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Twilight Payment back in front at the Curragh

Melbourne Cup winner Twilight Payment returned to winning ways in the Comer Group International Irish St Leger Trial Stakes at the Curragh.

Joseph O’Brien’s eight-year-old enjoyed his finest hour in November last year, but had been out of luck in three subsequent starts, most recently in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.

A 5-1 chance in the hands of Declan McDonogh, he took over from Amhran Na Bhfiann before three out, followed by Princess Zoe and Emperor Of The Sun.

Princess Zoe appeared to be going at least as well as the winner tight against the rail, with Emperor Of The Sun on her outside, but in the end Twilight Payment stayed on strongly to score by a length and three-quarters. Emperor Of The Sun was another neck back in third.

O’Brien’s assistant Brendan Powell said: “He’s a good old stager. I think he’s won it when Declan sent him on turning in and he got two lengths on them.

“I thought Princess Zoe might pick him up, but he’s some hard horse to pass. He’s so tough.

“Declan said he felt great going to the start and that’s the first time since he rode him last year that he’s got that sort of feel off him.

“He’s shown that he’s trained on and seems like the horse of old.”

Twilight Payment returned to winning ways under Declan McDonogh
Twilight Payment returned to winning ways under Declan McDonogh (PA)

Tony Mullins will now consider whether to go to York next week with his Group One-winning mare.

He said of Princess Zoe: “We were training for York and then we were afraid of no rain and if the rain doesn’t come she won’t go to York.

“Considering this came a week earlier than planned, we were two furlongs short of our best distance – I’m disappointed to get beaten, but delighted with the performance.

“She’s met a real machine over that distance.

“We were definitely leaning towards the Lonsdale (Cup), where now she’s showed she has the pace for a mile and six so it puts the other (Ebor) back in.

“We are going to have a good think about this for 24 hours.”

Johnny Murtagh (left) with Earlswood
Johnny Murtagh (left) with Earlswood (PA)

Earlswood gave the Irish Derby form a boost and set himself up for more big targets with a ready victory in the Fitzdares Royal Whip Stakes.

Ridden by Shane Kelly in the enforced absence of the suspended Ben Coen, the Pivotal colt – fourth to Hurricane Lane in the Curragh Classic – got on top heading inside the final furlong of the mile-and-a-quarter Group Three, having three-quarters of a length in hand of Reve De Vol as the 9-4 favourite.

Innisfree, not seen since his second to Kameko in the 2019 Vertem Futurity Trophy, made an encouraging comeback as he ran on for fifth place.

Of the winner, trainer Johnny Murtagh – who also enjoyed a high-profile triumph with Create Belief on Thursday evening – said: “It’s been a great couple of days, big rides for Shane Kelly but he’s certainly delivered.

“I’ve been very happy with this horse since the Derby. Glyn (Davies, owner) lives just up the road from us and brought him home for two weeks after the Derby. He definitely improved for the break.

“I thought he might be one gallop short, but he is a horse that always keeps himself pretty fit. He’s a pretty active horse and always works good.

“We had pencilled in a mile and a half on (Irish) Champions Weekend, but he has free entry now (after winning this race) for the Irish Champion Stakes so we’ll have to think about that.

“He’s an improving horse with a great will to win. When he went through the gap today you knew there was only going to be one winner. He stayed on really well.

“He has an entry in the English Champion Stakes later in the year.”

This was the 200th anniversary of the Royal Whip, Ireland’s longest-standing continuously staged horse race.

Head Mistress is still unbeaten
Head Mistress is still unbeaten (PA)

Head Mistress finished with a real purpose to maintain her unbeaten record in the Listed Finlay Volvo Curragh Stakes.

A winner first time out at Down Royal, the Ger Lyons-trained youngster powered down the outside of runners under Colin Keane to deny Loveday by half a length.

Shane Lyons, assistant to his brother, said of the 11-4 favourite: “She had to do it the hard way on the outside. She’s only having her second run and is still learning.

“She’s an absolute lady at home and only does what she is asked to do. You are always a bit worried after just one run, but Colin said she’ll improve again for it.

“She’ll also improve for an extra furlong, hence we made an entry for her in the Cheveley Park during the week. The way she’s going and the way she’s improving six furlongs will be no problem to her.”

He added: “John Brady is an old friend and has had horses with us from the start. Brian Gleeson also has a share so I’d say they will pitch in and go for the Cheveley Park.

“She has her black type now so it’s all a bonus.”

Murtagh sights set on autumn campaign for Earlswood

Earlswood is on a summer break following his decent effort when fourth to Hurricane Lane in the Irish Derby.

The son of Pivotal had a troubled passage in the colts’ Classic at the Curragh yet belied his odds of 28-1 with a big run.

He had earned his place in that exalted line-up by winning the Group Three Gallinule Stakes at the same track in May.

“He’s good and has gone on a little break,” said Murtagh.

“I’m not sure where we’ll go with him. We’re going to speak to the owner and get a plan for the autumn.”

Earlswood holds an entry in the Comer Group International Irish St Leger back at the Curragh in September.

Murtagh is also allowing sprinter Urban Beat a holiday after ending a busy spell with a creditable third to Winter Power in the City Walls Stakes at York on Saturday.

“He ran well. The filly that won (Winter Power) looked good,” said the County Kildare handler.

“We’re going to give him a break now. He’s been busy so we’re going to give him a break and freshen him up and get him back in the autumn.”

Murtagh revealed Fourhometwo has left his yard to continue his career in Australia.

