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Abbaye aim for Make A Challenge

An outing in the Prix de l’Abbaye is next on the agenda for Make A Challenge following a creditable effort in defeat in the Flying Five at the Curragh.

The five-year-old won four of his first six starts this season, earning himself a second shot at Group One glory on the second day of Irish Champions Weekend.

While the Invincible Spirit gelding came up a little short – beaten two lengths into fifth place – trainer Denis Hogan feels there are reasons to be optimistic ahead of a likely appearance in Paris on Arc day next month.

“We were very happy with the horse. He raced out on his own for most of the race and the drying ground probably didn’t help, but I think the main thing was he was drawn away from them and the race got away on him a little bit,” said Hogan.

“We were delighted with the run really and all being well, we’ll go straight for the Abbaye – you’d like to think we’ll get a bit of cut in the ground at Longchamp.

“He’s also in the Qipco British Champions Sprint at Ascot over six furlongs, but the Abbaye is the plan at the moment.”

McCoy full of emotion following death of Pat Smullen

Sir Anthony McCoy struggled to overcome his emotions when paying tribute to Pat Smullen, who died at the age of 43 on Tuesday.

Smullen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2018, with his death coming exactly a year after the nine-times champion Irish Flat jockey persuaded McCoy to come out of retirement to ride in a charity race at the Curragh.

“He was a wonderful man. It’s very hard, it’s very hard on the family. It’s just a tragic time, it’s heartbreaking,” McCoy told Sky Sports Racing.

“We served our apprenticeships around a similar time. His was a lot more successful than mine was, so I’d known him a long time.

“Paying a compliment to him as a rider, he took over from as good a rider as I have ever seen in Mick Kinane (at Dermot Weld’s) and you wouldn’t have known. That is how good Pat Smullen was. You can try to think about races he maybe should have won – there aren’t any.

“It’s just horrifically sad. I spent a long time crying last night.”

Sir Anthony McCoy rolled back the years to ride in Pat Smullen's charity race last year
Sir Anthony McCoy rolled back the years to ride in Pat Smullen’s charity race last year (Niall Carson/PA)

Smullen convinced McCoy to take part in the Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials in Ireland last September, and he rose to the task when making all the running on Quizical at the Curragh.

The 20-times champion jumps jockey beat other legends of the turf such as Ruby Walsh and Johnny Murtagh, on a day that helped Smullen raise over €2.5million for charity.

“It was very special,” said McCoy.

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“I know he said that some of us were harder to persuade to ride than others, and it did take me a bit of time to think about it because I was a bit unfit at the time and worried about making a show of myself.

“But because it was for Pat Smullen and for such a special cause – there is no doubt it is one of the memories that will last forever in my mind. The Curragh was very special because of how the day went, the success and what he made of it. He raised the best part of three million in a very short space of time.

“It was a very memorable day and I know that he, having organised that, will have made a difference to people. It was a very special day.

Sir Anthony McCoy celebrates victory with Quizical
Sir Anthony McCoy celebrates victory with Quizical (Niall Carson/PA)

“He served his apprenticeship riding against Mick Kinane and Christy Roche. He rode with the best of them and learnt from the best. It showed what a world-class jockey he became.

“I looked at a picture this morning of a lunch in Leopardstown in February 2018. It was not long after that he was diagnosed with cancer.”

Quizical’s trainer Sheila Lavery is also finding it hard to come with the news of Smullen’s death.

“It’s just so sad and is too hard to put into words really,” she said.

“That was an amazing day at the Curragh and we all said at the time it was pure testament to Pat.

“It’s just devastating. We are all heartbroken. It’s pure despair that he was taken so young. I just can’t just begin to imagine what his family are feeling. It’s so heartbreaking.

“I think there were very few people Pat didn’t touch in some way.

“He was just one of those who treated everyone exactly the same way – the stable hands, or the owner, the trainer, everyone. He was just a really decent person.”

