Just over three hours before Saturday’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby came the expected but unwanted news that Epsom Derby runner-up Kingston Hill would not run due to the quick ground conditions.
In that moment the prospect of Ireland’s premier Classic being anything resembling a contest disappeared. The outcome was inevitable: it would be yet another g’day for Australia and team Ballydoyle.
Ultimately just five lined up at the Curragh, the same number as turned out for Camelot’s victory in this race two years ago, a field that was the smallest since 1912.
Three of that quintet were trained by Aidan O’Brien with Australia threatening for a long time to go off the shortest favourite since Orby in 1907.
The Ballydoyle trio finished first, second and third, the fifth time O’Brien enjoyed a clean sweep of the places. Eight of the last nine Irish Derby winners – the exception being the Jim Bolger trained-Trading Leather last year – have come from Ballydoyle with Australia’s bloodless triumph increasing O’Brien’s overall total to 11. Even by O’Brien’s standards the scale of his domination is startling.
If it’s true – and a compelling case can be made that it is — that the real beauty of sport is its inherent unpredictability then that sort of inevitability is a bad thing. However, the certainty of Australia’s triumph didn’t stop the public turning out in their droves.
A total of 23,946, up slightly on last year, turned up for the procession. The sun, the very thing that deprived us of Kingston Hill, helped but the draw of an equine superstar should not be overlooked. Had the weather gone the other way last week it’s likely we’d have had Kingston Hill but not Australia given that O’Brien remains haunted by his decision to run Camelot on soft ground in this race two years ago.
Ask those present on Saturday who they’d rather have seen and the answer would be emphatic.
And sometimes predictably can be wonderful. Think Frankel, think Sea The Stars, think Spain or Barcelona or Tiger Woods at their peak. Think of how 007 films remain box-office hits despite the fact Joe Public knows before they start that somehow James Bond will survive, overcome and get the girl/girls.
Despite the small field there was something captivating about the majestic ease with which Australia cruised to victory while the declaration of his jockey, Joseph O’Brien, that we still haven’t seen the best of the son of Galileo whetted the appetite for the days to come. Ultimately, it seemed fitting that the background music to the trophy presentation was U2’s Beautiful Day. It was just that.
Australia’s future is secure but sadly the same cannot be said about the Irish Derby. In the post-race press conference Australia co-owner John Magnier, who had earlier been inducted into the Curragh’s Hall of Fame, suggested the race was in decline due to the decision of the French in 2005 to change the distance of their Derby to a mile and a quarter.
“The only thing I’d like to say about the way the race split up is that since the French Derby was literally done away with it has taken a bit from this race,” he said.
“In the old days the winner of the French Derby and the winner of the English Derby would come along here and you had a winner take all. That to me is one of the reasons why maybe we don’t have competition in the race.”
Colm McLoughlin, the executive vice chairman of race sponsor Dubai Duty Free admitted the slack equine turnout was a concern and spoke optimistically of his hope that the 2015 Irish Derby, the 150th renewal of the race, will see a significantly increased field.
“I would much prefer if it was 10, 12 or 14 horses in the race but I don’t know enough personally about ground, conditions and lengths to be able to comment further on that except when we’re back here next year for the 150th running I would hope to see a much bigger entry.”
It was left to Aidan O’Brien to make the case for the defence and he argued that what the race lacked in quantity it made up for in quality.
“The second and the third (Kingfisher and Orchestra) were two good Derby trial winners so there might not have been a lot of numbers in it but the ratings of the horses were very high,” he said.
It wasn’t the only time the trainer was on the defensive. O’Brien has been bullish in his assessment of Australia’s credentials over the last 12 months and while he could now justifiably say I told you so, the temptation was resisted.
“I don’t mean to hype the horses,” he protested. “I say what I mean and sometimes it’s not the right thing because things obviously don’t always go the way you hope. When I said it (about Australia) at two, I shouldn’t have said it, but there you go.”
Behind the confidence lurked insecurity though, specifically over the trip. “You’re always very worried. A lot of things can go wrong. We always felt going a mile and a half was stretching him but he’s such a relaxed natured horse that he seems to take everything in his stride.”
On Saturday he again did just that and helped turn a potential PR disaster for a race that has lost much of its lustre into something resembling a success. In doing so he proved that sometimes predictability is beautiful.