Chris McGrath: O'Brien can show Midas touch with strong Irish Derby hand

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The Independent Online

Any Southerner referring to the big race at Newcastle today as "the Pitmen's Derby" should be cast down a disused mineshaft.

Perhaps that might give some physical equivalence to their condescension. They could keep themselves alive, no doubt, by eating canaries.

Those of us lacking genetic and cultural empathy with a heroic, tragic way of industrial life can still respect the John Smith's Northumberland Plate as a historic prize with an eye-watering purse. It is gratifying that an opportunity like this should come the way of those who can only afford the kind of horses that turn into staying handicappers. At the same time, a first prize of £108,000 is instructive of the skewed priorities in the sport's class structure. There is a Listed race at Newmarket today bearing a first prize of just £15,000.

So much for rewarding a big handicap winner with a "step up in class". The true dividends of elite competition are instead reserved for stud. And that, of course, is what makes the weekend's other "Derby" so critical for the stable that has dominated the race in recent years.

Aidan O'Brien, who trains for Coolmore Stud, tomorrow seeks his eighth success in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby and once again has a formidable hand. This consistency in his home Derby cannot be without its exasperations, as a contrast with his serial near misses in the Epsom original since Galileo and High Chaparral.

As last year, the Epsom winner is not going for the double – Workforce instead waits for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes – and that leaves tomorrow's field uncomfortably dependent on colts that did not make the grade in their first Classic.

O'Brien owes his present sequence of four consecutive winners to horses that had run second, 11th, fifth and third at Epsom, but Johnny Murtagh instead favours the colt who controversially missed the race in favour of the Prix du Jockey-Club. In the event Cape Blanco ran deplorably – 24 hours after Workforce, his victim in the Dante Stakes at York, had won the Derby by seven lengths.

Clearly, the York form cannot be taken literally, any more than his performance at Chantilly is a valid guide to his merit. But the fact remains that he has yet to run over a mile and a half, and his prospects of getting home rest on a topsy-turvy pedigree. While Galileo obviously offers stamina, his dam was a sprinter and half-sister to the sizzling Paris House.

Jan Vermeer, whose reappearance had been delayed by a stone bruise, then ripped off both front shoes when starting favourite at Epsom. That may have contributed to his rather tepid finish in fourth, but an immediate instinct was that he would probably show his true colours over 10 furlongs on easier ground. Murtagh's rejection compounds those fears.

The best of the Ballydoyle runners at Epsom was instead At First Sight, who produced a surreal performance as pacemaker, cutting loose off the home turn and comfortably holding the rest after Workforce surged away. You have to feel sorry for him now, however. He had barely been hosed down before being asked to race at Ascot last week, and understandably ran dry after his hard race at Epsom. Now, unbelievably, the poor thing is being turned out yet again and it looks as though his own stable is dismissing his Derby run as a fluke.

Perhaps the best value among the Ballydoyle team is instead Midas Touch, who kept on only steadily for fifth at Epsom but will be far more at home on the Curragh. Essentially he looks a St Leger type but he does remain unexposed at this distance and it seems safe to anticipate a career best.

For exactly the same reasons, admittedly, Coordinated Cut looks sure to make more of an impact than at Epsom, where he was set plenty to do and stayed on really well in the straight. He looks fair value, each-way, and do not dismiss Chabal, either. His shocking run behind Cape Blanco at York was attributed to quick ground, but there was clearly something amiss with his stable at the time. He had looked a legitimate Classic prospect on his reappearance.

Chabal is ridden by Kieren Fallon, Godolphin having released Frankie Dettori to ride Monterosso, who was supplemented after his breakthrough success at Ascot last week. In any other hands, you would have severe doubts about him soaking up that effort sufficiently to attain a new peak tomorrow, but Mark Johnston's training regime seems to produce a very tough elite tier.

Jim Bolger's pair warrant respect, especially Carraiglawn, a half-brother to the 2008 winner, Soldier Of Fortune, who is entitled to improve again trying this distance for the first time. As his mentor, of course, Bolger would love to break O'Brien's monopoly. But he would readily acknowledge that this race could have no more fitting winner than Midas Touch.

Hard to feel any sympathy for bookies' royal disappointment

For those of us who suspect that the road to punting riches was never paved straight and wide, the bookmakers' anguish after Royal Ascot is received with a certain ambivalence. They spoke of a "bloodbath", of "carnage". It was "the worst of the modern era". George Primarolo of the Tote reckoned that Honduras would have to win the World Cup to balance their books.

We cannot doubt their sufferings, favourites having won 13 out of 30 races, several in desperate finishes. It's just that you feel an immortal chump if you find yourself among the unhappy few who failed to get a proper cut at the bookmakers' haunches.

Even I managed to tip four winners on Friday's card, so on the final day of the meeting I was asked by a novice what to back in the Golden Jubilee Stakes. I suggested Society Rock at 50-1, and then watched him cut through the field to reel in all bar the favourite. My friend turned to me, and I prepared for a due amalgam of commiseration and congratulation. "Right," he said curtly. "That's the last time I'm ever listening to you."

Only a reluctant recommendation, then, is offered for Rajik (3.05) in the Northumberland Plate. The Irish raider managed only eighth at Royal Ascot, but was ridden conservatively off a steady pace. He had looked unlucky on both previous starts on home soil, and looks ready to resume the rapid improvement he made last summer. At 16-1, he looks a fair price. But of course you might just want to back the favourite instead.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Mabait (3.05 Newmarket)

Confirmed himself ready for Group company at Epsom, not really at home on the hill but flying through into third once reaching top gear. Had previously proved himself as effective over this shorter trip when beaten only a neck in the Victoria Cup, and his stable continues in top form.

Next best

Ryan Style (4.20 Chester)

Plum draw to get a lead from Bertoliver and looks eligible to run him down in the short straight, having settled matters more snugly at Ayr last time than the handicapper has allowed.

One to watch

Mount Athos (J W Hills)

Has a classy middle-distance pedigree, closely related to a Derby runner-up, but has started life in handicaps off a modest rating and his fourth over 9f at Goodwood the other day promised success over longer distances.

Where the money's going

With Sariska now unlikely to run, Twice Over is 2-1 favourite from 3-1 with the sponsors for the Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown next Saturday. Dar Re Mi is 11-4 from 5-1. Deauville Flyer is 7-2 from 9-2 with William Hill for the John Smith's Northumberland Plate at Newcastle today.