Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake recaps of both the Irish 2000 and 1000 Guineas won by Phoenix Of Spain and Hermosa, respectively, and reviews the Curragh's new facilities after its official opening.

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CURRAGH CLASSIC REFLECTIONS

The Irish 2,000 Guineas promised to answer some lingering questions about Too Darn Hot and Magna Grecia, but it has only led to more serious questions about both of them and served to unveil a new force in the three-year-old miler division in the shape of Phoenix Of Spain.

The Charlie Hills-trained Phoenix Of Spain had improved with each of his five starts as a juvenile. He had won the Acomb Stakes at York in good style, but was left behind by Too Darn Hot in the Champagne Stakes prior to running Magna Grecia to a head in a bunched finish in the Vertem Futurity.

Thus, while he had the physique and pedigree to make up into a better three-year-old, that he had already been beaten by the two main protagonists on what were not considered their best days and had to concede race fitness to them on Saturday made him the 16/1 shot that he was sent off.

However, Charlie Hills produced him in excellent shape for his seasonal reappearance and having set out to make the running for the first time in his career, he found generously for pressure and powered away in the final furlong to win by three lengths.

While horses that were forwardly placed did particularly well on the day (five of the seven winners on the card either made the running or sat in a close second), there was no hint of a fluke about Phoenix Of Spain’s performance.

He has clearly improved a lot over the winter and the more positive riding tactics seemed to suit him very well. While it will be fascinating to see a rematch between him and the likes of Too Darn Hot and Magna Grecia, this performance very much puts him in pole position amongst the three-year-old colts over a mile in Britain and Ireland.

Phoenix Of Spain wins the Irish 2000 Guineas
Under Jamie Spencer, Phoenix Of Spain was a classy winner of the Irish 2000 Guineas

In terms of where this leaves us with Too Darn Hot, the evidence is beginning to mount up that he simply hasn’t matured at the expected rate from two to three. There have been mitigating circumstances surrounding both his starts this year, his interrupted preparation, the longer trip and an inefficient ride all making his Dante defeat somewhat excusable, while a nine-day gap after that to the Irish 2,000 Guineas was hardly ideal.

However, champions overcome adversity and he has now been beaten twice in succession. While still a top-class miler and being deserving of a chance to get back to winning ways with a more conventional preparation in the St James’s Palace Stakes, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that he will be able to match his lofty achievements as a juvenile this year.

With Magna Grecia, it is more difficult to draw a solid conclusion. He simply didn’t seem to be in the same form as he had been at Newmarket for whatever reason, being one of the first off the bridle over three furlongs out and having no more to offer from two furlongs out.

It was a head-scratching effort and the first backwards step he has taken in his career thus far, so on balance, judgement on him should be reserved until we see him again at Royal Ascot.

It was the turn of the fillies to take centre stage on Sunday and the star of the show was Hermosa in the Irish 1,000 Guineas. She had been something of a surprise winner when making all to win the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket, but not only did she show that not to be a fluke by repeating the dose on Sunday, she advanced her form in doing so, showing that she will be a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the season.

Her task was undoubtedly helped by the second, third and fourth favourites all running well below form, but they would all have been likely to have struggled with the sheer power of Hermosa’s finishing effort inside the final furlong.

Given that Hermosa’s full-sister Hydrangea ended up staying a mile-and-a-half at the backend of her three-year-old campaign, Aidan O’Brien will have an array of options for her in the coming months. The Prix de Diane at Chantilly is reportedly being considered for next target, but wherever she goes and regardless of the trip, it is likely to take a serious performance to lower her colours.

Sunday was a great day for Ryan Moore who rode a Group 1 double on Magical and Hermosa. Quite remarkably, prior to Magical’s win in the Tattersalls Gold Cup, his last Group 1 had been on that same filly in the British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes back on October 20th over seven months ago.

That was his longest Group 1 drought since 2013/14.

It was also a great weekend for Paddy Twomey. The Golden-based trainer may not have had a winner, but saddling the third home in both the Irish 2,000 Guineas (Decrypt at 20/1) and Irish 1,000 Guineas (Foxtrot Liv at 25/1) was a huge achievement.

Twomey has significantly upped his numbers to have over 50 in training this year and all indications are that he could well grow into a significant player in the Irish training ranks in the years ahead.

THE NEW CURRAGH

The weekend also represented the official opening of the new Curragh. Having come in for some criticism after their first meeting there on May 6th, it was clear that the Curragh had acted on many of the issues that had been highlighted that day.

The eerie whistling noise from the roof of the stand attracted plenty of attention, but that is expected to be fixable too.

In the main, one gets the impression that the operations side of the racecourse will only get smoother as the management get more race meetings under their belt. The vast majority of big sporting venues go through the same process after opening.   

One recalls the furore after Ascot was reopened that led to a major overhaul of their stand, but once remedied it quickly became acknowledged as one of the finest facilities in the racing world. The criticisms of the Curragh thus far have been comparatively minor and that most of them have been dealt with so quickly is encouraging.

The stand at the new Curragh
Kevin was impressed with what he saw at the new Curragh

Beyond the inevitable nit picking, it must be said that the new Curragh is just a really nice venue to watch horse racing. It is a pleasure to stroll around, spacious and well landscaped, without being so sprawling as to require a huge amount of walking to perform the common racegoer routine of pre-parade, parade ring, betting ring and grandstand.

There is plenty of seating for those that wish to take a more relaxed approach to the day and reports on the catering front were positive.

One observation I would once again make is that the parade ring is still not the best for viewing the horses from outside it as it is not sunk into the ground as most new parade rings are.

There have been some steps added at the lower end of the ring to allow some elevation for those that aren’t at the front of the rails to get a good view of all that is going on inside the ring, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Having a crowd around the parade ring greatly adds to the atmosphere, but one can’t expect people to congregate around it if only those in the front couple of rows or the vertically gifted get a good view.

As it stands, the new Curragh is a racecourse Irish Flat racing can be proud to call its home. The journey from the doomed original plans to rebuild it through to the recession and the tumultuous construction period of what we have now has been long and arduous, but the destination has proved to be worth the journey. Well done to all concerned.

Now, the focus will have to turn to getting people through the gates in the numbers that such a facility should attract. Given Irish racegoers’ largely apathetic attitude to Flat racing compared to National Hunt racing, that could prove to be the biggest challenge of all.

Kevin Blake
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