Pat Smullen with Sir Anthony McCoy and trainer Sheila Lavery
Pat Smullen with Sir Anthony McCoy and trainer Sheila Lavery (Niall Carson/PA)

Cancer Trials Ireland paid its own tribute the rider, hailing him “as a friend like no other” and underlining his “dramatic and unusual” degree of his fundraising efforts.

The charity detailed how Smullen’s work had resulted in nine research proposals this year that will be advanced or explored, that he had also helped raise €120,000 for ovarian and prostate cancer trials last November and earlier this year gave the go-ahead to fund a Next Generation Sequencing machine for St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin – equipment that could potentially open up treatment options for patients with all types of cancer.

CEO Eibhlín Mulroe and Professor Ray McDermott, who is Cancer Trials Ireland’s clinical lead, also pointed out Smullen’s contributions on a more personal level, making himself available for “interviews, photo calls, and phone calls – anything that might help people in a situation similar to his own”.

Pat Smullen raised millions of euros for charity
Pat Smullen raised millions of euros for charity (PA)

An open letter to the Smullen family concluded: “It is a mark of the man that he had such a wide-ranging generosity. Pat’s popularity – and humility – was and is legendary.

“It was truly remarkable, and inspiring, to see that these qualities can coexist with the drive and determination it takes to reach the very top of his demanding sport.

“Our thoughts, today and always, are with Pat’s wife Frances, his children Hannah, Paddy and Sarah, and his wider family.

“Clinical trials offer patients very real, tangible, important benefits – but they can also provide something as vital as it is intangible: Hope. That is Pat’s real gift to the people who come after him, who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“The outpouring of love and support his efforts have generated give hope to us all.”

QEII target on Champions Day for Century Dream

Ed Crisford is keeping his fingers crossed for soft ground on Qipco British Champions Day at Ascot to give Century Dream the best possible chance of bouncing back from a slightly underwhelming performance in Ireland on Saturday.

Having run out an impressive winner of the Celebration Mile at Goodwood last month, the six-year-old was the market leader to double his Group Two tally in the Boomerang Stakes at Leopardstown.

However, having cut out much of the running under William Buick, Century Dream weakened into fifth place as fellow British raider Safe Voyage emerged triumphant.

Crisford, who trains Century Dream in partnership with his father, Simon, said: “I think the ground was a bit quick at Leopardstown and they went strong enough up front.

“The ground was probably a bit quick for him, but he’s come back fine and I think we’ll just head to the QEII on hopefully softer ground.”

The following afternoon A’Ali was sent off favourite to grab Group One glory in the Flying Five Stakes at the Curragh, where he landed the Sapphire Stakes in July.

A'Ali failed to fire in the Flying Five
A’Ali failed to fire in the Flying Five (Dan Abraham/PA)

But all plans are on hold for the son of Society Rock after he trailed home last of 14 runners.

“He was disappointing – he looked a bit flat and a bit lethargic,” Crisford said.

“We’ll just see how he is this week before we make any further plans, I think. When they run too bad to be true, we need to put the horse first and see how he comes out of it.”

Dewhurst option for National hero Thunder Moon

The Dewhurst Stakes is a possible next port of call for Joseph O’Brien’s Thunder Moon following his impressive display at the Curragh on Sunday.

An emphatic winner on his racecourse debut over the course and distance little over a month ago, the son of Zoffany faced a big step up in class for the Group One National Stakes.

However, O’Brien’s youngster vindicated his trainer’s decision to supplement for the race – displaying a devastating change of gear to leave his rivals trailing in his wake and rocket to the head of ante-post lists for next year’s 2000 Guineas at Newmarket.

The Piltown handler watched the action at the Curragh unfold from home as a precaution following jockey Shane Crosse’s positive test for Covid-19 on Friday.

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Speaking on Monday morning, O’Brien said of Thunder Moon: “We were very happy with him. It was a bit of a messy race, but he showed a great turn of foot to go away and win well.

“We did supplement him, so we were hopeful he’d run a nice race, but I suppose I was surprised by the manner of his victory.”

Considering future plans, he added: “If he was to run again this year, the Dewhurst would probably be the race for him, but we’ll see how he comes out of the race on Sunday and a lot will depend on the ground as well.

