On the approach road from Clonmel to the picturesque village of Rosegreen, in the heart of horse and greyhound country, the first sign of equine enterprise comes from a distant view of the white running rails lining just one of the gallops in the world-famous thoroughbred base in Ballydoyle.
At just a few minutes before seven o’clock all seems quiet but, through the guarded gates and following a short walk to a barn with 61 horses ready to participate in one lot, it quickly becomes apparent this is a hive of activity.
At this time of year, it simply couldn’t be any other way for Aidan O’Brien.
Royal Ascot is, arguably, the most important week of the year for any flat establishment and, with seven winners, four runners-up, four third-place finishers, and the same number in fourth, last week was another successful one for the Ballydoyle team.
Having flown over and back each day and then followed up with a trip to Chantilly for the French Oaks, airplane ticket purchases coasted into double digits for O’Brien, who was remarkably fresh and relaxed on this brisk Monday morning of yet another important week, which climaxes with the Irish Derby on Saturday evening at the Curragh, a race which he is bidding to win for an unprecedented twelfth time.
The Ballydoyle battalion for the premier Irish classic is likely to number four but, make no mistake, US Army Ranger leads the troops.
The Galileo colt made his debut in April and found only powerful and classy stayer Harzand too good in the Epsom Derby, on what was just his third start, and O’Brien reports the colt to have improved again.
“US Army Ranger and Idaho are the main two that we are thinking of for the Irish Derby at the moment. They both seem to have come out of Epsom well and I couldn’t be happier really,” he admitted.
“We are very happy with US Army Ranger. He was only a baby going into Epsom and we didn’t know how he would take it so it was pitching him in big time.
"He was green and babyish but has come forward and out of the race great, to be honest.
“Idaho ran a real big race at Epsom and you would have to say he progressed lovely from Leopardstown and we are very happy with him since. Shogun and Port Douglas could probably go to the Derby also but we’ll see closer to the weekend what else lines up.”
O’Brien admits he has utmost respect for Epsom hero Harzand, who, should he line-up, could go off favourite to complete the Derby double.
“I was very impressed with Harzand, he’s obviously a very strong stayer and a big honest horse who really puts his head out and gallops all the way to the line,” he said. “We were delighted for Dermot, Pat (Smullen) and His Highness Aga Khan and their whole operation.
“His Highness puts a lot into the sport and Dermot and Pat are very professional, proper people. Obviously we try hard to win every race but we know that can’t be the way and at Epsom we were delighted for the connections of the winner. He is a very good horse.”
While Epsom may not have been ideal for either horse, O’Brien believes the fair test of the Curragh usually results in the best horse emerging successful.
“The Curragh suits every horse and that is what makes it such a unique track,” he explained.
“It is a big, galloping, straightforward track and there are no excuses for anyone. Epsom can be tricky and it can be tactical but the Curragh is usually very straightforward.
“Because of that the Curragh is probably the most important Derby because it is the horse with the most ability that will win – it is probably the best racecourse in the world.”
Trainer Ed Dunlop and connections saw fit to supplement the progressive Red Verdon for the Epsom feature, and are likely to do likewise for the Irish Derby.
He didn’t enjoy the clearest of runs and was better than his placing suggests when sixth behind Harzand, and he adds an international flavour to the race.
The ground could have a bearing on final declarations, and Curragh racing manager Paul Hensey reported: “We had 14.6mm of rain on Sunday, which has changed the ground to good-to-yielding on the round course. We have a mixed forecast up until Thursday but are not due to get heavy volumes of rain, and from Friday it is due to pick up and be nice into the weekend.”
Elsewhere on the three-day meeting at the Curragh, English 1000 Guineas and Epsom Oaks heroine Minding will also be in action, when she contests the Pretty Polly Stakes, which O’Brien has won three times, including with Diamondsandrubies in 2015.
“She has come out of Epsom well, and we intend to run her in the Pretty Polly and may look at the Nassau Stakes (Goodwood) afterwards,” said O’Brien.
Referring to both races being over ten furlongs, he added: “She doesn’t need to run over a mile and a half, does she, and we have the other filly (Ribblesdale winner Even Song) as a possible for the Irish Oaks.”
One of the few Ballydoyle disappointments at Ascot was the defeat of French 2000 Guineas winner The Gurkha, who had to settle for second place behind Newmarket Guineas winner Galileo Gold when they clashed in the St James’s Palace Stakes.
A rematch could be on the cards, after O’Brien suggested The Gurkha could go straight to the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood.
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