Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Tony nominates a big-price fancy for Saturday's Irish Derby, while highlighting key trainers currently among the winners.

  • Wednesday 24 June
  • Blog
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Following a burst of high-class racing during the first week back, it was down to brass tacks again in Ireland last week with a programme of mainly low to middle grade handicaps and maidens, vital to facilitate a large horse population that had been laid up for two-and-a-half months.

As of Tuesday evening, there were 147 Flat races since the resumption of racing, and it is just about possible to draw some conclusions – though nothing hard and fast – on what is happening.

In general, I am dubious of short spurts of trainer form as it is always a small sample size when someone will invariably blow hot or cold, but there are some interesting things going on nonetheless. For instance, it was business as usual for Aidan O’Brien with 20 winners and 41 places from 98 runners this month; respective win and place strike-rates of 20.4% and 41.8% tow in line with his five-year averages of 20.8% and 44.5%. While he won both 1,000 Guineas, Royal Ascot for O'Brien was only okay - any year when he is not top trainer there rates a little disappointing. The Saturday of the meeting was particularly so, as his two fancied juveniles, More Beautiful and Admiral Nelson, finished down the field, allowing that they were both backing up much sooner than would typically be the case.

Things didn’t get any better in the St James’s Palace, the race that decided the top trainer prize at the meeting. There was criticism for Ballydoyle from some quarters regarding their apparent use of team tactics, bringing up the entire area of horses being ridden to their own merits. But, even their tactics were off here as Wichita seemed to go too slow in front.

The overall time of the race was only 0.17 seconds (about a length) slower than the earlier Coronation Stakes, but that was after a much weaker earlier pace; where Palace Pier did the last two furlongs in 23.39 seconds, it had taken Alpine Eagle 25.75 seconds.

Wichita was theoretically in the right place, sitting on a slow gallop, but he is the wrong horse for that; he previously put in a career-best when forcing a strong pace at Newmarket and wouldn’t have the pace of Palace Pier or Pinatubo. There should be better to come from him in a truer-run race, though the Sussex Stakes may emphasise speed too much.

For Ger Lyons, the first fortnight of the restart was business as usual, only better. Not only did he win a first Classic, but he matched O’Brien in terms of strike-rate, courtesy of 14 winners and 28 places from 61 runners - a good effort for returns of 23% and 45.9%, both better than his five-year averages of 16% and 37.1%. Siskin was the standout, and remains clear favourite for the aforementioned Sussex Stakes, but his two-year-olds also started well, and there were a trio of Listed wins for Nickajack Cave, Heliac and Lemista, while late 1,000 Guineas non- runner Roca Roma broke her maiden at Gowran.

The fast start of Jessica Harrington was a little surprising, as I’d wondered if the yard would be able to build on 2019, or see some regression. Prior to 2017, Harrington never had more than 30 Flat winners, but that number rose to 42 in both 2017 and 2018, and then 63 last year. Those figures referring to the official Flat season rather than Dundalk in the winter.

But the strength in numbers is there again this year – the trainer stated in a Racing Post stable tour that she had 140 in for the season, having run 134 individual horses the previous year – and Harrington now has to rate as a bona fide top-five Flat trainer.

The constantly evolving pecking order of her three-year-old fillies has been fascinating to watch since last season, and is still ongoing. Albigna seemed the leader early last year, only for Alpine Eagle to step in and win the Debutante before going M.I.A. Millisle then came out of nowhere to win the Cheveley Park before Albigna reasserted herself on Arc day, while Cayenne Pepper was sprinkled in too.

Both Millisle and Albigna disappointed this year, but Alpine Eagle was better than ever on a belated return in the Coronation, though could have future targets dictated by the ground. She seems back on top for the moment at least. June, however, was not so kind to two of the more usual members of Irish Flat racing’s top five. Dermot Weld had just three winners from 49 runners, with 12 places, while Jim Bolger recorded only one winner from 55 runners, with 13 places; both would typically do well in March and April in a standard season. Mick Halford  struggled with one winner and five places from 33 runners.