“The Breeders’ Cup is there as an option as well, but that wouldn’t be on my radar at the moment.

“He’s an exciting colt.”

O’Brien was widely expected to land top-level honours in the preceding Moyglare Stud Stakes with Pretty Gorgeous, who was a hot favourite to supplement her course and distance win in the Debutante.

Pretty Gorgeous (left) chases home Shale in the Moyglare Stud Stakes
Pretty Gorgeous (left) chases home Shale in the Moyglare Stud Stakes (PA)

However, Debutante runner-up Shale – trained by Joseph’s brother Donnacha – reversed the form with a narrow success.

O’Brien said: “Pretty Gorgeous ran a great race. I think the two of them are very good fillies and whichever one of them gets the rub of the green on the day might come out on top.

“We’ll see how our filly comes out of it, but we have the option of the Fillies’ Mile or the Prix Marcel Boussac and there’s also the Breeders’ Cup.

“We’ll see how we go, but I’d say she probably just wants one more run this year, with Newmarket and France being the likeliest options.”

Cayenne Pepper too hot for Blandford rivals

Cayenne Pepper was rewarded for a string of consistent efforts with a stylish victory in the Moyglare “Jewels” Blandford Stakes at the Curragh.

Jessica Harrington’s filly had shown smart form as a juvenile and went on to be fourth in the Fillies’ Mile.

This year she had been second in all three of her runs, including the Irish Oaks, but had been beaten at a short price in the Give Thanks Stakes most recently.

Dropped back to 10 furlongs on this occasion, though, Shane Foley always looked in command.

He tracked Amma Grace into the straight before taking up the running over a furlong out and his mount powered through the line to take the Group Two honours by four lengths at 3-1. Aidan O’Brien’s Magic Wand was a disappointing favourite.

Assistant trainer Kate Harrington said: “That was the true Cayenne Pepper. She got a good tow into the race and was really impressive.

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“We had a lot of issues with her in the spring and today was the first day she looked well and strong.

“She’s in the Prix de l’Opera, but I think Alpine Star goes there. She’s got an invite for the QEII at the Keeneland and she could stay over there for the Breeders’ Cup.

“It’s sad that Jon Kelly (owner) wasn’t around to see her, but he’ll be up there looking down on her. He passed away a week after the Oaks. It’s lovely for her to win, but it’s a bit emotional.

“We might go to America with her for Sarah (Kelly to see her, providing everything is OK.s Cup.

“We’ll let the dust settle and see how she is this week.”

There was a British-trained success in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF “Bold Lad” Sprint Handicap, with Richard Fahey’s Mr Lupton lifting the valuable pot.

Fahey’s charge had won a Group Two at the Curragh last May, but had been winless since and largely out of sorts.

He hinted at a return to form last time out when third in the Great St Wilfrid and the well-backed 11-2 favourite streaked clear with a furlong to run.

Lil Grey kept him honest home before fading into third, with Blairmayne running on into second, beaten half a length.

Fahey said: “He’s a wonderful horse. He’d lost his way a bit, but at least it gave him a chance to come back to handicaps and we’re delighted with him – he’s a star.

“All going well the plan is to take him to the Ayr Gold Cup next week. We were going to go straight there, but the prize-money on offer today took over – it was a good prize to win.”

Fahey and Keane then doubled up when Shark One Two (20-1) won the Tattersalls Ireland Super Auction Sale Stakes.

It was a fourth winner of the weekend for Keane.

“Talking to Richard he was a little bit bullish and he was right. He quickened up well and you couldn’t be happier,” said Keane.

Sonnyboyliston then defied a 13lb rise in the weights to round off a great weekend for Johnny Murtagh in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF “Northfields” Handicap, under Billy Lee.

Mulrennan seeking Group One gold with Que Amoro

Paul Mulrennan is relishing the opportunity to bid for Group One glory aboard Que Amoro in the Derrinstown Stud Flying Five Stakes at the Curragh on Sunday.

The Michael Dods-trained filly is well fancied for the first of four top-level prizes on offer on the second afternoon of Irish Champions Weekend, having pushed star sprinter Battaash all the way in the Nunthorpe at York.

