Dermot Weld, the pragmatist's pragmatist, is under no illusions about the task that his best three-year-old colt, Casual Conquest, faces in Sunday's Irish Derby against the pair who finished nearly five lengths in front of him in the original at Epsom, New Approach and Tartan Bearer. "They are two very good horses," he said yesterday. "It was a very good Derby, the best-rated since Galileo's. And let's be realistic, it's going to be difficult to make up the distance. We have it all to do."
But alongside his down-to-earth assessment of the situation perhaps there rides a twinkle of hope. For the last Derby winner to lay his reputation on the line at the Curragh was thwarted by an inmate of Weld's Rosewell House. Four years ago North Light started at 8-13 to become the 15th horse to complete the famous double, but was beaten by Grey Swallow.
The circumstances are different, of course. North Light ultimately proved an ordinary Derby winner; New Approach seems to be a thoroughly superior one. But still, the Irish venture is not always a formality. Nine Epsom heroes have met with defeat in Co Kildare, including the exceptional Sir Ivor.
Of the three Derby principals, Casual Conquest was the most callow on the day. The race was only his third outing and after he announced his arrival on the elite scene with a runaway trial victory, the Irish Derby had been considered perhaps a more natural target, offering more time for development for a backward individual and a track more suitable for one of 16.3 hands.
But the Hernando colt, who carries the Moyglare Stud colours, justified his inclusion in the field at Epsom, earning double his supplementary fee, coping with the switchback hurly-burly and emerging from the experience a better and more rounded competitor. "Far from doing him any harm, the whole thing did him good," added Weld. "He's come out of it well, he's looking great, and we're ready to have another go."
The going at the Curragh is currently on the easy side of good. "The Met office say it will be an unsettled week," said the course's general manager, Paul Hensey, yesterday, "but I would be hopeful based on the forecast that the ground at the weekend will be close to what it is now."
Tartan Bearer, from Sir Michael Stoute's Newmarket yard, will be trying to become the 12th Derby runner-up to gain compensation in Ireland, the latest of whom was St Jovite in 1992. But since that one turned the tables on Dr Devious, 10 Derby seconds have failed to do better in Ireland, with only three – King's Theatre, City Honours and Daliapour – doing even as well.
There is another statistical page for Tartan Bearer, who carries the same Ballymacoll silks as North Light, to overturn; the last Irish Derby winner to travel from Britain was the Godolphin filly Balanchine 14 years ago. And perhaps it should be no surprise that the locals guard the prize so fiercely and hold it in the highest regard, for it is the linchpin of the development of their country's racing industry.
Sunday's race will be the 143rd running, but really only the 47th that counts in the greater scheme of the sport. For much of its history the premier Classic in the land synonymous with high-class thoroughbreds was regarded as not so much second fiddle as sixth tambourine to the real thing at Epsom. Then, in 1962, came the sponsorship breakthrough, instigated by the late Joe McGrath, owner, breeder and Turf legislator, that put not only the race, but ultimately Ireland itself, on the international racing map.
Weld, whose stables bear the name of the 1938 Irish Derby victor, won for the first time with Zagreb in 1996, his 24th year with a licence. That edition was the first in which Aidan O'Brien saddled runners; he won it the following year with Desert King and has also taken four of the last seven, with Galileo (2001), High Chaparral (2002), Dylan Thomas (2006) and Soldier Of Fortune, who last year led home his trainer's second clean sweep. The mass Ballydoyle entry will be whittled to a quintet at today's five-day stage: Washington Irving, Alessandro Volta and Frozen Fire (fifth, sixth and 11th at Epsom) are likely to be backed up by Hindu Kush and Bashkirov.
Nap: Riley Boys(Beverley 3.45)
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