Fears the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby would devolve into a small-field, modest renewal were allayed when Epsom hero Harzand and third-placed Idaho were declared to run.
And their participation, and the resultant race, which featured stunning performances from horses and riders, provided everything the crowd of 18,244 came to see on Saturday afternoon at the Curragh.
The Dermot Weld-trained Harzand, easy to back midweek, amidst concerns the race was coming too soon after Epsom, was strong in the day-of-race market, resulting in Idaho drifting in the other direction.
After a modest break, Ebediyin was quickly sent about his pace-making duties, and the favourite’s stable-companion soon had half a dozen lengths on the field.
Port Douglas, there to ensure an honest pace for Idaho, sat in second place, with Harzand in third, a couple of lengths ahead of his market rival.
The placings remained the same until the field turned for home, and no sooner had the pacemaker begun to fade away, Pat Smullen sent the odds-on favourite to the front.
Ryan Moore, alive to the move, pushed Idaho to get on to the new leader’s tail and, in a couple of furlongs, a fascinating climax played out.
Moore tried to hide his mount in behind, hoping to make one late, telling challenge at the stamina-laden leader, but as Harzand eased across to the rails, in front of Port Douglas, he had no choice but to make his move.
Idaho joined Harzand a furlong and a half out, and two fine horses and two peerless riders gave everything.
Little could separate them as they pulled clear of the field, racing down to the final half-furlong but, as at Epsom, when Idaho’s stable companion, US Army Ranger, threatened to go past, Harzand gave generously for Pat Smullen’s urgings, and forged clear to score by half a length.
“It was a great performance by horse and rider, and I think today’s race was even better than Epsom,” said a thrilled winning trainer Dermot Weld.
“The exciting thing about this race was the battle, and both of those horses quickened and picked up brilliantly. Both jockeys tried to save that little bit more for the final challenge.
“I thought, for a few strides, he (Idaho) was going to beat us, but I just believe that our horse was so well over the last week — we know the problems he had at Epsom, we knew he had been on antibiotics for a week afterwards — but just in the last week his coat began to sheen, and his blood picture came right.
“I didn’t do much work with him, but I just knew my horse had physically improved, and Epsom would have sharpened him. He just had to be a better horse today than at Epsom, because Idaho was.
“I have the highest regard for Aidan (O’Brien) and knew he would have one of his colts better than he had at Epsom, so my horse had to be better as well. The first and second were better today, and there’s probably more to come from both.
“And it’s brilliant to watch those two jockeys, Ryan Moore and Pat Smullen, riding a finish on two very high-class colts. It’s very good for the Irish Derby, because nobody can say it wasn’t the best race.
“You saw two jockeys at the very top of their profession, riding a brilliant race. That’s horse racing at its best.”
It was a third victory in the race for Weld, following Zagreb in 1996, and Grey Swallow eight years later.
“It’s very special to win this race. I’ve enjoyed it since I was a child, and have been fortunate to win it three times,” added the Curragh trainer.
“I’ve had a wonderful year, a wonderful month.”
Of his enduring partnership with Pat Smullen, he added: “We 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’re beginning to see what both of us can do.”
Smullen, who was aboard Grey Swallow in 2004, was taken by the tenacity of Harzand.
“I can’t get over the courage our horse showed over the last half-furlong,” said the Offaly rider.
“Ryan made his challenge with one run, but my horse found again. When they’re as good and as tough as this horse, it makes my job easier.
“There’s no knowing where a horse like this could end up. Hopefully he’s an Arc horse.”
Such a sentiment was reflected by Weld, who added: “We’ll give this horse a well-deserved break, and train him for the Arc.”
For a trainer who counts Melbourne Cups, English classics, the Arlington Million, Belmont Stakes, American Derby and Oaks, Secretariat Stakes, Hong Kong Mile, Prix Royal Oak, Italian Derby, not to mention Cheltenham Festival successes, amongst his foreign haul, and secured his first success in the Epsom Derby this year, a Prix de ‘Arc de Triomphe would be the icing on the cake celebrating a career which has never been confined by international boundaries.
His Sea The Stars colt has been popular in the market for the French feature, which will be run in Chantilly this season, and is now as short as 5-1, with 8-1 available in a place.
Of runner-up Idaho, trainer Aidan O’Brien, speaking yesterday afternoon at the Curragh, said: “He ran very well — they are too very good horses. He was fine this morning. I thought he would progress from Epsom — and he did — but Dermot’s horse out-battled him in the last 50 yards.”
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