Que Amoro looked likely to sidestep this weekend’s five-furlong contest, but with a recent change to Covid-19 protocols meaning British-based jockeys are now allowed to ride without having to quarantine for two weeks, she was given the green light to travel to Ireland.

Mulrennan said: “I was delighted when the quarantine rules changed – I’m very much look forward to riding her on Sunday.

“She’s come out of York very well. It was a hell of a run in the Nunthorpe – I’ve not seen many horses get Battaash off the bridle like she did, so it was a great effort.

“If she can reproduce that sort of performance this weekend, I think she’s the one they’ve all got to beat.”

Que Amoro is one of seven British challengers in a field of 15 runners, with Simon and Ed Crisford’s A’Ali, Kevin Ryan’s Glass Slippers and the John Quinn-trained pair of Keep Busy and Liberty Beach also part of the raiding party.

The home team is headed by Denis Hogan’s Make A Challenge, who has won four of his six starts this season and is five from eight overall at the Curragh.

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The Moyglare Stud Stakes appears likely to be dominated by the O’Brien family, with Aidan and his two sons Joseph and Donnacha all saddling major contenders.

The hot favourite is Joseph O’Brien’s Pretty Gorgeous following her impressive display in the Debutante Stakes over the course and distance three weeks ago.

“I’m looking forward to running her – she’s a very exciting filly,” said the Piltown handler.

“She couldn’t have been any more impressive last time in very heavy going. Obviously she handled that, but she’s also won on better ground, so she’s versatile ground-wise.

“I’m really looking forward to the weekend for her.”

Pretty Gorgeous is reopposed by Donnacha O’Brien’s Debutante runner-up Shale and Aidan O’Brien’s Debutante third Mother Earth.

Donnacha O’Brien said: “It will be tough to beat Joseph’s filly, but I’m hoping that on nicer ground we can get a bit closer and possibly even put it up to her.”

Aidan O’Brien, who also runs recent Flame of Tara Stakes winner Divinely, said: “Mother Earth ran a nice race in the Debutante. We were feeling our way up to seven furlongs and didn’t want to boldly expose her. We were happy with the run and hope she might progress.

“Divinely is like her sister Found, who was able to compete at seven and was very comfortable when she stepped up to a mile – she’s very likeable in everything she does.”

Classic honours are up for grabs in the Comer Group Irish St Leger, for which Twilight Payment is the likely favourite for Joseph O’Brien, after landing both the Vintage Crop Stakes and the Curragh Cup over the course and distance this season.

O’Brien said: “He’s seven, but he ran a career-best last time on figures.

“He’ll probably need to do so again, but if he does, it puts him right in the mix. We’re excited about running him and we’re hopeful of a good performance.”

Aidan O’Brien saddles last year’s Irish Derby hero Sovereign, who was last seen chasing home Enable in the King George, as well as three-year-old filly Passion.

Dermot Weld’s defending champion Search For A Song, Jessica Harrington’s Barbados, the Willie Mullins-trained Micro Manage and Luke Comer’s Raa Atoll complete the home team, with Roger Varian’s Ebor winner Fujaira Prince flying the flag for Britain.

Aidan O’Brien’s globetrotting mare Magic Wand sets the standard on ratings in the Group Two Moyglare “Jewels” Blandford Stakes.

So far this season the daughter of Galileo has won the Lanwades Stud Stakes, placed fourth in the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown and finished fifth in the Nassau at Goodwood.

O’Brien said: “It’s a nice race to break her into the autumn – she’ll probably go on her travels after this.

“We’re not sure how far we can go. We think we can go to Hong Kong and America, but we have to do the quarantine beforehand. They would be the two big ones on her agenda.”

Jessica Harrington has a strong hand, with both One Voice and Cayenne Pepper bringing top-level form to the table.

Joseph O’Brien also fires a couple of bullets in Bolleville and Thunder Nights, and said of the latter: “She won at the Curragh last time, beating Albigna, and won very well.

“She’s a filly who has just improved and improved all season. We’re really looking forward to running her.”

