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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.”

Innisfree returns from long absence in Royal Whip

Innisfree makes his return from almost two years off the track in the Fitzdares Royal Whip Stakes at the Curragh on Friday.

Aidan O’Brien’s charge won twice from four juvenile starts in 2019, including a Group Two triumph in the Beresford Stakes at this venue.

He went on to fill the runner-up spot behind subsequent 2000 Guineas hero Kameko in the rescheduled Vertem Futurity Trophy at Newcastle in early November, but has not been seen in competitive action since.

The Galileo colt is a full-brother to stablemate High Definition, who also won the Beresford Stakes as a two-year-old but has so far failed to run up to expectations at three – finishing third in the Dante at York, but disappointing when favourite for the Irish Derby.

Innisfree is one of 13 horses declared for the 10-furlong Group Three, with the Joseph O’Brien-trained Royal Ascot runner-up Visualisation and Johnny Murtagh’s Irish Derby fourth Earlswood chief among his rivals.

Mick Halford is looking forward to saddling the lightly-raced Kalapour, Finans Bay and outsider Bear Story.

He said: “Kalapour is a lovely, big horse who is progressing. I think he’ll love the Curragh and we’re hoping for a good run from him.

“He has a bit to find on ratings, but his last run at Killarney has worked out very well – the winner (La Petite Coco) advertised the form very well by winning the Group Three in Cork on Saturday, so it was a big ask for our horse having to give her a lot of weight.

“Finans Bay ran a blinder the last day (close sixth in International Stakes) and again we’re chasing a bit of black type for the family. Conditions and trip and everything should be ideal for him.

“Bear Story is rock solid and hasn’t had much luck this year – he’s always running into one or two.

“His owner-breeder has got the family and he’d like to have a crack at a black type race and see how we go.”

A bumper eight-race card gets under way with the Listed Finlay Volvo Curragh Stakes for two-year-olds.

The standard is set by Jim Bolger’s Strapped, who was not beaten far into fifth place in last weekend’s Group One Phoenix Stakes, while Ger Lyons runs Down Royal debut winner Head Mistress.

George Boughey sends the unbeaten Zebelle from Britain following narrow wins at Ripon and Thirsk.

The Profitable filly won for Amy Murphy on her introduction before changing hands for 42,000 guineas last month and doubling her tally in Yorkshire a week ago.

He said: “She’s in good form. The plan was always to try to get some black type with her and this looks a good opportunity.

“I think she’ll stay six furlongs, so a stiff five at the Curragh should suit her.

“We’ll test her black-type credentials and see how we go.”

Innisfree building towards racecourse return

Innisfree, not seen since filling the runner-up spot in the 2019 Vertem Futurity Trophy, is reported to be on the comeback trail by trainer Aidan O’Brien.

As a son of Galileo and high-class mare Palace, the four-year-old is a full-brother to High Definition – a leading fancy for Saturday’s Cazoo Derby at Epsom.

Just like his sibling, Innisfree won the Beresford Stakes at the Curragh as a juvenile, before chasing home subsequent 2000 Guineas hero Kameko in the final Group One of the British Flat season at Newcastle.

Any hopes of a Classic campaign were dashed by injury, but O’Brien has given his colt top-level entries in the Coral-Eclipse, the Irish Champion Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – and hopes to have him back on the racecourse before the end of the summer.

He said: “He got an injury last year so we took our time with him and we had him nearly ready to run again in the spring, but he went a little bit off on us again.

“We had to back off him again. He’s done very well physically and I’d imagine he’s six weeks away from running.

“We’re looking at the second half or quarter of the season.”