Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake looks back on the 2018 Irish Derby from The Curragh which went the way of the Joseph O'Brien-trained Latrobe.

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Last Saturday’s Irish Derby at the Curragh was a fascinating contest on paper, both in form and tactical terms. While not everyone was satisfied with the result and how it panned out, it certainly delivered excitement and tactical intrigue and there is any amount of angles from which to analyse the race from.

From a tactical perspective, some drew parallels with last year’s renewal of the Irish Derby. On that occasion it had been almost universally expected that the Ballydoyle runners would make it a strongly-run race, but they capitalised on this assumption by setting a much steadier pace in front and having their main contenders well positioned towards the front rank while their main rivals were dropped in having anticipated a much stronger pace.

While it would be easy to watch last Saturday’s renewal of the Irish Derby and assume that the Ballydoyle runners had pulled the same trick again, that was not the reality. Having spoken to multiple sets of Irish connections before and after the race on the subject of tactics in the race, it was clear that everyone was surprised by the lack of pace that transpired.

The Irish-based trainers very much expected Dee Ex Bee, Knight To Behold and/or Old Persian to go forward, but it seems all of the connections of those horses expected the Ballydoyle runners to force the pace and thus decided to ride quieter rather than get involved in a self-defeating pace duel.

Indeed, while there is a perception out there that it is difficult for foreign raiders to win a race like the Irish Derby as the home team won’t give them an inch anywhere, last Saturday’s feature race seemed to be an example of the mere threat of such treatment leading to the raiding party overthinking themselves into a knot of their own making.

This was most vividly illustrated by the ride given to Dee Ex Bee by Silvestre De Sousa. Considered the strongest stayer in the field, it was widely expected that he would be ridden very forward. However, having missed the kick by a length and been fired up to take the early lead, De Sousa seemed to spy Rostropovich being pushed up by Padraig Beggy on his outside and, perhaps assuming that Beggy was going to try and spoil him on front end, he took a notable pull and restrained Dee Ex Bee.

Not only that, he also seemed to willingly give up a coveted position on the rails, again perhaps in fear of being boxed in by the home team at the business end of the race. So, in one fell swoop, De Sousa gave up what proved to be the best position on the front end, as well as giving himself more ground to cover by taking a wider route than necessary. It may not have made a difference either way, as Dee Ex Bee gave the impression that he was finding the ground firmer than ideal, but the ride certainly didn’t help his cause.

While Dee Ex Bee was going forward then backwards in the early stages, both Ryan Moore on Saxon Warrior and Donnacha O’Brien on Latrobe were reacting and adjusting positively to what was a very different scenario than they would have anticipated in the early stages. Both were expecting there to be much more pace in front of them, but both adjusted to this steadier-than-anticipated pace in the heat of the moment to get their mounts more forwardly placed.

Donnacha in particular deserves great praise for the initiative he showed, as Joseph O’Brien revealed after the race that the plan had been for him to drop in Latrobe. After he missed the kick by two lengths, most riders would have stuck to the plan regardless of how they assessed the pace in front of them. Thus, for Donnacha to change the plan so notably in a split second on such a high-pressure stage is a testament to his judgement and self-belief. Ultimately, it was a decision that won the Irish Derby, as the steady pace meant that nothing that was held up behind the leading bunch made any sort of impression in the closing stages.

Relive the 2018 Irish Derby below:

So, what of Latrobe’s prospects and indeed the other leading contenders going forward? While it is easy to throw stones at the bare form and the fact that the way the race panned out left the majority of the field disadvantaged in positional terms, Latrobe is a lightly-raced colt that is clearly progressing and is open to more improvement. He may be by Camelot, but the female side of his pedigree is much more about speed than stamina and he travelled best of all through the Irish Derby, so his connections will have options going forward.

The runner-up Rostropovich may have an exposed look to him, but he had genuine excuses on all of the occasions he has been beaten this season. A fluent-moving, long-striding colt, he was well suited by being allowed to use his action on this firmer surface. While he was clearly in the right position as the race went, it would be dangerous to underestimate him in similar conditions going forward.

Saxon Warrior has now been beaten twice since his electric win in the 2000 Guineas and while his reputation has been bruised, it would be ill-advised to write him off as a top-class colt. When he won the 2000 Guineas, he showed a fine turn of foot and looked a fast winner of the race. Hopes were high that he would prove just as effective over a mile-and-a-half, but he has been made look one-paced in his two starts over the trip.

This suggests that while he stays the trip, it just isn’t an optimal distance for him. With him being unlikely to run over 12f again, Aidan O’Brien can focus on honing his speed and getting him back to the horse that won the 2000 Guineas.

It seems that the Juddmonte International over an extended mile-and-a-quarter at York is likely to be Saxon Warrior’s next target, but one wonders would his connections consider dropping him back to a mile in the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood (for which he is entered) or the Prix Jacques Le Marois at Deauville.

The older milers are a below-standard bunch and while Without Parole is a very talented colt, in my opinion the Saxon Warrior that won the 2000 Guineas would be the one to beat against him. It would certainly make for a fascinating clash if it came to pass.   

While Dee Ex Bee is likely to be written off by many following this effort, he shouldn’t be given up on. He has long appealed as one that will be suited by the St Leger and an ease in the ground for that race would increase his chance. Incidentally, reports that he lost a shoe on Saturday may have been factually correct, but it shouldn’t be factored into his performance, as it transpired he lost it after the race rather than during it.

Kevin Blake
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