Song faces seven in defence of her Irish Leger title

Search For A Song is set to face seven rivals when she bids for back-to-back victories in the Comer Group International Irish St Leger at the Curragh on Sunday.

The Moyglare Stud Farm-owned filly provided trainer Dermot Weld with an eighth success in the final Classic of the Irish season 12 months ago, leaving him one short of the record set by the late Vincent O’Brien.

Search For A Song is winless in three starts this season, but did run with credit over an inadequate trip when third behind the top-class Magical in the Tattersalls Gold Cup on her latest appearance.

Twilight Payment is the likely favourite for Joseph O’Brien, after landing both the Vintage Crop Stakes and the Curragh Cup over the course and distance this season.

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Aidan O’Brien saddles last year’s Irish Derby hero Sovereign, who was last seen chasing home Enable in the King George, as well as three-year-old filly Passion.

Jessica Harrington’s Barbados, the Willie Mullins-trained Micro Manage and Luke Comer’s Raa Atoll complete the home team, with British hopes carried by Roger Varian’s Ebor winner Fujaira Prince.

The first of four Group Ones on day two of Longines Irish Champions Weekend is the Derrinstown Stud Flying Five Stakes, which has attracted 15 high-class sprinters.

Denis Hogan’s prolific five-year-old Make A Challenge faces an eight-strong British contingent which includes the Michael Dods-trained Que Amoro – runner-up to Battaash in the Nunthorpe at York last month – and Simon and Ed Crisford’s course and distance winner A’Ali.

Joseph O’Brien’s hugely impressive Debutante winner Pretty Gorgeous is a short-priced favourite for the Moyglare Stud Stakes.

She is reopposed by Donnacha O’Brien’s Debutante runner-up Shale and Aidan O’Brien’s Debutante third Mother Earth, while Ken Condon has both Teresa Mendoza and Thunder Beauty in a field of 13 juvenile fillies.

The Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes throws up a fascinating Anglo-Irish clash between Master Of The Seas and Battleground.

The unbeaten Master Of The Seas bids to provide Charlie Appleby with a third straight win in the seven-furlong contest, following the recent triumphs of Quorto and Pinatubo.

Aidan O’Brien has won the race on 11 occasions and is represented by his star juvenile colt of the campaign so far in Battleground – winner of the Chesham Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Vintage at Goodwood this summer.

The pair are joined at the head of the betting by Harrington’s Phoenix Stakes victor Lucky Vega in what could well be the strongest two-year-old race of the season so far.

Group Two honours are up for grabs in the Blandford Stakes, which features O’Brien senior’s Magic Wand and Harrington’s pair of Cayenne Pepper and One Voice.

The Punting Confessional: Beating the handicapper.

Curragh Racecourse

Curragh Racecourse

Curragh, May 6th

I managed to the get the flat season – or at least the punting part of it – up and running at the Curragh on Bank Holiday Monday with a pair of decent winners in Ondeafears and Wrekin Rock; that the pair came in 50-80 handicaps should come as no surprise to anyone who knows my punting methods.

I realise there is something perverse in making your biggest plays in the worst races on the card – that was certainly the case here with the winners returning the worst and second-worst form ratings of the meeting – but I’m a contrarian by nature and handicaps are very much my bread-and-butter.

Group races just don’t do it for me and while some will argue that the perils of punting in such events were brought into sharp relief later on the card with the St Nicholas Abbey debacle in the Mooresbridge Stakes, I don’t agree. That race saw what was palpably the best horse getting turned over but such results are the exception, the problem with playing in pattern races from a personal punting perspective being quite the opposite, i.e. that the best horse wins all too often.

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For me, this isn’t a good thing because such horses are all  too obvious and invariably sent off at short prices; what I really want in a race is complexity – whether it be provided by pace, handicap marks, track or draw biases or any number of other variables – as this provides the possibility of a big score. Handicaps, by their very nature, are complex in that their stated aim to give each horse an equal chance and the fastest horse does not always win.

