Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Our Irish expert Tony Keenan has a look at the Galway Plate field and reflects on Ballydoyle's use of pacemakers in top-class races for the fairer sex.

  • Wednesday 24 July
  • Blog
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Galway fever is starting to kick in with less than a week to the summer highlight and entries are now out for all the feature races, flat and jumps, for the seven days ahead. At this point it is the Galway Plate market that looks most appealing for a bet with a few that might be vulnerable at the head of it.

Heron Heights is among the favourites but was a fortunate winner of a weak Pat Taaffe at Punchestown last time and has reserved his best for that track recently, his sole Galway run resulting in a down-the-field finish in the 2017 running of this race.

The other early market leader is Mengli Khan who has stamina to prove; connections had him tabbed a two-miler in the early part of the winter and while he extended to two-and-a-half miles in the spring this trip may be beyond him. His Ascot Stakes run, when relatively well-fancied, was disappointing too.

Similar comments about stamina apply to Azzuri who was brilliant over a fast two miles at Ayr in April, clocking a fast time in the process, and he didn’t get home in the big amateur riders’ handicap at the meeting last year on the flat, albeit ridden too forcefully. Perhaps the 18 furlong handicap chase on Sunday’s card would suit better but it doesn’t have the profile of the Galway Plate.

Borice has no issues with the trip but he didn’t look particularly well-treated on his run in the Thyestes and a pair of recent novice hurdle wins at Perth and Uttoxeter proved his wellbeing if not much else. Coney Island has back class and there was a glimmer of promise in his Ryanair run but the handicapper can hardly be considered lenient with a mark of 157 and his finishing effort can underwhelm.

My preference for the Plate is to look for horses that ran during the national hunt season proper rather than summer jumps types; the total prizemoney of €300,000 is so high it makes sense that trainers keep their good horses for it now.

Black Corton is the class horse in the field and this looks a good spot for him; though below the top graded performers, he is unexposed in handicaps and was better than ever on his last jumps start at Sandown. Since then he ran quite well at Royal Ascot and his trainer mooted giving him a breathing operation before this run though it is a slight concern that small fields have suited him so well to this point.

Snugsborough Benny was a course-and-distance winner of the Blazers last year, beating a pair of rivals that looked on top form on the day for all the race hasn’t really worked out, and was set too much to do in the Irish National at Fairyhouse. The negative with him is his mark and he could probably have done without the eight pounds rise he got for winning an ordinary race back in February.

One race that could play a part in this year’s Plate is the novice handicap chase run over a similar trip at the Punchestown Festival. There was a sense that this year’s running fell apart a bit with only five of the twelve starters completing but the overall time was good and it brought together a field full of graded form.

Pravalaguna was one of those non-completers, falling when in the lead at the fourth last, and should stay the trip given how well she gets two-and-a-half miles on softer ground. Though beaten a long way in this year’s JLT, she travelled strongly for much of the race and may not be badly-treated off 141.

Her jumping is a concern though and is a Mullins horse with another entry at the meeting so can’t be recommended just now and in any case my preference is for POKER PARTY. He was third in that Punchestown handicap chase, the race the same yard’s Shanahan’s Turn and Balko Des Flos ran in before winning the Plate in 2015 and 2017 respectively, and while it was a decent effort, the suspicion is that he was a little flat on the day.

He had been off 68 days before that run and it was his eighth outing since Listowel the previous September so could be forgiven for not being at his best; Henry De Bromhead also commented that he had a hard race at Naas on his previous start and it may have been that a break was needed.

That break has been had now and he was one of the most progressive handicappers around before Punchestown, impressing with how he jumped, travelled and battled at Naas on his penultimate start.

It was a well-run contest that produced a decent time and his sectional from the fourth-last fence was 77.6 seconds versus 76.2 seconds for Cadmium later on the same card; Cadmium was running over half a mile shorter in a Grade 2 and won the Topham by six lengths later in the spring and is now rated 162 whereas Poker Party is off 138 here. That looks a fair mark and he has the right profile for the race, so if freshened up from a break, he should go well.


It is unusual that the ride on a 20-1 shot beaten nearly ten lengths in a classic attracts much attention but so it was with Seamie Heffernan’s steer on Peach Tree in Saturday’s Irish Oaks at the Curragh.

The expectation pre-race had been that Peach Tree would help force a pace to suit her better-fancied stablemates Pink Dogwood and Fleeting, both of whom are strong stayers at the trip, but instead Frankie Dettori was able to dictate slow fractions on Star Catcher resulting in a race finishing speed of 112% when par for the course-and-distance is around 103%, Fleeting making up a lot of ground in the closing stages albeit seemingly held by the winner at the line.

Perhaps the result would have been different had Heffernan harried Dettori more but more interesting might be the broader point that Ballydoyle rarely use pace-making tactics in Group 1s for fillies, regardless of how well-fancied those runners are.

Since the start of 2016, there have been 38 Group 1s confined to fillies in the UK and Ireland where Aidan O’Brien has had multiple runners and 21 occasions where their fillies set the pace. But most of those front-runners were fillies that had employed similar tactics in their previous starts away from Group 1s, among them the likes of Hydrangea and Roly Poly who were well-suited by making their own running.

Looking back through the results, I made perhaps five fillies who were genuine pacemakers: Pocketfulofdreams for Rhododendron in the 2017 Oaks, Pretty Perfect for Seventh Heaven (who clearly was thought of as needing a pace!) in the Irish Oaks, Yorkshire Oaks and Champion Fillies & Mares in 2016, and Somehow for Minding in Oaks of the same year.

Ballydoyle had some brilliant fillies in that period, chiefly Minding and Winter, but in most cases their races were not subject to pace choreography by stablemates despite them often facing rivals from the same yard.

Expecting the yard to make a pace for lesser fillies like Pink Dogwood and Fleeting was wrong and a mistake I was guilty of myself as the reality is that, in the main, pace-making is not a thing for the Ballydoyle fillies.

Did Heffernan give Peach Tree the best chance of winning riding her as he did? Probably not as she had stayed well over 14 furlongs on her previous start and was hardly suited by a slowly-run mile-and-a-half but that is another discussion.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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