Is the Irish Derby becoming a race for the girls?

Qualify (Colm O'Donoghue) before winning the 2015 Investec Oaks. Photo: Steven Cargill/

When Salsabil lined up in the Irish Derby in 1990, she had history as well as eight colts against her. Even though no filly had won the race since Gallinaria in 1900, the punters conspired to send Sheikh Hamdan’s filly off the 11-4 second favourite: longer than Epsom Derby winner Quest For Fame, shorter than Epsom Derby runner-up Blue Stag, and shorter than Chester Vase winner Belmez. And those punters who did never had a moment’s anxiety.

Rider Willie Carson said afterwards that the race could not have gone more smoothly for him. Settling his filly on the inside in the early stages, Carson said that every time he wanted to make progress, the horses in front of him seemed to move out of his way.

By the time they started to turn for home, Salsabil had moved into third place along the inside, behind Quest For Fame and his stablemate Deploy. At the two-furlong pole, Carson eased his filly off the rail, between the two Prince Khalid colts, and asked her to go and win her race. When he did, the response was impressive, Salsabil gradually wearing Deploy down and getting up to win by three parts of a length.

Four years later, Balanchine arrived at the Curragh on Irish Derby day with a similar profile to Salsabil’s. Salsabil had won the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks as a prelude to her Irish Derby, Balanchine had been beaten a short head by Las Meninas in the 1,000 Guineas before winning the Oaks.

The synergy continued in the Irish Derby. Again, the punters gave Balanchine a big chance, put her in as a 5-1 shot among the colts, longer than Epsom Derby runner-up King’s Theatre, longer than French Derby third Alriffa, shorter than Epsom Derby third Colonel Collins.

And Frankie Dettori charted a similar path on Balanchine to the one Carson had charted on Salsabil four years earlier. Settled in mid-division and along the inside, Dettori allowed his filly move up between horses as they started the descent around the home turn. At the top of the home straight, Balanchine’s white blaze struck the front, and from that point it was plain sailing, the Godolphin filly coming four lengths clear of King’s Theatre, who was in turn clear of Colonel Collins in third.

There has been much talk about fillies in the preamble to this year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby. When Pleascach won the Irish 1,000 Guineas last month, her trainer Jim Bolger nominated the Irish Derby as her next possible target, not the Irish Oaks. In the run up to Royal Ascot, he said that the G2 Ribblesdale Stakes should be a good stepping stone to the Irish Derby.

David Wachman, who had given his 1,000 Guineas winner Legatissimo an Irish Derby entry, also mentioned Saturday’s Classic as a possible for Curvy after she had won the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot last Thursday. It made sense. The Galileo filly had beaten Pleascach in the Ribblesdale, the pair of them clear. Also, the trainer reasoned that his filly’s victory in the Gallinule Stakes at the Curragh in May, in which she battled on gamely to beat subsequent Epsom Derby fourth Giovanni Canaletto by a neck, had given her a free entry to the Irish Derby.

And all the while Aidan O’Brien spoke of his Epsom Oaks winner Qualify as an Irish Derby possible, as a potential member of his Irish Derby team.

It is a fascinating preamble. Rarely before has the foreword to the Irish Derby been centred to such an extent on fillies. Perhaps it is down to a perception that the 3-year-old middle-distance colts may not be up to standard this year. Perhaps it is down to a perception that this year’s classic generation of fillies is top notch.

Three-year-old fillies run in the Oaks, 3-year-old colts run in the Derby. That’s the rule. It is 99 years since a filly won the Epsom Derby, and no filly has run in the race since 1,000 Guineas winner Cape Verdi was sent off as favourite before finishing ninth behind High-Rise in 1998.

Fillies obviously have a better record as a collective in the Irish Derby, yet still not many take on the challenge. The last filly to run in the race was the Aidan O’Brien-trained Strawberry Roan, who finished eighth behind her stable companion Desert King in 1997. Desert King was Aidan O’Brien’s first Irish Derby winner. That’s how long ago Desert King is.

This year, after Tuesday’s five-day declaration stage, there were two fillies in the race, the Jim Bolger-trained Pleascach and the Aidan O’Brien-trained Qualify, and both have real chances.

Connections had to have been disappointed that Pleascach did not win the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot, but she was beaten by a rapidly-improving filly in Curvy, and the first two pulled well clear of their rivals. Also, the sedate early pace was all against the Teofilo filly. When she won the Irish 1,000 Guineas, she raced up with a strong pace and she stayed on strongly.

Of course, the Irish Guineas is run over a mile, the Irish Derby is over a mile and a half, but Pleascach was impressive in winning the Blue Wind Stakes over 10 furlongs last month, and her breeding suggests that a mile and a half should be well within range.

Connections obviously feel that stamina is not an issue, given that they have entered her in the Irish St Leger. And it is significant that she is among the Irish Derby entries, even though Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, who bought into her after she won the Irish Guineas, also own a significant share in the odds-on favourite for Saturday’s race, Jack Hobbs.

The case for Qualify is easily made. The Fastnet Rock filly won the CL Weld Park Stakes last year, and she is out of a Park Hill Stakes runner-up from the family of St Leger winner Brian Boru and Derby winner Workforce, and she is trained by Aidan O’Brien. More importantly, of course, she is the Epsom Oaks winner, as were the last two fillies to win the Irish Derby.

History is against them no more.

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