Chris McGrath: No plain sailing for Sea The Stars

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

It is astonishing how many people you come across in racing who remain so adamant in their opinions. You would have thought that even the most obstinate would discover a degree of humility in the manifold hoaxes daily perpetrated by thoroughbreds. Yet somehow they manage a heroic disregard for past misjudgements, time after time bounding up the ladders of dogma with bayonets fixed.

Perhaps we could all do with that kind of rhino hide. As it is, however, many of us find ourselves empirically stricken even before a dilemma as apparently straightforward as the one presented this weekend by the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.

Same horses. Same distance. Same going. What else do we want? The planets to be identically aligned? The same pollen count?

Even then, however, it would remain very difficult to envisage tomorrow's race unfolding simply as an action replay of events at Epsom three weeks ago.

None could reasonably doubt that Sea The Stars won on merit, and decisively so. As the first colt since Nashwan, two decades previously, to win both the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, he has matched top-class physique, pedigree and temperament with horsepower. He exuded calm authority throughout, and is duly quoted odds-on to follow up with what is quite literally his "home" Derby - one he could contest by walking a few minutes across the Curragh from John Oxx's stable.

And yet... Is it possible to deny a charge of pig-headedness, at best, or downright sophistry, in wondering whether to persevere with the man who has made this race a touchstone of his genius? Aidan O'Brien has won half of the 12 Irish Derbys staged since he first started training Classic prospects at Ballydoyle – in the process matching the record of his late predecessor and namesake, Vincent, whose successes were spread over 32 years.

O'Brien has won the last three editions, moreover, with colts beaten at Epsom. Admittedly none of them had been followed here by the winners, but that does not alter the fact Frozen Fire, Soldier Of Fortune and Dylan Thomas all produced dramatic improvement on their Epsom form at the Curragh. And a case can certainly be made for something similar from one of the cluster of Ballydoyle colts who passed the post more or less in unison behind Sea The Stars.

O'Brien was pretty well speechless straight after the race. That might simply reflect the bittersweet confusion of producing four colts in a condition to take four of the first five places in the Derby, without actually winning. But the suspicion persists that he was bewildered that this, the ultimate test, had brought out only marginal differences between them.

Certainly, someone out there had been extraordinarily confident, before the race, that Fame And Glory would prove himself in a different league from the other Ballydoyle runners. And to judge from the way the odds against that colt evaporated in the minutes before the race – 9-4 from 7-2 in one of the strongest markets of the year – that someone must have considered himself to have a valuable insight.

That day Johnny Murtagh, the Ballydoyle stable jockey, was riding Rip Van Winkle, a colt who seems to take a bit of knowing, leaving Fame And Glory to Seamus Heffernan. And it must be said that his deputy might have been rather more aggressive on Fame And Glory, instead contriving to give Michael Kinane a head start on Sea the Stars.

If there was only one imperative, given their relative stamina potential, it was that Sea The Stars should be made to get past Fame And Glory to win the Derby. As it was, Fame And Glory made predictably hard work of trying to follow the Guineas winner through.

By the same token, the Ballydoyle pacemakers surely set too diffident a gallop. Everyone says that if they go too fast, they will be ignored. But could Kinane really have disregarded Fame And Glory, had that copper-bottomed stayer shadowed a very strong gallop?

No doubt we will find out tomorrow – or should do, at any rate, depending on the amount of rain in Co Kildare. Oxx has been going to conspicuous lengths to emphasise that Sea The Stars will only take his place if the ground is fast, a contingency he seems to consider by no means certain. He acknowledges that a more searching gallop is inevitable, but consoles himself that Sea The Stars should at least settle better than he did at Epsom.

With Rip Van Winkle heading to Sandown next Saturday, Murtagh switches to Fame And Glory. Heffernan in turn finds himself on Masterofthehorse, who finished just a neck behind Fame And Glory at Epsom after being set at least as much to do as when beaten in his trial at Chester. Both those performances confirm that he has quickly fulfilled the top-class middle-distance potential he showed when beaten only narrowly by Sea The Stars over a mile at the Curragh last autumn.

The one guarantee from this race is that if either Sea The Stars or Masterofthehorse were to win, and so earn more glamorous assignments later on, the other of this pair will probably win the Ladbrokes St Leger.

Plenty of people will doubtless have more peremptory conclusions. Most will assume that the favourite, palpably an outstanding colt, will simply outclass his rivals once again. And they may well be right. But if they feel obliged to contaminate the race by backing him at odds-on, then they may never comprehend the multiplying uncertainties that give the game all its enchantment. And that is a fact.

Speed just the ticket in historic stamina test

The John Smith's Northumberland Plate at Newcastle this afternoon is a proper institution of the British Turf. What is more, its historic resonance is amply matched by a distinctly 21st-century prize fund of £180,000.

A suitably competitive field includes Judgethemoment, who carries a penalty for his Royal Ascot success but may struggle to confirm the form with Keenes Day, who did not seem to get home that day and will appreciate the return to two miles. Both horses, however, have only had 11 days to get over a hard race, so preference is for the fresh, progressive Irish raider Speed Ticket (3.10).

The big race at the Curragh today is the Audi Pretty Polly Stakes. Look Here (3.40) ran a blinder against colts on her comeback in the Coronation Cup at Epsom, and continues an ambitious campaign by dropping back in trip. She has shown so much class in a short career that she could well pull it off, not least with Lush Lashes so disappointing at Royal Ascot.

The Netjets Railway Stakes, on tomorrow's card, reliably produces a smart juvenile. Love Lockdown is unbeaten in three starts for Ger Lyons, but it looks significant that Jim Bolger is prepared to take on the colts with Kitty Kiernan (3.10).

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Speed Ticket (3.10 Newcastle)

Deep staying genes give him scope for huge improvement trying an extra half-mile for the first time.

*Next best

Secret Hero (4.40 Windsor)

Lived up to his name when leaving anonymous maiden form behind to land good support at Salisbury.

*One to watch

For A Dancer (Mrs S Smith)

Late starter but looks a fast developer and remains well treated, judged on the ease with which he led four out before idling at Worcester this week.

*Where the money's going

The Betchworth Kid is 14-1 from 20-1 for the John Smith's Northumberland Plate (3.10) with William Hill.