involved in the finish.
TARNAWA TIPPED FOR THE TOP
Then there was Tarnawa, who won the Prix Opera later on the card - her Prix Vermeille form boosted in the Arc as the runner-up Raabihah finished fifth, shaping better than the result. Tarnawa is a big improver this season during a campaign where Dermot Weld had just five Group winners, three of them at the highest level.
Though she won by only a short neck in the Opera, she impressed in doing so, coming from off the pace with both trip and ground seemingly against her. It is hardly outlandish, therefore, to wonder where she might have finished in the big one.
Weld planned an autumn campaign for her, but that hasn’t meant the same in 2020 as in previous seasons, with the horses she met not having endured long seasons due to COVID restrictions from March to May, so she deserves more credit for stepping in when her rivals were already near peak.
For all his creativity in placing horses over the years, Weld can sometimes be a little defensive on this front, though this filly may have surprised him having been rated only 108 at the start of the season. She did not look like she would be out of place competing against the males, however.
The one she beat on Sunday was Alpine Star, who left the impression there may be more in her. Having been keen early, she raced close to the pace, which seems not to suit as she is better playing the hunter rather than the hunted role.
She has had a good season and turned out the pick of the Harrington three-year-old fillies, though as a group it was disappointing to see them return just one top-level win. Millisle and especially Albigna have not delivered on their juvenile promise, the latter again below-par at Tipperary on Saturday, though at least Cayenne Pepper seems on the way back, having put in her best effort of the year during Irish Champions Weekend.
On the subject of talented Irish-trained mares, it would be remiss not to mention Princess Zoe. The Cadran was hardly a strong Group 1, but that hardly matters to Tony Mullins and Paddy Kehoe, who deserve credit for giving lesser heralded riders the opportunity on her all season.
MULLINS CONTINUES ON THE MARCH
On the domestic front, things were relatively quiet, though the quality of National Hunt racing on offer clicked up a gear or two, for all that a handful of the more interesting runners were taken out due to quick ground, notably the Arkle winner Put The Kettle On at Gowran, and Beacon Edge, who was well-backed against Saint Roi at Tipperary.
Willie Mullins continued his impressive record in valuable jumps races since that code restarted in late June - of the 19 races worth €20,000 or more to the winner, he won seven, with three runner-ups, all this despite not having had any runner in five others.
His Easy Game made it look just that in the PWC Champion Chase at Gowran, though it was the perfect setup for him. He got a cheap few lengths at the start, before dictating a race run in a finishing speed of 107.4% when par is around 102%, while conditions also suited, a few of his rivals preferring slower ground and/or jumping poorly.
Still, his was an easy victory in a decent time, and he’s had just six starts over fences, this win setting up a possible clash with Samcro at Down Royal early next month, a race where the Gigginstown runner will have to carry a Grade 1 penalty.
Also likely for Down Royal is Sunday’s Joe Mac Novice Hurdle winner Shewearsitwell, who was about the most impressive winner of the weekend. Her trainer mentioned in a Racing TV interview afterwards that he intentionally kept her for the best novice hurdle around at this time of the year because ‘she was the best of our novices’, and while always wary of taking his comments at complete face value - especially with the winter horses yet to reappear - the visual impression was backed up by the time.
She completed the two miles in an 8.4 seconds quicker time than Saint Roi in the following open Grade 3 hurdle, the experienced hurdlers not making up as much time during the final part of the race as might be expected either.
Her jumping was notably slick, especially for one that only had her first start over hurdles last month having made her racecourse debut in late July at Galway, and the form looks solid, the horses rated 141 and 135 in second and third respectively running their races.
As an aside, those Galway Festival bumpers seem to have been particularly strong this year with Shewearsitwell, Weseekhimhere and Slige Dala all looking well above average judged on subsequent efforts. Perhaps with no Fairyhouse or Punchestown this year, they drew a better quality of horse than would typically be the case, and the form looks worth following.