On a weekend where the legendary Lester Piggott was honoured it was fitting that another class act who has stood the test the time should steal the show on Irish 2,000 Guineas day.
Forty years ago Empery provided Piggott with the seventh of his record nine Epsom Derby wins just weeks after the Kevin Prendergast-trained Northern Treasure took the Irish 2000 Guineas.
Fast forward to last Saturday and 83-year-old Prendergast was at it again as the Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum-trained Awtaad proved two and a half lengths too good for Newmarket hero Galileo Gold with Blue De Vega back in third.
Air Force Blue, the star two-year-old of last season before flopping spectacularly in the British version of this race, was once again a huge disappointment, trailing in seventh of eight, nearly 20 lengths behind the victor.
Even allowing for the unsuitably soft ground, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the son of War Front simply hasn’t trained on.
In contrast, Awtaad looks a serious beast.
“It’s great, the best thing to happen to me for years,” Prendergast said after the 9/2 shot obliged.
“Forty years is a long time ago, a lot of fellas weren’t born then!
“He’s always been a good horse but he was very backward as a two-year-old. He didn’t run until October, he ran here in a maiden and he was quite large at the time. He tightened up a bit and went to Leopardstown and won. He’s unbeaten since.”
But just how good is he?
“He’s as good a horse as I’ve had and I had Ardross and he was a good horse.”
That’s quite the statement given Ardross, who joined Henry Cecil for his most successful seasons, won the Ascot Gold Cup twice and came within a head of winning the 1982 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Awtaad has a bit to do to reach such heady heights but he was hugely impressive on Saturday, travelling like the best horse throughout before recording a decisive victory.
There were jubilant scenes in the winner’s enclosure afterwards but the focus inevitably swiftly turned to one question: What next?
Prendergast couldn’t provide an answer in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s race, simply stating: “We’ll have to talk to the boss, I have to do what I’m told.
“He’s in the Epsom Derby, he’s in the Irish Derby so we’ll see what happens.”
Clarity emerged yesterday when Angus Gold, racing manager to owner Sheikh Hamdan, revealed Awtaad is likely to sidestep the Investec Derby and head for the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.
He said: “I had a brief chat with Kevin and Sheikh Hamdan. My gut reaction, which I think Sheikh Hamdan shared, would be to go for the St James’s Palace.
“The Derby is a lovely idea, but you’d be going up a considerable amount of distance in a short space of time.
“I think you’d be hard pushed not to go to Ascot. I think we’ll be staying at a mile for the immediate future.”
Galileo Gold was a little fractious before the off on Saturday and never looked entirely happy on the inside under Frankie Dettori.
The favourite’s discomfort prompted winning rider Chris Hayes to make his move earlier than planned.
Prendergast added: “Chris was forced to go a bit earlier today because Frankie was in a bit of bother on the inside and he kicked and hoped for the best. But he won well.
“Chris gave him a very good ride. I just thought he might have went a little too soon but you always think that. I was hoping the winning post would go back to him.”
Hayes, who said he hadn’t slept for a week due to his excitement at riding Awtaad in this race, explained: “I could see where Frankie was and he didn’t have much room. It just meant that I kicked a bit sooner than anticipated but my lad is as genuine as hell.”
Hayes had previously enjoyed Classic success with Voleuse de Coeurs in the Irish St Leger in 2013 but Saturday’s win had extra significance for the Limerick jockey.
“It’s my second Classic but my first for the boss, Hayes said. “It means the world to me. We’ve always held the horse in high regard. I came up to the boss when I was 15 and he welcomed me in with open arms.
“He’s been very good to me so it was nice to repay him.”
In between Saturday’s seven races the crowds flocked to the Piggott exhibition and it was well worth seeing. The pictures of Piggott through the ages were fascinating while the clips of his most iconic moments provided compelling viewing
We see Lester winning the first of five Irish Derby successes on Meadow Court, trained by Kevin Prendergast’s father Paddy, in 1965 before claiming successive wins on Ribocco and Ribero in 1967 and 1968 respectively. We then see him doing the business nine years later on The Minstrel before his final Irish Derby success on the remarkable Shergar in 1981.
We also see clips of the Epsom Derby triumphs of Sir Ivor — regarded by Piggott as the best horse he ever rode — triple crown hero Nijinsky, 1972 winner Roberto and 1977 victor The Minstrel.
Finally, we see Piggott, after five years in the wilderness and a month short of his 55th birthday, somehow galvanising Royal Academy to victory in 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile.
“We have a lot of sporting legends and heroes but very few sporting icons. Muhammad Ali was a sporting icon, Pele was, and, in racing, you have Lester Piggott,” exhibition curator Nick O’Toole said.
Kevin Prendergast may not have the same iconic status but after Saturday’s events his place in Curragh folklore is secure.
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