Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Our Irish expert Tony Keenan has a look at some notebook entries from the opening day of the Irish Turf Flat Season.

  • Thursday 26 March
  • Blog
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Opening Day Of The Irish Turf Flat Season

The flat turf season began at Naas on Monday and brought to mind summer evenings at Leopardstown, Bellewstown and even – god forbid – Galway; those days seem a long way off with Irish racing brought to a halt on Tuesday and in truth I would take an industry day full of 45-65s at an empty Gowran if it meant all was well and we were back on track.

As for a star to follow through whatever shape the season takes, I am not sure there was one at Naas. Sir Dragonet produced a neither here nor there effort in the Devoy Stakes, having no excuses but with improvement likely to come for fitness and up in trip; he seems to have flat-lined since his wide-margin Chester Vase win.

The winner Numerian posted a career-best effort off being gelded and a six-month break, this 10-furlong trip suiting more than the mile he spent most of 2019 racing over, while Halimi ran his usual honest race in third.

The Group 3 Park Express Stakes was the other feature but it may be a race not to drawn firm conclusions from; run over a mile, most of the field seemed ten-furlong plus fillies so it is hard to know what to make of the form.

Lemista won well enough and has an upward trending profile if you strike out her second run at Cork; that looks worth doing as it was run at a very slow gallop. The runner-up Hamariyna also deserves credit having been off the track for 271 days and carrying a penalty; notably weak the betting, her yard does not typically fire on all cylinders this early in the season.

Even So was a well-backed odds-on favourite and while she could only manage third, she looks more of a middle-distance type while similar comments apply to the sixth Cerro Bayo; Jim Bolger’s four-year-old had run (and won) just once before over an extended 10 furlongs and was outpaced before staying on, finding the trip too sharp. Her jaw was cocked a little in the straight but I am inclined to give her a pass for now; though the ridges on this track have been evened out in recent years, it sometimes causes horses to look more awkward than they are.

Perhaps the most interesting races on the card were those for the less-heralded horses. Bolger and O’Brien fought out the finish of the opening juvenile maiden but Brian Nolan’s Forever My Girl might not have been far behind them had things gone better.

She got squeezed out at the stalls and left behind in the early stages before running on very well and while beaten seven lengths in the end she lost plenty of that in the first furlong. Her yard has had success with the family with her half-brother Danielles Diamond winning a two-year-old maiden last year.

Woodford General was both an impressive and well-backed winner of the six-furlong maiden but the one to take the eye was the debutante Red Ball Of Fire. Drawn widest of all, he shifted into the open space at the start which cost him ground and needed an early reminder before switching to the centre of the track. From there he moved back to the outer before running on well into sixth having been last from the gates.

I was impressed with the win of Fastar in the six-furlong handicap. A six-year-old now, this was his first run over a sprint trip since his juvenile days for another yard and he was a commanding winner who is unexposed at this sort of distance. He had shaped well in some good mile handicaps last season, often travelling well without delivering in the finish, and it was interesting to read Ger O’Leary’s assistant Adrian Joyce comment afterwards that ‘he worked on Friday up the grass and worked really well with a couple of fast horses.’

Joyce himself was a trainer until recently and had an excellent record with sprinters (21 of his 27 career wins came over seven furlongs or shorter) so perhaps he has played his part here. Further down the field, Tresorier shaped better than the result but that has been a theme with him since arriving in Ireland and he is now 1 from 25 lifetime.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Madrid Handicap was the pace with five-furlong type Fan Club Rules taking them along at his usual gallop. That suited the winner In From The Cold who struggled with the early pace after a slow start and got up late to claim Camachita (traded at nearly 1/4 in-running), the second looking like a filly that doesn’t want to be in front too soon.

The King Of Kells, a stablemate of the winner, was third and might be the one to take from it; he had race fitness on his side here but did best of those that set a strong gallop.

The closing mile maiden won by Russian Emperor looked a strong one, the winner doing well to get himself out of a pocket he had spent most of the straight in late on, but runner-up Lobo Rojo deserves a mention too having got hampered at the start and had to wait for a run, possibly making his challenge in the unfavoured part of the track.

The seventh Chimeric is another too note. He was slowly-away but made up his ground stylishly in the straight, again up the unfavoured inner, and was travelling as well as any a furlong and half out only for his run to flatten out, not given a hard time.

To Race Or Not To Race

The decision of the Irish racing to continue for a brief period behind closed doors during the coronavirus situation was one that I went back-and-forth on. Having initially viewed it as a PR own-goal that followed close on the heels of a Cheltenham Festival that is hard to justify going ahead in public now, I had to acknowledge that the participants did seem to following the social distancing protocols well for all that we hardly needed it rammed down our throats by everyone involved for a week and half.

It takes a certain degree of resilience to do that – and perhaps a little avarice – but I ultimately came round to the realisation that there was a much bigger issue going on and it was best for racing to cancel for the moment, allowing that the decision was taken out of Horse Racing Ireland’s hands on Tuesday.

The reputational damage this may have done to the sport will only be known in time and I have concerns that Cheltenham will be a sorry chapter in the history of COVID-19 in these islands when it comes to be written but one thing that seems likely is that HRI showed themselves capable of running things smoothly without spectators and positioned racing to be one of the first sports to get back when things return to normal, whatever the new version of that may be.

Let’s hope that is sooner rather than later, not only for the selfish reasons that I want racing back but also because it will mean things have taken a positive turn for the nation’s health. Be safe and stay at home.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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