It has been some week for Irish racing, from Classics to face masks, plus all the usual drama included - breakthroughs were made, bubbles were burst, yet it was all reassuringly familiar as most of the big yards had their horses ready to fire.
Nobody awaited the Irish 2,000 Guineas more than Ger Lyons, and the race itself lived up to billing - the only thing to rival the action on track was footage of father and daughter Kerri watching from an empty Curragh stand - I would have pitied the metal grill behind the trainer had Siskin not got his run just before the furlong pole.
This was horse racing as a contact sport, Colin Keane forcing his way through the Ballydoyle ranks before his mount showed a trademark turn-of-foot. With that as his main asset, the Sussex Stakes at a speed-favouring Goodwood next time makes sense. Lyons has not been one for having runners in the UK in recent years – an average of seven per season in the last decade and no winners on those shores between 2014 and 2018 – and none will have been more high-profile than Siskin, but he showed just what he can do on his travels with Mustajeer last year.
There were a couple of eye-catching performances further down the field, with the runner-up Vatican City perhaps most unlucky. He didn’t travel as well as the winner, which may have been lack of experience and/or a need to step up in trip, but he got forced into a pocket by the bunching around two furlongs out when looking for a run, and just didn’t have the turn-of-foot of Siskin to pick up when getting daylight.
The son of Galileo wasn’t losing any ground on the winner inside the last furlong despite his jockey not going for everything. There is also a suspicion he was not fully tuned for this, Aidan O’Brien commenting in a stable tour elsewhere on site that ‘he’s just not quite there yet.’ The booking of Padraig Beggy, at best the third string rider at Ballydoyle, would back that theory up, along with a big market drift. Having been around 5/1 in the ante-post markets, he was 14/1 at post time, and there should be improvement to come for fitness and experience.
The third, Lope Y Fernandez, was a surprise runner, with O’Brien commenting in stable tours he was showing lots of speed and may not get a mile - fears that proved well-founded; still, it rates a positive that he ran here and was relatively well-fancied, indicative of good homework even with stamina concerns. He made a big move out wide in the hot part of the race and didn’t last home having traded 1/2 in-running. Friday’s drop back in trip for the Commonwealth Cup over 6f at Royal Ascot may suit. He rates around a 7/1 chance.
The 1,000 Guineas was a much cleaner race, the only semblance of trouble being New York Girl getting tight for room around the two-furlong pole. Peaceful ran out a comfortable winner, clearly benefitting from the fast ground, and it would be no surprise if she is back out again soon, Aidan O’Brien not one for molly-coddling his better fillies.
Donnacha O’Brien has not had a winner since the restart but his horses have been running well and Fancy Blue shaped with promise in second. This race was vastly different to the slowly-run contests he contested at two, but having been first off the bridle, she was then brought wide for a clear run and came home to great effect. Her breeding is all stamina and her trainer had been making noises about staying trips in the lead-up to the race, so this looked a good Oaks trial.
Albigna was disappointing - as she can be on occasions - having sweated up before racing keenly. Connections were inclined to blame the ground, but it is worth keeping in mind Shane Foley’s comments that while she was up there with the best he has ridden, she is also ‘quirky.’ Consistency may not be her strong suit.
A filly to run well down the field was Apricot Moon. The least experienced in the field having had just one prior run, she seemed a bit lost in a race of this stature, keen early before coming off it soon enough but having looked like she would fall back two furlongs out, only to run on well into seventh. This was a big step forward and softer contests await.
One notable feature since racing returned was the use of different track layouts at some of the Irish tracks. Last Tuesday at Leopardstown, the racing line was quite tight on the inner track with several jockeys commenting that it was difficult to come from off the pace, seven of the eight winners raced prominently.
At Gowran on Thursday, there was an even more striking change, a slip rail introduced at the seven furlong start which was complimented by a few riders afterwards. Chris Hayes said it made ‘a massive difference [as it] gave the outside horses a chance [and] took the pressure off the inside horses as well’. Those thoughts were echoed by Leigh Roche who said the ‘new start is very good for lads [as] you’re getting out and not getting wiped out.’
A low draw over seven furlongs on decent ground had traditionally been very important, a point made by Mick Kinane in the course guides section of the website ‘as the bend comes up very quickly, and getting caught wide on it is disastrous.’ That would be backed up by historical draw stats but things looked much fairer for this meeting. Of the six races over seven furlongs on the card, winners were drawn 11, 1, 10, 11, 15 and 10.
At the Guineas meeting at the Curragh, the sprint track was out in the centre, which was unusual -usually for the big meetings it would be out tight to the stands’ rail, which often creates a bias. Again Kinane commented: ‘On the sprint track, when they race up against the stand side, a high draw is always favoured to one extent or another, no matter what the ground is like, as there is a gradual camber from the stand side down to the far side, so the stands’ side is always that bit drier.’
I appreciate tracks have a lot on right now, involving biosecurity and cleanliness, but making the track layout information public needs work, as it is unsatisfactory to tune in for the first race and see the track configured in an unusual way. Sometimes these decisions are made in the interests of fairness, as with Gowran and the Curragh above, and the courses should be commended for that, but they also need to communicate the changes better.
Perhaps I am being a draw bore here, but these things are impactful, and it is simply not enough in receiving just a day-of-the-race update by social media hours before the first. One would think that tracks know in advance how things will be laid out and ideally they should be communicated at declaration stage with specific information on yardage out from the rail, perhaps even with an accompanied image. It’s not that hard.
It is sometimes said that Flat racing lacks characters, but that isn’t really true in Ireland. Jim Bolger is ‘a character’, I suspect Donnacha O’Brien is ‘a character’, and we have found out over the past week that Seamie Heffernan is certainly ‘a character.’
Heffernan’s media appearances have been restricted to cameos through his career, always playing second or third fiddle to the likes of Johnny Murtagh, Ryan Moore and the O’Brien brothers at Ballydoyle. But, there have been glimpses of mischief over the years, often when pipped by a better-fancied stablemate in a driving finish.
Now in his fifth decade, Heffernan has been front and centre over the past seven days in our sport-starved world. He made the front page of the Sunday Times in Ireland last weekend as the ‘masked man’ after Peaceful’s win, while he was interviewed three separate times during RTE’s coverage on Saturday.
Heffernan is a different type of cat, and I mean that in the nicest possible way, by turns humble, playful and blunt. Asked by Brian Gleeson if he had the choice in the 1,000 Guineas, the response was a direct ‘yes’, nothing more, and the one-liners kept coming.
He said: ‘It was [his] fourth Guineas and [he’d] like to ride another one’. When questioned about Magic Wand’s fitness he responded: ‘I won’t be leaving anything behind me, so hopefully she’ll be ready to win and start.’
Aidan O’Brien was described as ‘fairly good at what he does’, while Ryan Moore apparently ‘doesn’t always make the right decision!’ Heffernan himself was ‘falling in on a lot of good rides, hopefully I don’t make a mess of them.’
Most interesting of all was his comment that when riding homework at Ballydoyle, he ‘gives all the horse’s a handicap rating…in [his] head.’ One friend was quick to text after that: ‘Where can I subscribe?!’