Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake gives his post-race thoughts on Sea Of Class’s Darley Irish Oaks victory while also saying farewell to recently retired commentator Dessie Scahill.

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SEA OF CLASS AND JAMES DOYLE STEAL THE SHOW

Going into last Saturday’s Irish Oaks, it was quite clear what the state of play was on paper. The Ballydoyle pair of Magic Wand and Forever Together had been there and done it in form terms while the highly-regarded British raider Sea Of Class would have to deliver on her substantial promise to come up to their level. As it transpired, with Magic Wand well below her best (subsequently found to have a dirty nose), it was left to Forever Together and Sea of Class to come to the fore in what proved to be a fabulous horse race.

Ridden by Donnacha O’Brien, Forever Together is a filly for whom stamina is her forte and she was ridden to accentuate that facet of her game by striking for home over three furlongs out. Meanwhile, James Doyle was biding his time on Sea Of Class, conserving her unproven stamina and holding back her turn of foot for as long as he dared. While Forever Together was not stopping, Doyle delivered Sea The Class with the most sublime of late challenges under hands-and-heels riding to lead in the dying strides and prevail by a neck in a tremendous finish.

The confidence with which Doyle rode Sea Of Class was quite remarkable. This wasn’t a case such as Jamie Spencer on Sariska in this race in 2009 where he could afford to laugh at his opposition such was the superiority of his filly, this was a much more closely-run thing. Yet, Doyle remained ice cool, not asking for anything like full effort until inside the final furlong. Given that Sea Of Class has flashed her tail in the past when struck with the stick, Doyle boldly choose to execute his last-gasp lunge without resorting to that tool.

To execute such a confident and well-timed ride on the biggest of stages could well represent the finest achievement of Doyle’s riding career thus far. This was the ride of a world-class big-race jockey the likes of which are rarely seen. Doyle may have ridden over 20 Group 1 winners in his career to date, but this ride arguably did more than any of those previous wins to demand that he be considered amongst the elite big-race jockeys in the world.

Sea Of Class wins the Irish Oaks
Kevin feels James Doyle's winning Oaks ride deserves great praise

While much of the post-race adulation was understandably focused on James Doyle, the role that William Haggas has played in bringing Sea Of Class to this stage also deserves to be widely commended. One suspects that Sea of Class is not a totally straightforward filly to train. As well as the aforementioned tail flashing being suggestive of a kink in her, she gives the impression of being one that is immature both physically and mentally.

Presumably with this in mind, Haggas exercised notable caution with her by choosing not to run in the Oaks or at Royal Ascot, instead taking a comparatively soft option to run her in a Listed race at Newbury. One could see why he took that easier route, as even after missing out on those two big occasions, she still arrived to the Curragh looking a shade light in condition.

With a return to the racecourse as a four-year-old already in planning, don’t be surprised if Haggas continues to exercise relative caution in his campaigning of Sea Of Class for the remainder of this season, which tempers enthusiasm about the prospect of her being asked to contest the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe this year. 

Whichever road Sea Of Class is sent down for the remainder of this and indeed next season, she will retire an Irish Oaks winner. History will reveal where she ranks amongst the winners of that race, but we are likely to be waiting a long time before we see a winning ride in it as good as we saw on Saturday.

DESSIE SCAHILL BOWS OUT

Last weekend’s meeting at the Curragh was notable for being the meeting at which Dessie Scahill bowed out as a full-time commentator. Dessie has been the voice of Irish racing for as long as I’ve been in the game and the same can be said for the majority of people given that he had been at the helm for 47 years. He’s had a career to be proud of and the legacy of his commentating will live on when replays of the great races he has called are replayed for many decades to come.

While Dessie may have hoped to continue on for a few more years, history has shown us that the worst thing a commentator can do is carry on for too long. Jerry Hannon has served a very long apprenticeship and one would have to travel a long way to find anyone that was anything but delighted for him. One only needs to talk to him about his craft to see the passion he has for it and there could be no more deserving inheritor of Scahill’s role.

IRISH FLAT HANDICAPPER CHANGES POLICY

While it has been a routine occurrence for many years now, there always seems to be a degree of confusion and bemusement when the Irish Flat handicapper downwardly adjusts the ratings of most of the horse population at the end of the turf season. This process was designed to combat the problem of inflation of ratings across the horse population which is a consequence of relatively small horse numbers in Ireland.

It is a methodology that has attracted some criticism over the years, but it is worth considering that the handicapper in Hong Kong, widely considered to be the most efficient and well-run racing jurisdiction in the world, uses the same end-of-season drop to address to same problem.

However, this practice did create occasional issues in Ireland. One of these was where Irish-trained horses would be sent to run in Great Britain soon after the end-of-season drop and would look well-in compared to the mark they would have run off prior to the drop. As well as that, the timing of the end-of-season drop at the conclusion of the turf season resulted in a glut of horses dropping to 65 or below which led to balloting issues in the 0-65 band during the first half of the winter season at Dundalk.

With all of that in mind, this season has seen the Irish Flat handicappers Garry O’Gorman and Mark Bird bring in a new system. Rather than one end-of-season drop, they have already applied a 1lb drop to many Irish-trained horses on June 22nd and plan to do so again in early September.

While the end-of-season drop will still be used where necessary, it is expected to be on average 2lb less than in previous years in light of those mid-season adjustments. This is worth bearing in mind if one comes across what look to be unusual drops in the ratings either since June 22nd or when early-September comes around.

Kevin Blake
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