PAT KEANE: Richard Hannon does Irish racing a favour by opening up entry system debate

That was a rather interesting little spat between trainer, Richard Hannon, and Horse Racing Ireland chief Executive, Brian Kavanagh, regarding the recent Group 1 Keeneland Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh.

Hannon began the debate on Channel 4 last Saturday when describing the Phoenix Stakes as “a farcical race.’’

He then went on to question the entry system for some of Ireland’s leading juvenile races. Hannon blamed no British representatives on early entry, for contests such as the Phoenix Stakes, for their lack of strength on race day.

Said Hannon: “The other day (Phoenix Stakes) was a farcical race. It had no strength in depth and it’s a Group 1 with a hundred grand.

“Entries are too early and too expensive and that’s why the races come up short in strength and depth. That race closed in April, I think, and you don’t know what you have.

“It’s like the Coventry (Royal Ascot) and the Railway Stakes (Curragh). They are similar races, only two weeks apart, but while the Coventry is five-day entries, the Railway closed in early April for some reason. I don’t see why it should.’’

Well presumably the reason is that the current system of early entry and later on the supplementary stage are cash cows for HRI!

When HRI hadn’t mounted a stout defence of their system by Monday you had to be forgiven for thinking they were tempted to leave sleeping dogs lie.

But no, Tuesday morning the front page of the Racing Post revealed that HRI had somewhat belatedly swung into action and Kavanagh made their views known.

Kavanagh made the fair point that the entry system could not be blamed entirely for the paltry five-runner field in the Phoenix Stakes. Commented Kavanagh: “Caravaggio was a very good winner of the Coventry Stakes and you’d have to think that he frightened off many potential rivals.’’

Kavanagh did, however, indicate that Hannon’s concerns would be taken on board by HRI when its pattern committee carries out its annual end of season review.

On balance you would have to say that Hannon’s mutterings are worthy of serious consideration. The bottom line in this country is that the vast majority of the best two-year-olds, every year, are housed in the one place, Ballydoyle.

So, for races such as the Phoenix Stakes participation from Britain is well-nigh essential and anything that encourages their presence should be accommodated.

Realistically, this race will always be contested by a small field, but that doesn’t mean it has to be less than competitive.

Last year’s race, for instance, saw three of the seven runners coming from across the water and the fact the winner, Air Force Blue, was an 11-10 shot showed that he was regarded as a long way short of a certainty.

But there have been some bad days as well. In 2013, for instance, Aidan O’Brien’s 2-5 chance War Command could only finish third behind David Wachman’s Sudirman, with only five going to post.

The year before O’Brien’s Pedro The Great (10-1) beat Jim Bolger’s Leitir Mor and that wasn’t the 31st cousin to a Group 1.

This year’s Phoenix Stakes was a poor spectacle and, arguably, the worst of all. On that basis it is difficult enough to quibble with Hannon’s description of “a farcical race.’’

As well as Caravaggio, Aidan O’Brien also ran the maiden, Courage Under Fire, basically as one to make the running.

He did, but it was such a bad heat that Courage Under Fire crossed the line in second place, four lengths adrift of Caravaggio.

Hannon said it was a hundred grand race, but it was way worse than that. Caravaggio’s reward was €142,500, with Courage Under Fire taking home €47,500.

That type of money is almost obscene, although one mightn’t feel such unease if the public was treated to some sort of buckle.

Caravaggio went off at 1-8, which meant it was literally a complete non-event as far as betting was concerned.

We believed it was a moderate race beforehand and such thinking was reinforced at York on Wednesday when Courage Under Fire could only finish fifth of seven behind 16-1 chance Syphax in a Group 3. In any case, Hannon has done Irish racing a favour by at least opening up the debate.

Mind you that Phoenix Stakes was merely a minor irritation in what was been an excellent flat season.

We know Aidan O’Brien has a powerful yard, probably the strongest on the planet, but Dermot Weld, Jim Bolger, Ger Lyons, and others, have ensured the ongoing battle has been well fought. There has been no shortage of betting opportunities for punters and that is simply what is required.

I KNOW we all rave on about Aidan O’Brien’s qualities, generally concentrating on his handling of top horses.

But sometimes you learn more about a trainer when you look at his achievements with lesser lights. What Willie Mullins has done, for instance, with Clondaw Warrior has been extraordinary.

In O’Brien’s case the improvement he’s pulled out of the giant De Coronado is worth noting. The son of Street Cry made his debut at the Curragh in the middle of July, was a massive drifter in the market and shaped as just about useless in finishing a remote ninth of 12 behind heavily backed Twilight Payment.

But fast forward to Dundalk for his second outing last Sunday. He was far from neglected in the market on this occasion and managed to win a maiden by half a length. The display told us for certain that whatever else De Coronado is, he’s not useless anyway.


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