JAPAN AND MUSTAJEER MAKE IRISH EYES SMILE
It was a good few days for Irish-trained horses at the Ebor meeting last week with four winners (from four different yards) in all, that total the highest since five in 2014, with Japan and Mustajeer winning the two feature races.
I have been a bit down on Ballydoyle’s 2019 season here in recent weeks – with good cause, I think – but Japan’s win in the Juddmonte International provided a timely jolt to their campaign after a quiet few weeks; they could have found their star for the autumn ahead.
Certainly, it looks a case that he has improved past those stablemates who finished around him when he was third in the Derby, something that didn’t seem particularly likely at the time. It is possible he was still needing the run on his second outing of the campaign there; he had met a setback in the spring and had a rushed preparation for the Dante.
One of the winter favourites for the Derby, he always had scope to improve at three having done all his racing as a juvenile in a single calendar month and he has been on a steep upward curve since Epsom, winning at Royal Ascot and in France before last week.
Even so, those wins could be picked at: the King Edward VII victory came when getting a more efficient ride than anything else in the field while his Grand Prix de Paris success was underwhelming given the price he was sent off.
Last week was something different, and better. Racing over ten furlongs for the first time since the Dante and taking on the older horses, he narrowly beat Crystal Ocean, that one probably not at his very best.
Per Simon Rowlands, the pace was particularly hot between four and two furlongs out which has likely suited Japan as he stays well while the extended ten furlongs and long straight were also in his favour.
It could be argued that his next target – the Irish Champion Stakes – may not set up so well but perhaps the most pertinent point is that he is improving now and this win likely didn’t get to the bottom of him; he looks the one to beat at Leopardstown which the ante-post market reflects.
One final takeaway from Japan and the International Stakes; it looks significant that this was the race that Aidan O’Brien opted to run him in. Japan was the ninth three-year-old O’Brien ran in the York feature since 2000 that was sent off 5/1 or shorter, that list comprising Giant’s Causeway, Black Minnaloushe, Dylan Thomas, Mastercraftsman, Australia, Cliffs Of Moher, Churchill and Saxon Warrior.
They are some illustrious predecessors and perhaps further indication that he has left behind his fellow middle-distance three-year-olds like Sir Dragonet, Anthony Van Dyck and Broome.
Ger Lyons’ 2019 season will likely be defined by Siskin but his training performance in winning the Ebor with Mustajeer deserves recognition too. It is not so much that it was a good piece of target training – Lyons said that the race has been a long-term plan but was quick to point out that was the case for almost everything else in the field – but rather that Mustajeer has long had the potential to go the wrong way temperamentally.
He has an interesting backstory having had two trainers before arriving in Ireland, costing 50,000 guineas out of Owen Burrows’ yard in July 2017. With horses like that, the purchaser is often buying another trainer’s problems but Mustajeer made a bright start for his new yard, winning on his first outing at Naas in October when he was the last leg of a Colin Keane treble, the jockey en route to his championship at that stage.
Keane and connections could have been forgiven for getting frustrated with him thereafter as he won just one of his next ten starts, often looking on the edge mentally such as when he boiled over at the Curragh in June 2018 prior to what looked a winnable race.
Lyons even remarked in his blog that he was ‘not straightforward’ but still managed to coax career-bests from him in the last two Ebors, ironing out the creases to at least some degree, and the jockey hinted that things are not always simple with the horse in his post-race comments, saying that he ‘got there sooner than [he] wanted.’ All in all, a job well done.
ALL WEATHER CONCERNS
I had a very pleasant morning at Anthony McCann's open day Sunday just gone and it was great to see a strong local turnout; credit to the trainer and his chief backer Rita Shah for putting on good show.
Things have changed a lot at county Monaghan’s only racing yard since the days of Oliver Brady bidding for a Cheltenham Festival winner, McCann now essentially a flat trainer, with Dundalk his chief hunting ground; more than half of his winners since starting training have come at his local track.
McCann seemed less than enthusiastic about the possibility of a second all-weather track in the south of Ireland and – excuse my complete bias towards the north east – but I must agree.
Sentiment seems to have turned against Dundalk in the last few years with complaints about the surface and races being oversubscribed, particularly in the early part of the all-weather season. Many of the trainers in the south of the country seem to have become more vocal about the long journey to the track and how the cards finish too late.
The point about the surface is a valid one – if racing professionals aren’t happy running their horses on it then it is a problem, regardless of how usage rates there compare with other synthetic tracks – but the other concerns are less so; the high numbers of horses being balloted out tends only to happen at specific periods in the year while racing sometimes needs to recognise it is in the entertainment industry and has to work around the audience, not the other way around.
I would also wonder if another all-weather venue would lead to Dundalk becoming a second-class track, if only due to location. It is good to have racetracks away from the obvious racing centres and while Dundalk hardly gets the most enthusiastic support in terms of attendance (it was behind only Clonmel in terms of average crowd in 2018), at least some of that is due to the timing of the meetings.