Ruby Walsh: Deep ground a Classic test of horse and jockey

We all know summer milers want to hear their hooves rattle off a fast level surface which the Curragh can provide better than most of its racecourse rivals
Ruby Walsh: Deep ground a Classic test of horse and jockey

We all know summer milers want to hear their hooves rattle off a fast level surface which the Curragh can provide better than most of its racecourse rivals, writes Ruby Walsh.

With four of the recognised European one-mile Classics — the English and French Guineas — already run, today and tomorrow will see the focus switch to the final two, the Irish 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas.

Farmers will tell you that a wet and windy May will fill their barns with hay. In other words, a miserable month of May should give rise to a beautiful summer because grass needs moisture first and then heat to grow into the long, lush blades required to make hay. I hope their old-time sayings are still relevant in our climate-changing world as a beautiful summer will suit us all, but a wet May is some drawback if you are training a potential Guineas contender.

I can’t believe Met Éireann hasn’t put some name on the weather front to go with the colour code it probably had that blew across our island this week. Still, I imagine those housing the colts and fillies who will face the starter today and tomorrow, in bids for Classic glory, have given the weather all sorts of unprintable titles.

It won’t say in the stallion book or on the pedigree page of the offspring of whoever wins these two races that their Guineas wins were on heavy ground, and nor will the black type of those who fill the places state it either.

We all know summer milers want to hear their hooves rattle off a fast level surface which the Curragh can provide better than most of its racecourse rivals. This vast expanse of racecourse turf is cared for like the White House lawn, and what looks like one strip of grass to most eyes is carefully divided into several racing lines, each used in rotation to allow the turf time to repair, and individual lines kept for its most important days.

The Curragh this afternoon will be wet and deep following 34mm of rain in the 24 hours between Thursday and Friday morning. Actually, parts of the straight course at the six-furlong and four-furlong markers were waterlogged yesterday morning, and the track must pass an inspection at 7.30am.

If that standing water has drained away and racing gets the go-ahead, it will do so because it is safe to race — no doubt unsuitable, but fit for racing nonetheless, and it will be the same for each horse who goes to post.

It won't be an ideal surface for these athletes to showcase their brilliance, as it will be a completely different experience than most of them are used to, but it’s an opportunity to show us another side to two potential champions.

Deep ground blunts speed and therefore requires horses to dig into their stamina reserves and use their resolution to get going. It also requires those who are riding them to change their pacesetting completely.

Kingman won here on soft/heavy ground in 2014, doing so in a time of 1:47.29, whereas Phoenix Of Spain in 2019 clocked 1:36.52 with a tailwind on good/firm. That's almost 11 seconds, but it equates to 13.4-second furlongs, and 12.06-second furlong splits.

In simpler terms, James Doyle rode at 12-furlong speed on Kingman, and Jamie Spencer on Phoenix Of Spain blitzed up the Curragh straight verging on sprinters’ speed. Same race, same track, and two different winners ridden in styles suitable to the conditions.

Today and tomorrow may even require the jockeys to go slower than they did in 2014, but that in itself is a challenge. The typical split-second decisions they usually make will change to more calculated reactions.

Their judgement of how much petrol they have in the tank to last home will be examined, and every one of them will be riding waiting races, not just those who are at the back of the field.

On a sound surface, you can kick and steal an advantage, but it is the one who waits for the longest that succeeds on heavy ground. To quote Charlie Swan:  “Last off the bridle will win.” 

National Hunt phraseology that may be, but this is National Hunt ground.

When a horse tires on this ground, they slow down dramatically, so the ones who are maintaining their speed can finish strongly and make up massive deficits.

It will be different racing, and to go faster may even require riders to slow down a fraction and wait for the others to fold before powering home. It will be the kind of challenge jumps jockeys love, but their Flat colleagues detest.

That fast-flowing vibe of a one-mile Curragh Group 1 where they keep going faster and the gaps close before they are even fully open, where the cut and thrust of anticipating the moves your rivals make, and being the one to get balanced and sprinting at the right time won't be there.

Instead of getting balanced to sprint, it will be holding your horse together to maintain the rhythm, the gaps will become craters to glide through as rivals fold away, and it will all be slow-motion hard work rather than dashing brilliance.

We will hear all sorts of terms, phrases, and excuses bandied about by teatime on Sunday. Still, if the Curragh does get to open its gates for racing today, I already know what my pet hate for the weekend will be: The phrase or word ‘unraceable’.

I don’t even think that’s an actual word in the dictionary, or so this computer has just informed me, but the ground will be fit for racing or the meeting abandoned. It won’t suit anyone but using the non-word “unraceable” only makes the whole sport look irresponsible.

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