Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer, Kevin Blake reviews the Irish 2,000 Guineas, and jockey Colin Keane's heroics

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An in-depth review of the Irish 2,000 Guineas

Ever since Vincent O’Brien saddled his fifth and final winner of the Irish 2,000 Guineas in 1988, only three Irish-based trainers had won the race, Aidan O’Brien, Kevin Prendergast and Ken Condon. On Friday evening, a fourth name was added to that list.

The Ger Lyons-trained Siskin arrived to the Irish 2,000 Guineas unbeaten and largely untested in four starts. However, the depth of his form was open to question and he was tackling a trip that was 33% further than he had ever raced over. Added into the mix was that he had a bullseye on his chest as the favourite and from stall two he was quite literally surrounded by horses trained by Aidan O’Brien in stalls one, three, four and five. All these factors set the scene for what promised to be a fascinating race. What it delivered was dramatic, exciting, controversial and uplifting.

Before any of this happened, the first job Keane had was in the stalls. After Siskin had been withdrawn having playing up in the stalls prior to the Middle Park Stakes, this was a potential stumbling block. Loaded with a blindfold on, Keane was charged with removing it at the last possible moment as the stalls opened. This will only have added to the pressure and the inevitable nerves involved in such a situation. Keane was more than equal to this task, as slow-motion replays of the start show that his timing was absolutely impeccable. 

With what looked to be the likeliest pace setters drawn either side of Siskin, Keane was always going to have to let them go. His first decision was to assess how fast they were going and whether he wanted to follow directly behind them or allow another horse to get in between him and the leaders. The first option would have required him to ask Siskin forward from the outset and, perhaps conscious of the dangers of Siskin over-racing by asking him forward so early, Keane chose to allow Vatican City to slot in front of him and focus on getting Siskin relaxed in mid-division. Siskin duly did relax quite well for Colin, but he found himself where he must have known he inevitably would end up, boxed up on the inner and at the mercy of what moves his opponents made in front of him.

It is easy and lazy to characterise this race as Siskin versus Ballydoyle, but anyone that thinks that the likes of Kevin Manning, Shane Foley or Ronan Whelan would give Siskin as much as an inch out of the goodness of their hearts is wrong. Colin Keane had no friends in that race and was going to have to do what he could to react to his opponent’s moves to maximise Siskin’s chance. 

Passing the two-furlong pole, Keane must have been starting to get anxious. His way forward was blocked on all sides by Vatican City, Sinawann and Armory, all of whom had more to give and weren’t going to drop back to give him room. Then, in a split-second, everything changed. Lope Y Fernandez and Seamie Heffernan quickened up widest of all to challenge. Heffernan allowed his mount to edge right from the wide outside all the way across to the inside rail, interfering with and compromising the chances of five individual horses, four of whom were his stable mates. It was a careless manoeuvre that led to an ugly concertina effect of interference. It had a major impact on the race and could have had far worse consequences.

Heffernan can count himself fortunate to have only received a two-day ban for careless riding.Ironically, this move served to push Sinawann out of Siskin’s way and gave Keane a tiny window of opportunity. Now, only Armory was between him and the open country he and his horse craved. Without a hint of hesitation, Keane bumped his way out, interfering with Armory who in turn interfered with Rebel Tale. Keane was fortunate to escape with just a caution from the stewards for this manoeuvre, but one suspects he would have gladly taken a 28-day ban to find himself in the position that he was now in, two lengths off the lead in the Irish 2,000 Guineas with 300 yards to run, open country in front of him and loads of horse underneath him. Siskin didn’t need much encouragement to show his turn of foot in public for the first time in 10 months. He quickened up very well for minimal pressure and powered away inside the final furlong to prevail by 1¾ lengths.

For Ger Lyons, this win represents a culmination of 30 years of graft for him and his close-knit, long-serving team. From the first time Ger spoke about it, it was very clear just how much it meant to him to be asked to train for Prince Khalid Abdullah. He gave the impression of seeing it as the ultimate endorsement of everything he had spent his training career working towards. For the second batch of yearlings he received from Juddmonte to include a horse of Siskin’s class clearly means everything to him, as was showcased by his emotional reactions following the Phoenix Stakes and the Irish 2,000 Guineas. The quality of two-year-old he was training had already been increasing year-on-year prior to this victory and this can only lead to an acceleration of that process. 

What about the man on top? Colin Keane has looked to have all the potential to be the real deal since he first came to prominence by showing unusual confidence on notably tricky customers as an apprentice claiming 7lb. Since then, he has very much delivered on that promise by becoming a Champion Jockey in Ireland. However, as far as he has come, his status as a big-race jockey had as yet been largely untested. Prior to last Friday, Colin had two Group 1 wins to his name, Siskin in the Phoenix Stakes and Laganore in the Premio Lydia Tesio in Italy. In total, he had only ridden in 32 Group 1 races in Britain and Ireland with only two of his mounts being priced shorter than 5/1.

There is sometimes an assumption that a top-class jockey is also a big-race jockey, but there is a difference between the two and they don’t always come together. Situations don’t come much more testing for a jockey than what Colin Keane faced on Friday evening. Riding a short-priced favourite in a Classic with a stamina doubt that was literally surrounded by Ballydoyle-trained runners. Some otherwise excellent jockeys have shrunk in situations like that in Irish Classics in recent years, their usually cool style and sharp decision-making skills lost in a self-imposed fog of pressure. However, others grow and are sharpened by the same pressure. Until a rider is put into that cauldron, one can never be sure how they will react. Colin Keane passed his test with flying colours on Friday. Still just 25 years of age, Colin is in the early stages of his career in the context of a big-race jockey and watching his continued progression promises to be a pleasure.

In terms of where the main protagonists go next, Siskin’s connections are reported to be looking at the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood for him. That speed-focused mile will play to his strengths and seeing how he fares against the pick of the milers that emerge from Royal Ascot will worth waiting for. There is also plenty to pick through amongst the beaten horses.

Vatican City ran a race of substantial promise in second given it was just his third start and that he had nowhere to go until just inside the furlong pole. The manner in which he powered home in the final 100 yards suggests he will be a worthy opponent for the winner later in the season. His pedigree and style of racing suggests that he may not want to race over much further than a mile.

Lope Y Fernandez was held in the highest of regards in the middle part of last season before proving disappointing. Aidan O’Brien had revealed in a stable tour on these pages that all involved were unsure whether to campaign him as a sprinter or a miler this season. Based on the massive turn of foot he showed before folding in the final furlong, a return to sprinting looks likely and he could well be a factor in that division. 

Armory and Fiscal Rules both shaped well with a view to stepping up in trip after this. Sinawann’s promise was a bit more subtle, but he was quite wound up in the preliminaries and took quite a strong hold in a prominent position. He was still in there boxing for a long time until weakening late. He can be expected to come forward from the run. 

Monarch Of Egypt was another victim of the rough nature of the race. Dropped in last, he was making strong headway down the inside only to meet a dead end a furlong-and-a-half from home. Checked and switched around horses, he finished off well in pursuit of a lost cause. He deserves another chance to get his career back on track.

Kevin Blake
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