There are Derbys, and there are Derbys. And although Alan Munro's prime target this weekend is the 140th Irish Derby this afternoon at the Curragh, he was perfectly happy to warm up yesterday by winning the pitmen's version at Newcastle. The Northumberland Plate, the most valuable two-mile handicap in Europe, predates the southern Classic by 33 years and in its long history there can hardly have been a more serendipitous winner than Sergeant Cecil.
It is well-documented that Munro, a one-time wunder-kind, has had a long and winding road back to the spotlight. An Epsom Derby victory early in his career, on Generous 14 years ago, was followed by a spell on the Far Eastern circuit that brought success, fun, disillusionment, injury, controversy and finally burn-out. Then came four years of self-discovery out of racing before he heard the siren call once more.
When he trod the prodigal trail back to Britain, the man who gave him his chance was the small-time Devon trainer Rod Millman, who produced Sergeant Cecil, a 14-1 shot, in such sparkling form. Yesterday's victory, with its £104,400 first prize, was easily the most prestigious of Millman's 16-year career.
And under a lesser jockey, it might not have happened. Plan A, to bounce Sergeant Cecil out of the stalls and take up station in the middle of the pack, had to be abandoned after only a few strides. "I took half a pull to steady him," said Munro, "and suddenly I was shuffled right back, getting on heels, getting in trouble, a really rough trip. Four times I had to take off the horse and I came into the straight far further back than I wanted to be."
But once in the straight, as the trailblazing Tungsten Strike still led the charge home, charmed gaps began to appear and the yellow colours began a magic weave. It was not until inside the last half-furlong that Munro was able to leave his place on the rails and burst the white face through between the gallant leader and the closing Far Pavilions, but once in the clear the six-year-old's effort was telling enough for a daylight victory, by a length and a half. Tungsten Strike (16-1) held on for second by a length and a quarter from Far Pavilions (6-1) with Astrocharm (20-1) a short-head fourth and Odiham a neck fifth. Swift Sailor, backed to 7-2 favourite on the day, faded tamely in the closing stages to 11th place.
"I had a great run up the rail," added Munro. "Perhaps being so far off the pace, and having a soft ride early, even if it was unintentional, helped the horse, because he doesn't want to be in front too long. Call it luck, call it fate. But congratulations to the horse. He has a great temperament as he was able to cope with it all. Not many stay two miles, let alone are able to quicken at the end like he did."
Millman, who declined to make the 348-mile journey from Kentisbeare, was in no doubt where the credit should go. "That was a great ride," he said. "The race was stop, start, stop, but when the horse found trouble, the man on top got him out of it. OK, the gaps opened for him in the end, but he deserved them.
"By then many jockeys would have stood up in the irons and given up. This one never stopped thinking, never stopped trying. It is wonderful for a small stable like ours - we have only 40 horses - to have a world-class jockey like Alan associated with us. I just hope we can keep him."
Munro heads for the Curragh today full of confidence in the John Hammond-trained, Michael Tabor-owned Walk In The Park, runner-up in the Derby and second favourite for Ireland's richest race. "He is a magnificent horse," he said, "with a high cruising speed and a lot of quality, and an aggressive competitor. I adore him."
Kieren Fallon, who rides the Irish Derby favourite Hurricane Run, warmed up with a double at the Curragh on a pair from Ballydoyle, the impressive two-year-old debutant Aussie Rules and the three-year-old Milesius. Like Walk In The Park, Hurricane Run is a French-trained son of young sire sensation Montjeu, under the Coolmore banner since his recent purchase but still in the care of Andre Fabre. "I hope I'm on the right one," said Fallon. "It's going to be tough. I haven't sat on him, but Hurricane Run has not done much wrong and they say he's a champion. If he is, he'll be hard to beat."
Yesterday's Group One feature at the Curragh, the Pretty Polly Stakes, went to the 9-4 favourite Alexander Goldrun, who came with a scything run from last to first to cut down Sir Michael Stoute's Red Bloom. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Vortex made it a memorable day for his trainer, Gay Kelleway, when he secured a thrilling short-head triumph in the Criterion Stakes under Michael Fenton, beating Court Masterpiece and Frankie Dettori, the first of three other jockeys to turn down the ride on the winner.Reuse content