Elsewhere, it has been a so-so start for Joseph O’Brien courtesy of 8 winners and 27 places from 103 winners, though most of them came in the second week of racing’s return. Stae Of Rest was a rare winning juvenile debutante for the yard at Fairyhouse last week, and this colt impressed with how he finished off the race, pulling clear with a Ballydoyle first starter - the time comparing well to the later maidens for older horses. State Of Rest looks one to follow.

Joseph’s brother Donnacha has not trained a winner since resumption – and will likely be glad to have gotten that initial monkey off his back at Dundalk in February – but he was a little unlucky with six places from 13 runners. The vast majority of his horses showed promise. Fancy Blue was notable in that regards during the Irish 1,000 Guineas, as were Sherpa, Lugnaquilla and Oh So True, the last-named evidence of the support he receives, having cost €750,000 at the sales.

Further down the ranks, Johnny Murtagh was notably hot early with 11 winners and 19 places from 52 runners. Murtagh had himself been unlucky for much of last season, enduring a run of placed horses without winners until past the mid-point of the campaign when things evened out. The swings are going Murtagh's way now, and he seems strong with his handicappers around a mile - Champers Elysees, Mirann and So Suave all impressed in early-season wins.

Denis Hogan would typically leave something to work on with his early-season runners, but has been quick from the gates this time with around with 7 winners and 15 places from 50 runners. Those numbers include wins for both his top-class sprinters, Make A Challenge and Sceptical, the latter having gone down narrowly in the Diamond Jubilee on Saturday. The easier six furlongs of the July Cup should prove more suitable.

Hogan also won the seven-furlong handicap at Leopardstown on Sunday with Turbine, the seven-year-old just back from a 14-month ban for a positive Nandrolone test last year. Hogan was cleared of any wrongdoing as the vet who had the horse in his care accepted he had mistakenly administered the substance to the horse.

When the penalty was announced, the IHRB said that ‘the horse cannot run again until tests have confirmed there’s no trace of the substance. If the horse is looking to run in April of next year the tests will have to come back clean.’ It was disappointing to see no reference to this clean test in the lead-up to the race, even if it was only for perception, given that Turbine remains the only horse to test positive for anabolic steroids in Ireland.

***

In a Flat season like no other, there is something reassuringly familiar about an Irish Derby dominated by Aidan O’Brien horses, the trainer having 10 of the 19 remaining entries after yesterday’s declaration stage.

This is no standard Irish Derby though, as there will be no runners from abroad and no Epsom form, while only three of the field won a Group race. O’Brien himself looks to have kept his ‘A team’ for Epsom where they face the potent challenge of English King and Kameko.

Santiago sets the standard with an official rating of 111, but the trainer didn’t seem particularly keen on running him back quickly after his Royal Ascot win. That race was run at a strong gallop so may have taken something out of him. In general, horses backing up from that meeting struggle here, with just one winner from 26 runners and four places during the last 23 years - that being Desert King in 1997, though this remains a very different year.

There seems room for improvement and he could get involved. Joseph O’Brien seemed wise to that when supplementing New York Girl yesterday; this may well prove a weaker race than either of her other potential targets, the Pretty Polly or either Oaks. Her late entry may not reflect well on the main challenger from the yard, Crossfirehurricane, who looked a relative speedster to this point and may not want the ground to soften (there was rain overnight with more due towards the weekend).

The one that interests me now is TIGER MOTH, who looks on a sharp upward curve. He made his debut last backend at the Curragh, shaping with promise when a fast-finishing third despite being unfancied. The form of that race also looks reasonably solid, with the winner landing a Listed race next time.

He returned to Leopardstown earlier this month in what looked a strong maiden over 1m2f - Ballydoyle ran four horses that filled the first four places. While there was support for each at various stages, it was Tiger Moth who was backed late and won with a bit in hand, always travelling smoothly and quickening up after having to wait for his run, strong at the line.

A mile-and-a-half is worry for him on breeding, but he seems a notably professional type who settles well for one so inexperienced. In a normal year, it would not be unreasonable to expect a good maiden winner like him to go for a Derby trial and produce an effort that would rate into the 100s, maybe even low 110s. The reality is it may not take an awful lot more to win this race. There is also the sense this race fits in well for him having had his last run 18 days ago versus those returning from Royal Ascot.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Curragh 19:15, 27 June 2020

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