The remarkable Ballydoyle stranglehold on Ireland's first Classic

Sadler's Wells wins the 1984 Irish 2,000 Guineas

Irish Guineas weekend at The Curragh on Saturday and Sunday is one of Europe’s great racing occasions, featuring the first two Classics of the season, the G1 Tattersalls Gold Cup – which invariably provides a platform for some of the most exciting 10-furlong performers around – and a two-day undercard oozing serious quality. Donn McClean looks at the rich recent history of the weekend’s centerpiece, Saturday’s Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas.

You couldn’t really have blamed Pat Eddery for choosing to ride Capture Him in the 1984 Irish 2,000 Guineas instead of his stable companion Sadler’s Wells. The son of Northern Dancer had, after all, been beaten by another stable companion, El Gran Senor, in the Gladness Stakes on his debut that season, and he was dropping back to a mile after winning the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial over 10 furlongs.

Then ridden by George McGrath, Sadler’s Wells won the Irish 2,000 Guineas that year for Vincent O’Brien and Robert Sangster, battling on well to get up in a thriller from the French horse Procida, with favourite and subsequent Epsom Derby hero/villain Secreto – trained by Vincent’s son David – back in third, and Capture Him fourth.

Of course, we didn’t know at the time that the then 3-year-old colt with the snow-white blaze down the middle of his face would go on to add the Eclipse Stakes and the Irish Champion Stakes to his swag bag, nor that he would go on to influence the Thoroughbred racing and breeding world like few others in modern times.

How could we have?

There were lots of other things that we didn’t know before previous renewals of the Irish 2000 Guineas.  We didn’t know, for example, that King’s Lake’s win, under the aforementioned Pat Eddery, over To-Agori-Mou in 1981 would spark the controversy that it did.  The controversy may have been ignited by the fact that the winner was disqualified by the stewards on the day (for bumping To-Agori-Mou several times in the closing stages) and then re-instated subsequently on appeal, and it may have been further fuelled by the famous Greville Starkey two-finger salute when he and To-Agori-Mou exacted their revenge in the St James’ Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot the following month.  But we didn’t know for sure at the time.

We did know, when Tommy Kinane’s 23-year-old son Michael kicked Dara Monarch home in the 1982 Irish 2,000 Guineas, that it was the young rider’s first Classic win. We didn’t know for sure, mind you, that it would be the first of many, or of how many – 14 Irish ones, to be precise, which sat neatly alongside his 10 English ones.

Nor did we know at the time why David O’Brien would run the filly Triptych in the 1985 Irish 2,000 Guineas and not in the Irish 1,000 Guineas, but we realised why when she won it, thereby becoming the first filly to win the Classic. We also knew that Flash Of Steel in 1986 was Dermot Weld’s first. We didn’t know that it was going to be his last until 2014 at the earliest.

Remarkably, since Flash Of Steel’s win, no Irish trainer who plies his or her trade outside the confines of Ballydoyle’s walls has won the Irish 2,000 Guineas. The score in those 27 renewals reads: England 15, France 1, America 1, Ballydoyle 10, Rest of Ireland 0.

Circumstances have conspired. The period between the two Ballydoyle eras, between Vincent’s last and Aidan’s first, 1988 to 1997, coincided with a period of essentially British dominance. Things have turned again, mind you. Aidan has won nine of the last 17 renewals and, remarkably, five of the last six.

Some of the big Ballydoyle horses have won it too. Rock of Gibraltar may have surprised Hawk Wing and punters in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket Racecourse in 2002, but there was no surprise about his victory in the Irish equivalent at The Curragh three weeks later, the 4-to-7 favourite leading home, as he did, an Aidan O’Brien-trained 1-2-3.

Henrythenavigator extended his superiority over New Approach in 2008 from a hard-fought nose at Newmarket to a relatively relaxed one-and-three-quarter lengths at The Curragh, before going on to beat Raven’s Pass in the St James’ Palace Stakes and the Sussex Stakes later that summer, while subsequent Breeders’ Cup Turf hero Magician led home a Ballydoyle 1-2 in the race last year.

It could have been a little different. Aidan O’Brien’s recent stranglehold could have been loosened by his compatriots, at least a little. Dawn Approach would have been favourite for the race last year had he gone to The Curragh from Newmarket instead of rerouting to Epsom Downs.

Interestingly, no 2,000 Guineas winner from Newmarket has followed up at The Curragh since Henrythenavigator six years ago. Disappointingly, none has tried since, and that stat is not going to be altered this year, with Night of Thunder never an intended runner in Saturday’s race.

The Newmarket form will be well represented, however, through runner-up Kingman, fourth-placed Shifting Power, and ninth-placed War Command. Kingman is a worthy favourite, but don’t allow War Command’s disappointing run at Newmarket put you off. Aidan O’Brien is adept at getting horses to bounce out of Newmarket and onto The Curragh, as he has proved with Mastercraftsman, Roderic O’Connor, and Power in recent years. And remember, War Command won the Coventry Stakes and the Dewhurst Stakes last year as a juvenile. He is a high-class colt.

Mustajeeb did not run at Newmarket, but Hamdan Al Maktoum’s horse showed an impressive turn of foot to beat his elders in the G3 Amethyst Stakes at Leopardstown Racecourse on his debut this term.  He has to step up on that if he is to win an Irish Guineas, but that was just his fourth ever race, he has significant scope for progression, trainer Dermot Weld has had his team in flying form since the start of the season, and the prospect of easy ground would not faze him.

He could be this year’s Flash Of Steel, even if we don’t know it yet. 

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