One of the best things about handicaps is the predictability of pace. Exposed handicappers have a running style and by-and-large they stick to it; to change it could compromise their chances. This means one can a have very good idea how a race will be run beforehand which is helpful as one can see how the likely pace scenario will favour one type of runner over another; there may be a front-runner that is going to be left alone in the lead or there may be loads of pace on which will suit closers.

Not only is such pace analysis a useful tool pre-race, it comes in handy afterwards when reviewing a meeting as one can come up with a sensible idea of which horses were advantaged or disadvantaged by the run of things; knowing how the race was expected to be run makes this sort of work far easier.

Analysing pace in other races is much more problematic. In maidens, a punter has little or no evidence to go on with running styles and oftentimes pace becomes an irrelevance as there is such a differential between the ability levels of runners. Group races are even worse, especially in Ireland, and Ballydoyle have to shoulder much of the blame for this. Such is their strength of numbers they can choreograph Irish group races which is not something that can be achieved in England and further afield where the competition is much stiffer.

The best example of this was last year’s Irish 2,000 Guineas where the Aidan O’Brien-trained Roderic O’Connor defeated the best horse in the race Dubawi Gold by dint of tactics, something Dubawi Gold’s jockey Richard Hughes was well aware of in his Racing Post column on the morning of the race; the winner finished the season pace-making in the Irish Champion Stakes while Dubawi Gold was in the frame of Group 1s with Excelebration and Frankel.

Pacemakers are another complicating factor in Irish Group races as one never knows what Ballydoyle are going to do with a race; sometimes they want a breakneck gallop, other times they want to slow it down for a suspect stayer and there are even occasions when they hardly know what they want. Getting stallion prospects is the raison d’être of the yard and it seems that any horse can be sacrificed at the altar of bloodstock, or at least a sire you can charge at least €50,000 a nomination for.

With the Ballydoyle horses, their run styles change markedly from race to race; what a horse did when a short-priced favourite for a Group 3 bears no resemblance to what it is likely to do in a Group 1 next time at 50/1 when the yard has a fancied horse they perceive needs a certain pace. I suspect this sort of chopping and changing  is not good for individual horses are they are not allowed to get into habits on the track and stunts their development and I am sure it is bad for punters who simply don’t have a clue how each horse well be ridden.

Another factor that keys in with pace is track configuration; some tracks favour certain run styles and horse types. The problem with Irish group races from a punting point-of-view is that the vast majority of them are run at the Curragh or Leopardstown, a pair of tracks that are in the main very fair. This is important when one is trying to further the breed and simply find out which is the quickest horse but it reduces the complexity of races and thus makes them less interesting betting mediums.

Personally, I would find pattern races much more interesting if they were run on the Naas sprint track on soft ground (high numbers all the way), at Tipperary (a front-runner’s paradise) or even around the up-and-down Western gaffs like Galway and Ballinrobe (chaos rules).

With the top group horses, punters often need to ask themselves how much more they can know than the market; here are a coterie of talented horses who make up about 10% or less of the equine population yet take up about 90% of the column inches on horse racing (rough figures I know, but you get my meaning).

You may hold a low opinion of the standard of the racing media (I know I certainly do) but the more information they have the more they are likely to spot value and point it out to the public and the few good analysts there are among the media soon spot pricing errors in the top races. With handicappers, it’s a different story.

The proclivities of exposed handicappers may be clear to someone going through their form in detail but they are not covered in media in any great detail and this is where a shrewd punter can get an edge on the market. It seems no coincidence that a number of the punters and analysts I respect – Hugh Taylor, Tom Segal and Dave Nevison in his prime – do a lot of their backing/tipping in fields of older handicappers. Personally, I would have every confidence in playing my knowledge of Irish handicappers against most punters and certainly against the odds compilers.

I suppose an awful lot of this boils down to an old chestnut of punting: specialisation. A punter simply cannot know everything and one has to find races that suit your style. I don’t want to rule out group races entirely as I’m sure some punters swear by them and one should never be dogmatic about rules in racing as one never knows when a good betting opportunity will arrive. It may well be in a Group 1 but somehow I doubt as handicaps have provided most of the best bets of my life.