PAT KEANE: Merchant Navy finely poised for Ascot

At the curragh last weekend Aidan O’Brien added some real live candidates to his already considerable Royal Ascot portfolio later this month, none more so than the Australian horse, Merchant Navy.

If there has been one thing missing during O’Brien’s tenure at Ballydoyle it is the lack of top-class sprinters. Essentially, there have been very few of them.

Merchant Navy, a son of Fastnet Rock, is a fascinating addition to Ballydoyle, although apparently the plan is for him to run at the Royal meeting and to then shuffle back to his native country.

Anyway, he had his first outing in Ireland at the Curragh last Saturday, in the Group 2 Weatherbys’ Greenlands Stakes.

On the lead-in to the contest, O’Brien was quoted as saying: “We’ve had Merchant Navy for only a short time and I’ll be surprised if he’s done enough to win.’’

That was perfectly understandable, considering the horse was in action at Flemington as late as March 10.

Running in what was described as a Group 1 handicap, over six furlongs, he finished third of 15, beaten a short head and a head.

Prior to that, at Caulfield in February, in a Group 2, he was also a close third, while he landed a 20-runner Group 1 at Flemington in November.

We know enough about Australian sprinters to realise they can be very good, remember Choisir, and our limited reading of their form book tells us this lad is a smart horse indeed. Merchant Navy’s overall record in Australia is five wins in eight races.

The Greenlands at the Curragh shaped as a decent renewal, with two useful British challengers in Tasleet and Brando among the nine contestants.

Merchant Navy was relatively easy to back at 9-2 and there was a punter or two, who often seem to have the inside track on Ballydoyle runners, who were backing another from that quarter, Spirit Of Valor.

As it turned out Spirit Of Valor almost delivered and would have done so quite decisively, but for the late surge of Merchant Navy.

You could clearly see Ryan Moore getting a feel of Merchant Navy and educating him throughout the six furlongs and, for most of the journey, they looked unlikely winners.

But the four-year-old - he would be regarded as a three-year-old in Australia - picked up in style in the closing stages to score going away by a comfortable length.

It was a really cracking effort and, at worst, Merchant Navy will surely be mighty competitive in the Diamond Jubilee at Ascot.

The other O’Brien horse from the weekend that has to be on the short-list for Ascot is the twice-raced juvenile, Fairyland.

She carries the colours of John Magnier’s mother, Mrs Stockwell, and one can only guess at how much pleasure it would give the Coolmore maestro to see Fairyland enter the winner’s enclosure at Ascot.

And there is every possibility such will happen. The daughter of Kodiac made an excellent start when easily winning her maiden at Naas, a contest that hasn’t exactly been working out, before moving into Listed company at the Curragh on Saturday.

One of only two fillies in the race, and opposed by seven colts, Fairyland could hardly have been more impressive.

She raced on the pace and then surged away from her stable companions, the previous winners Van Beethoven and Land Force, in the final furlong. She will be back among her own sex at Ascot and should prove hard to beat.

There was a big setback at the Curragh, however, for the notion many of us harboured that O’Brien would also supply the answer to Ascot ‘s Coronation Stakes, with either Happily or Clemmie.

Happily got outpaced at a vital stage when third in the English 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket and it was a case of more of the same in the Irish equivalent at the Curragh on Sunday.

A mile on quick ground is just not for her and she is certainly off this list for the Coronation, unless meeting a soft surface, which seems highly unlikely.

The word before the Irish 1,000 Guineas was that a decent performance from O’Brien’s Clemmie would set her up for the Coronation, with guaranteed improvement to come.

But, at least to my way of thinking, her ninth of 13 behind Alpha Centauri was without merit and making a solid case for her in the Coronation is simply impossible.

WELL, the results of both the Irish 2,000 Guineas and 1,000 Guineas emphasised one more time that the so-called smaller fellow now has a far better chance on the flat than over jumps in Ireland.

Corkman Ken Condon may have only some 30 horses in training, but is very well-respected and it was lovely to see him take the 2,000 Guineas on Saturday with Romanised. The Holy Roman Emperor colt had bits and pieces of form that gave him a chance, but he was still a shock winner.

For instance, he beat U S Navy flag two and a quarter-lengths into second and was rated 10lbs inferior to that horse. Returned at 25-1, you could have had 47-1 on the exchanges at the off.

Alpha Centauri came back to her best when taking the 1,000 Guineas on Sunday for Jessica Harrington.

Harrington is hardly considered among the elite when it comes to flat trainers. She’s some woman, though, and in not much more than twelve months has won an Irish classic, a Cheltenham Gold Cup and an Irish Grand National.

AFTER Ronan Whelan had guided Mick Channon’s Opal Tiara to take a Group 2 at the Curragh on Saturday, he was at pains to thank the trainer for repeatedly putting him up when bringing horses to Ireland.

It is not by accident that Channon is flying across the channel and has clearly identified Whelan as an important go-to man.

Channon is a good judge, because the impressive pilot was quite brilliant aboard Opal Tiara, producing a mixture of skill and determination in driving his charge past Hydrangea and Ryan Moore in the last hundred yards or so.

Whelan has been a long time marking time behind Kevin Manning as second jockey to Jim Bolger. He is certainly more than ready to step out of the shadows.

A BAD draw and the possibility of soft ground have seen Saxon Warrior drift to a backable price for today’s Epsom Derby. Just get the shovel ready...



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