“Champions are made from something they have deep inside them. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
— Muhammad Ali
There was a moment approaching the final furlong in Saturday’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at the Curragh when Harzand looked vulnerable.
Idaho, under a masterful ride from Ryan Moore, went upsides the 4/6 favourite and for a few seconds, you suspected his momentum would take him past.
Just as he did when winning the Epsom Derby earlier this month, Harzand refused to submit.
Instead he rallied, crossing the line half a length in front of Aidan O’Brien’s challenger after the most stirring finish to an Irish Derby in recent memory.
Ali would have been impressed. His rider certainly was.
“Over the last furlong, when I really needed him, he pulled out all the stops. I don’t think I’ve ridden a horse with such courage,” Pat Smullen said.
“Ryan came with a very well-timed, sustained challenge but our horse has a lot of stamina, I knew he’d get to the line well. I can’t get over the courage the horse showed in the last half furlong. I needed this horse to dig deep for me and he did. The pressure was on and we pulled it off.
“He’s a dual Derby winner now. He’s so courageous. You can give horses good rides, bad rides — but when they’re as good as this lad and they’re as determined as this horse, it just makes it easy.”
In truth, the result and manner in which it was achieved shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Yes, Harzand’s trainer, Dermot Weld, had voiced worries that Saturday’s race was coming a week too soon after Epsom.
But Harzand had already proven his toughness when winning at Epsom just hours after spreading a plate.
That same resolve was on display in spades at the Curragh.
“He’s so tough and he’s not just tough, he’s got pace,” Smullen added.
“He’s a very, very good horse and I’d love to think he’d be an Arc horse.” For his part, Weld conceded he feared the worst when Idaho made his bid for glory.
“I thought for a few strides, he was going to beat us,” Weld admitted before paying tribute to both the jockey of the winner and the runner-up.
“I think it’s brilliant to watch those two great jockeys, Ryan Moore and Pat Smullen, riding a finish on two very high-class colts. We saw two jockeys at the top of their profession riding a brilliant race — it was horse racing at its best.”
That it most certainly was. Smullen has always been a class act but it has taken time for his gifts to be fully recognised outside these shores.
In contrast, Moore’s status as a global superstar has long been secure even though he has been, by his own high standards, a little out of sorts in recent weeks.
However, no credible criticism could be administered regarding his ride on Saturday’s runner-up.
He simply ran into a class act with a ferocious will to win.
That description could equally apply to Harzand’s jockey.
“He’s an outstanding rider,” Weld said of Smullen. “He’s riding at his peak. He’s been a brilliant rider for many, many years. We forget so easy that he won on Grey Swallow here for me in 2004 when he gave a brilliant ride to win the Irish Derby and so many races all around the world.
“He won the Matriarch Stakes (on Dress To Thrill in 2002) when he totally outrode the top jockeys of America. We’ve probably struggled at times not having horses good enough to represent us in the top races but we’re very fortunate, we’ve got some wonderful owners that are very loyal to us and now you begin to see what both of us can do.”
Finding out just how much more Harzand can do promises to be one of the joys of the season.
Weld, who brought up a landmark 4,000 career wins last week, confirmed his stable star will now be given a rest before being trained for the Arc in October.
Encouragingly for his prospects, Weld believes Harzand is still improving.
“I thought today’s race was an even better race than Epsom,” Weld said post-race.
“I knew Harzand would have to improve from Epsom because I have the highest regard for Aidan and I knew he would improve one of his colts. Those two horses, they’ve both improved considerably since Epsom. You saw the way they quickened. They didn’t just quicken once, they quickened twice. The exciting thing about this race was the battle.”
That it was. And like Ali, Harzand doesn’t tend to lose battles.
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