The Ajaya gelding ended his spell with Murtagh on a high by winning the Listed Celebration Stakes at the Curragh.

“The owners have taken him to Australia and he’s going to continue his career out there,” he said.

Murtagh full of Derby confidence in rising star Coen

Johnny Murtagh has full faith in Ben Coen as the teenager prepares for the biggest ride of his short career to date on Earlswood in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.

Coen could hardly be heading to the Curragh at a better time, having ridden Murtagh’s Create Belief to victory in the Sandringham Stakes at Royal Ascot last week.

In former multiple Classic-winning jockey Murtagh, the 19-year-old could have no better tutor – but the Kildare trainer admits Coen is far ahead of where he was at the same stage of their respective careers.

“I keep telling him he’s much better than Johnny Murtagh was at 19,” he said.

“He’s much cooler, he’s much calmer and he’s much more on the ball.

“He’s a very nice fella, he rides very well. That was his first time on the big stage at Ascot last week, and he seemed to thrive on it. That’s what you have to do when you are under pressure.

“I think he’s the real deal. I keep forgetting he’s only 19 – and he’s only going to get better, riding these good horses in these big races.”

Earlswood booked his ticket for the Derby on Saturday by winning the Gallinule Stakes, and Murtagh expects the step up to a mile and a half to bring out even more improvement on his return to the Curragh.

Earlswood was impressive in the Gallinule
Earlswood was impressive in the Gallinule (PA Wire)

He added: “You have to stay to win at the Curragh, the last three furlongs are a long way home – it’s fair though, (and) the best horse usually wins.

“Ballydoyle normally run four or five every year and make sure it’s a test. I think our horse will get the trip well.

“The favourite (High Definition) looks like he’ll improve for York, but I think the Epsom Derby was a very good race this year. It was a properly run race, and there didn’t look to be many hard-luck stories.

“High Definition will have to be everything they say he is, and he’ll have to improve a good deal from York.

“The Irish Derby is open – and it’s strong.”

Derby options for Earlswood following Gallinule success

Earlswood emerged as a potential Derby contender after claiming victory in the Heider Family Stables Gallinule Stakes at the Curragh.

The Pivotal colt joined Johnny Murtagh following the retirement of former trainer John Oxx, since when he had opened his account at Navan before finishing third in the Dee Stakes at Chester.

Stepping up to Group Three level, the three-year-old travelled strongly in the hands of Ben Coen for much of the 10-furlong contest.

Once asked to extend, the 11-2 winner soon settled matters and came home with a length and three-quarters in hand over Arturo Toscanini.

Betfair halved his odds to 33-1 for the Cazoo Derby at Epsom on June 5.

Murtagh said: “He’s entered at Epsom, but there is free entry into the Irish Derby after winning this race so that’s another option.

“I’ll talk with the owner and we’ll decide what to do.”

Coen was delighted to ride his first Group-race winner of the season.

“He’s good and hardy. Chester was probably a bit tight for him the last day. It’s a big galloping track here and he loved the ground,” said the jockey.

“It was great to get a horse like that into the yard after John Oxx retired and it’s brilliant to get a new owner into the yard as well.”

Seamie Heffernan was banned for six days for using his whip with excessive frequency aboard fifth-placed Matchless.

Curragh beckons for Royal Ascot hopeful Create Belief

Johnny Murtagh’s Create Belief will bid for a return to winning ways at the Curragh this weekend – en route to Royal Ascot.

The three-year-old was successful on her seasonal debut in a maiden at Gowran early last month, before being stepped up in both trip and distance for Navan’s Listed Salsabil Stakes.

Create Belief managed only 10th there, but Murtagh is confident Saturday’s drop back to a mile for the Betway Spring Fillies Handicap will suit better for the filly owned by micro-share syndicate RacehorseClub.

“She came out of her last run very well,” said Murtagh.

“We feel she didn’t stay the distance of one mile and two furlongs, so we are dropping her back to a mile this weekend.

“She worked up the grass this morning – we’re very happy with her.

“She did a nice piece of work last Friday – so she’s fit, she’s well and she’s ready to go.”

Beyond this weekend, Murtagh has a trip to England pencilled in for Create Belief next month in the Sandringham Stakes at Royal Ascot.

“We always had a plan of going to Royal Ascot with her,” said the Kildare trainer.

“Hopefully this weekend will go well, and the mile fillies’ handicap Listed race (the Sandringham Stakes) will remain our target.”

Create Belief is one of four horses in whom shares are available via RacehorseClub – with Grand National runner-up Balko Des Flos, Welsh National winner Potters Corner and Commonwealth Cup hopeful The Lir Jet also partly owned by the syndicate.

“We’re all very excited, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people involved who will get a great kick out of it,” Murtagh said of the venture.

“The more people we can get involved in racing, to get bitten by the bug, the better.

“This opens up avenues for a lot of people who might never own a racehorse on their own.

“They should have a good experience, but you can’t beat winners – a winner is always a good way to get them more involved!”

Murtagh will also be running Cazoo Derby hope Earlswood at the Curragh on Sunday, with the Glyn Davies-owned colt due to line up in the Group Three Gallinule Stakes.

“We have still left Earlswood in the Cazoo Derby,” he said.

“He is going to run at the Curragh on the weekend – and if he comes out of that well and if everything goes well, we might take our chance in the Cazoo Derby.

“It’s a big race, the owner is keen, I’m keen – and we think he’s a nice, solid and progressive horse.

“He’s mature for a three-year-old, and we think he’ll handle Epsom.”